200 years after Sir Stamford Raffles set foot on our island, Singapore has evolved by leaps and bounds. To commemorate this bicentennial milestone, journey back 700 years and you’ll discover some interesting facts you never knew about Singapore along the way:
1. Myth: Singapore used to be an abandoned fishing village
Truth: Granted, Singapore was nowhere as cosmopolitan as she is today, but she was far from being an abandoned fishing village. In 1819, Singapore was a port city that has settled twice, with the British traders’ arrival marking its third settlement cycle. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, that was her fourth round of settlement.
2. Early beginnings: The Kingdom on the Hill
Singapore’s history can be traced back to as early as the end of the 13th century, when the north bank of the Singapore River basin saw the emergence of a settlement. Known as Danmaxi (Temasek) to the Chinese and Singapura to the Malays, this settlement was a port-polity overseen by its own ruler, with a port that engaged in international and regional trade.
3. Thriving harbour
In the 1840s, the Singapore River was the island’s economic lifeline where shipping congregated until the port was too small to handle the increasing shipping volume. This saw a shift to the New Harbour, later renamed Keppel Harbour in the late 1850s.
Keppel Harbour saw major agency houses developing wharves and coal depots - of which comprising of today’s Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and PSA International. The development of the harbour in mid-19th century eventually led to the island’s prosperity.
The Keppel Bay of today is a world-class waterfront precinct, an integrated hub for live, work and play.
4. London only became interested in Singapore after the First Opium War
Singapore's economy and defence were bound up with that of British Malaya. London was initially indifferent about Raffles’ acquisition of Singapore, but their official interest was piqued when the War Office started searching for an alternative base to Hong Kong after the end of the First Opium War in 1842.
Later, the maintenance cost of sustaining a defence base in Singapore evolved into a political football passed back and forth between governments up till Britain withdrew their troops in 1967.
5. Singapore’s rapid development can be attributed to the Colombo Plan
Singapore was able to grow rapidly on all fronts thanks to its well-trained pool of manpower, in which the Colombo Plan played an imperative role. The Colombo plan was conceived at the 1950 Commonwealth Conference in Colombo, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), which provided the framework for the Commonwealth's developed countries to share solutions regarding developmental issues with newly emerging nations. In 1959, Singapore joined the Colombo Plan after it gained self-governance.
By 1971, over 1,200 Singaporeans went on to university education and training on Colombo Plan scholarships. A majority trained as scientists and engineers, contributing to the pool of skilled manpower which subsequently saw the development of reliable electricity and water supply, transport facilities, reliable housing and financial structures. All these played a part in attracting direct foreign investment.
The development of a small port into the Singapore we see certainly did not happen overnight. Our evolution was shaped by a diverse flow of ideas and people, and Singapore's Bicentennial is a timely reminder for us to explore how the past has formed us and what it holds for the future.
Delve into Singapore's history in Seven Hundred Years, an ambitious book co-written by four of Singapore's foremost historians and co-published by the National Library Board. Richly illustrated with over 200 artefacts, maps, photographs, art works and ephemera, gain a new perspective on Singapore's story after this read.