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1990: Goh Chok Tong becomes the country's second Prime Minister
1965: Leaves Malaysia and becomes independent Republic with Lee Kuan Yew the first Prime Minister
1963: Joins with Malaya to form Malaysia
1959: Elections result in People's Action Party gaining a majority that was to begin their period of dominance of government in subsequent elections
1955: Limited self government granted
1948: Malay Communist Party launches insurrection in Singapore and Malaysia resulting in a State of Emergency being declared
1942-45: Japanese occupation
1880's: Established as a major trans-shipment port and commercial centre
1867: Straits Settlements become a Crown Colony
1842: Britain's annexation of Hong Kong accelerates Chinese migration
1826: Straits Settlements formed with Penang and Melaka
1819: Stamford Raffles arrives and establishes English East India Company
Singapore is an immigrant society. When acquired by Britain in 1819 it was populated by only a few hundred Malays living simple lives in fishing villages. In the 1990s it is a thriving city-state, with a population of about 2.7 million, and a per capita income the highest by far in Asia outside of Japan.
Geography is central to Singapores history. Located at the foot of the Malay peninsula, separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of shallow water, it is the pivotal island in the Straits of Melaka. Singapores history has revolved around turning its strategic location to its commercial benefit while remaining on good terms with its larger neighbours.
Singapore is a Chinese city-state. There is a significant Indian minority, and a much smaller Malay community, but political, commercial and cultural power is in the hands of the ethnic Chinese. A major theme in Singapores history since the end of the Second World War has been the continuous efforts to create a Singapore identity. What does it mean to be a Singaporean? How can the predominantly Chinese cultural heritage be transformed into a distinctly Singaporean culture? How best can a small, predominantly ethnically Chinese island relate to its overwhelmingly more populous Malay-Muslim neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia?
Stamford Raffles hoisted the British flag on the island of Singapore on 29 January 1819. It was the second island in the region occupied by the English East India Company (EIC). Penang had been acquired in 1786. The EIC had a monopoly on the English trade between India and China, had acquired considerable territory in India and was eager to ensure control of the Straits of Melaka, the crucial passage of water through which most of its trading ships to China sailed. Penang gave it the ability to control the northern entrance of the Straits: Singapore gave it the ability to control the southern exit.
For nearly two hundred years the Netherlands East Indies Company, the VOC, had been the EICs arch rival in the region. When Napoleon annexed the Netherlands in 1810, Britain occupied the major Dutch possessions in the Indonesian archipelago in order to prevent them falling into the hands of the French. Melaka, Bencoolen on the west coast of Sumatra and the island of Java were taken over by Britain. Stamford Raffles was appointed head of a civil government to run Java and Sumatra. The colony was added to the EIC Indian empire, reporting directly to Calcutta.
When the Napoleonic war ended in 1815 Britain wanted to bolster the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium) as a bulwark against a revived France. Dutch pressure, then, for the return of its colonies in the Indonesian archipelago fell on responsive ears. In 1818 Java was returned to Netherlands rule. Raffles was extremely disappointed that wider European strategic considerations had forced him to return Java to the Dutch. He was an expansionist at heart, believing that Britain should acquire territory throughout the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay peninsula, create European settler societies and reap the benefits of what he saw as enormous commercial opportunities. On being forced to leave Java he turned to a small island off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, known locally first as Temasek (Sea Town) and later as Singapura (Lion City), persuading the Sultan of Johor to cede it to Britain. Sparsely occupied by Malay fishing communities and by Malays better known for their activities as pirates in the local waters, there were no more than one thousand people on the island in 1819. In 1826 the EIC amalgamated Singapore, Penang and Melaka into the Straits Settlements, administered from Singapore. The Straits Settlements remained in EIC control until 1867 when they became a Crown Colony under the control of a Governor appointed by the Colonial Office.
The British commercial community were strong supporters of the acquisition of Singapore, seeing it as a boost to trade in Southeast Asia. In 1824 the AngloDutch Treaty settled territorial disputes between the two countries, with the Netherlands recognising Britains possession of Melaka and Singapore and Britain handing Bencoolen back to the Netherlands. By the 1830s Singapore had become the major trading port in Southeast Asia. It was challenged by Manila and Batavia (now Jakarta) but had three crucial advantages over the other colonial port cities and over the major indigenous ports.
First, its geographic location: most ships trading between China, India and Europe had to pass Singapore. Second, its status as a free port: the Dutch in Batavia and the Spanish in Manila levied a range of tariffs and charges on imports as did local rulers in the smaller ports. Third, its linkages into the British commercial and industrial empire: by the nineteenth century Britain was the dominant colonial power.
Singapore was an integral part of Britains empire in Asia, although the centre of the empire was India. Its prosperity stemmed from its geographic advantages and from its place in the colonial network. British traders were attracted in ever increasing numbers and major trading houses, shipping lines and service companies quickly emerged. Equally importantly, Chinese traders long resident in Southeast Asia were attracted to Singapore because of its free port status, the certainty of the British legal system and the strategic position of Singapore.
Many came from Melaka and the Riau archipelago in the 1820s, relocating their trade to Singapore and thereby immediately linking Singapore into indigenous regional trading networks. Malay, Indian and Arab traders were also drawn to Singapore from other ports in the vicinity. Singapore quickly gained a dominant share of the inter-island regional trade as well as becoming the major victualling stop en route to China. Chinese traders had worked in the region and had settled in Chinese quarters in all of the major port cities well before the arrival of the Europeans. Their numbers increased greatly from the seventeenth century as first the Dutch and the Spanish and later the British and the French colonised the region. But it was not only colonised Southeast Asia that attracted Chinese traders, entrepreneurs and labourers.
Thailands kings encouraged the migration of Chinese in the 19th century, as did the Sultans of the Malay States. Indeed the tin mining industry which developed in the Malay States from the 1830s was created by Chinese who worked under concessions granted to them by Malay rulers. The tin miners imported their needs through Singapore and used Singapore to export tin ore to the world. Tin mining in the Malay States, and in southern Thailand, was the source of wealth for a number of Chinese families who later went on to become major traders and financiers in the region.
The Chinese were the labour force on which British Singapore was built and Singapore was the conduit for the hundreds of thousands recruited to colonial Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Most Chinese came to Singapore as impoverished indentured labourers. The forced opening of the Treaty Ports in southern China and Britains annexation of Hong Kong in 1842 accelerated the migration of Chinese from southern China to Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific and the United States.
The migration flow was organised and exploitative, with male Chinese signed on as indentured labourers. In the nineteenth century the Chinese population of Singapore was predominantly male. Most came to Singapore hoping to make a fortune, send money back to families in their home villages in China and one day themselves return home, to marry, buy land and live as prosperous farmers. Some succeeded. Most lived and died in Singapore as coolie labourers, reliant on prostitution for female company and dependent on Secret Societies, opium dens and gambling parlours.
Singapores economic history is interwoven with the economic history of the Malay States. The Singapore merchant community started to advocate British acquisition of the western Malay States from the 1840s. Chinese and Europeans in Singapore were significant investors in the tin mining industry in the western Malay States and were increasingly frustrated at what they saw as the political instability of the Malay States and consequent lost commercial opportunities. Britain finally began to acquire control of the western Malay States in 1874 when the ambitions of the Singapore merchant and financial community were bolstered by imperial fears of French and German intentions in Southeast Asia. Singapore was a major beneficiary of the addition of Malaya to the British empire.
By the late 19th century Singapore was an important financial and commercial centre. It was a major trans-shipment port, where the products of Southeast Asia were collected, packaged and re-exported and from where the products of industrial Britain and Europe were distributed. On the eve of the Second World War over two-thirds of Malayas imports and exports went through the port of Singapore: it had also become a major financial and commercial base for British companies in Southeast Asia.
Investment in tin mines in the Malay States was matched from the 1890s by investment in rubber plantations and on the transport infrastructure needed to get rubber to the ports for export. Investment finance came through Singapore, tin and rubber were exported through Singapore and Singapore was the warehousing and distribution centre for the imported goods needed by the growing European population.
The largest commercial firms were British owned and managed. But there also emerged a growing number of Chinese owned enterprises. Some were trading companies, others were financiers and yet others were small scale food processors and distributors. By 1942, when the Japanese invaded Singapore, there were a number of strong family companies in Singapore owned by second or third generation Chinese.
While most Chinese immigrants who began life as rickshaw coolies or wharf labourers ended their lives much as they started, a few realised the immigrants dream of making good. These Chinese enterprises were family companies linked into the commercial and financial network of the Chinese diaspora in Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia.
There was little manufacturing in Singapore before 1960. There was some food processing, primary processing of tin and rubber originating in Malaya and simple manufacturing, such as shoes and clothing. However, as late as 1960 between 70 and 75 per cent of Singapores workforce was engaged in the service sector. In the early 1930s a government appointed commission investigated the possibility of Singapore developing an industrial base but concluded that it was only feasible with high levels of protection and if the Singapore and Malayan economies were united. It concluded that the losses to Singapore from abandoning free trade status would outweigh the gains from a protectionist industrial policy.
Singapore was an immigrant colony, however by the 1931 census, 36 per cent of its residents had been born in the Straits Settlements. Immigration restrictions in the 1930s, as a consequence of the Depression, led to 60 per cent of Singapore residents being Straits born in 1947. Nevertheless, with the exception of the elite, the mother tongue and language of day-to-day communication for the Chinese remained southern Chinese dialects.
By the early 20th century there were nationalist movements demanding independence in most Southeast Asian colonies, from Burma through to the Philippines. Singapore was an exception. There was no sense of being Singaporean: people identified themselves as Chinese or Nanyang Chinese (Overseas Chinese). There was, therefore, no clearly articulated movement seeking the creation of an independent nation-state. Although the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) operated in Singapore in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as in British Malaya, and was involved in organising among Chinese and Indian workers, it made no attempt to develop a specifically Singapore identity or nationalism.
Political activity in Singapore in the 1920s and 1930s was focussed on the struggle between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) for control of China. Both the CCP and the KMT gained ideological and financial support from the overseas Chinese. Singapore was a particular focus of propaganda and recruitment. Politically aware Chinese in Singapore were far more concerned about the great events convulsing China in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s than events in Singapore. Whatever their ideology, they were united in opposition to Japans invasion of China in the 1930s.
Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia were caught up in the events of their homeland and the battle for the hearts, minds and pockets was waged throughout the region. One important difference in Singapore was that because the dominant culture was Chinese, and to all intents and purposes there was no indigenous society, Chinese nationalism could focus on the ideological struggle in China unencumbered by an indigenous nationalist movement. Chinese communities elsewhere in Southeast Asia were equally concerned about events in China but were forced by the existence of strong nationalist movements to ask fundamental questions about their individual and communal identities and their place in an independent nation.
Colonial Singapore was a European city. Its ruling elite, its commercial core and its official ethos was British. But beyond the European homes, clubs and offices the island was culturally predominantly Chinese. There was, however, a significant Indian minority, varying from 6 to 12 per cent of the population in the colonial era. This minority was large enough to create its own communities where the visitor would clearly be aware of moving out of the dominant Chinese society into a little India.
The Indian community was far from united. The major divisions were between Hindus and Muslims and between southerners and northerners, but these were cross-cut by further divisions of caste and region. Some of the early Indian settlers came from Penang, where there was a thriving Indian commercial community. Others migrated from India or were recruited as indentured labourers. Many thousands were forcibly transported from India as convict labourers. Until 1873 Singapore was partially used by British India as a penal colony. Indian convicts built the early government buildings, roads, bridges and drainage systems. In the 19th century free Indians were primarily in public employment, such as clerks, teachers and policemen, or were merchants and moneylenders.
Like the Chinese majority, the political attention of Indian residents in Singapore was focussed on the motherland where Indian nationalists were locked in struggle with the British Raj. The political divisions which opened up in India in the 1920s and 1930s were reflected in the Indian community in Singapore. Muslim and Hindu, Sikh and Bengali, to name but a few, each had their own, often conflicting, view of Indian politics. While there was considerably more crossing of caste and ethnic divides in the Singapore Indian community than in India itself, nevertheless these divisions remained important barriers. Indian communities in Singapore were linked by region, language, caste and family to the much larger Indian community in British Malaya, adding yet one more strand to the interconnection between Singapore and Malaya.
On the eve of the Pacific War, Singapore was a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious society governed by a British elite. Social control was maintained not merely by the police and court systems but also by the pro-British Chinese business and clan heads and by the wealthy leaders of the Indian community. It was a key part of the British empire: arguably the most important commercial possession east of India and from the 1920s a major naval base guarding British interests in Southeast Asia and providing a defence shield for Australia and New Zealand.
The Japanese Occupation
Singapore fell to the Japanese Imperial Army on 15 February 1942. The loss of this strategically important island in Southeast Asia quickly led to the capitulation of the Netherlands East Indies. Thousands of Europeans, civilians as well as soldiers, were trapped in Singapore. Many were dispatched to build the infamous ThailandBurma railway. The death rate was high. Over 45,000 soldiers in the Indian and Malay regiments were urged by the Japanese to transfer their loyalties. Most refused. Many paid for their refusal with their lives. About 20,000 Indian soldiers joined the Indian National Army in the belief that it would be prepared by the Japanese to drive the British out of India and establish Indian independence.
The Chinese, Indian and Malay communities in Singapore suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese. None more so than the Chinese. The Japanese military distrusted all Chinese, and in particular sought to root out all who were Kuomintang supporters. Arbitrary arrests, torture and executions were commonplace. Special taxes were imposed on Chinese incomes and assets. For the residents of Singapore the Japanese occupation was a time of struggle to survive. British rule was benign by comparison.
The Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia greatly reduced European prestige. Indeed, while historians differ as to the long-term impact of the occupation on individual societies, there is general agreement that it ushered in the beginning of the end of European colonialism in the region. Japanese policies and actions clearly impacted greatly on individuals in Singapore. Apart from the Chinese, Indians and Malays who died in prisons, in labour camps or as a result of indiscriminate Japanese brutality, almost all who lived there suffered severe day-to-day hardships during the three and a half years of Japanese occupation. The deeper, long-term impact is harder to assess. A legacy of distrust of Japan in Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia may well be the most significant consequence.
Britain re-occupied Singapore in August/September 1945. Until mid 1946 it was controlled by the British Military Administration and then handed back to the Colonial Office. Post-war British policy towards Singapore differed from that towards Malaya. It envisaged Malaya moving towards independence but was determined that political reform in Singapore should be carefully controlled with a restricted goal of limited self-government. There were three main reasons for this policy difference. First, continued direct control of Singapore was seen as vital to British commercial interests in Southeast Asia. Second, Singapore was a strategic naval base in Southeast Asia. Third, Singapores ethnic Chinese majority raised fears for British interests, not just in Singapore, but also in Malaya. The outbreak of the Cold War in 1947 and Maos defeat of the Chiang Kai-Shek government in China in 1949 strengthened Britains view of Singapore as potentially a communist fifth column in Southeast Asia. It was believed that an independent Singapore would quickly come under communist control and that Singapore would then be used as a springboard to subvert western interests in Malaya, Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The Malayan Communist Partys (MCP) success among Singapore workers in the immediate post-war years confirmed the British view of Singapore as inevitably a hotbed of Chinese communism unless strong colonial rule was maintained. The pro-British Chinese and Indian elites were equally alarmed: communism threatened their interests as much as it did the interests of the British. The MCP launched its insurrection in Singapore and Malaya in 1948, resulting in a declaration of a state of emergency which lasted until 1960. The strength of communist controlled labour unions in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the MCPs insurrection were viewed in the context of growing pride among overseas Chinese in the achievements of the communist government in China. The victorious communists and the nationalists vanquished to Taiwan competed vigorously in the 1950s for moral support from the overseas Chinese. Singapore was again a vital hub in the Southeast Asia campaign.
Limited self-government was introduced into Singapore in 1955. In 1959 the Peoples Action Party (PAP) gained a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly, beginning a dominance of Singapore politics continuing to the present day. Led by Lee Kuan Yew, a young Cambridge educated lawyer, the PAP was a party of a new English-educated elite emerging in Singapore in the 1950s. Strongly influenced by European social democratic ideas, the PAP developed a blueprint for Singapores development based on a strong state and state intervention in the economy to create a new industrialised Singapore. Lee and his fellow PAP leaders knew that their strongest opponents were the communists, operating through various legal and illegal structures and in the early 1960s most prominently through the Barisan Socialist party. The organisational structure of the PAP mirrored that of communist parties. Its democratic centralism placed effective control in the hands of a self-selecting elite.
By the early 1960s, Britain was searching for a way to end its direct rule of Singapore while still safeguarding its strategic and commercial interests which were seen as inextricably connected with preventing Singapore from going communist. The pressure for Singapore independence was strong. In addition, Britain was faced with the problem of the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. In an era of decolonisation Britain had to find a solution to its colonial problems in Singapore and Borneo.
The creation of Malaysia seemed to solve all problems. Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak would be amalgamated with Malaya to form the new state of Malaysia. The Chinese majority in Singapore would be balanced by Malay and other indigenous majorities in Malaya and the Borneo states. It was a neat political solution. It was also seen by both the British and the Singapore elite as a consummation of the strong economic interdependence that had developed between Malaya and Singapore over more than a hundred years.
Singapore would retain control over a number of crucial areas, including education and communications, in return for a lower proportion of seats in the new federal parliament of Malaysia than it was entitled by weight of population. Malay sensibilities about dominance by ethnic Chinese appeared to be assuaged and at the same time the PAP ensured a status for Singapore far greater than that of a mere State Government.
Malaysia was formed on 16 September 1963. Singapore separated from Malaysia in September 1965, becoming the independent Republic of Singapore. Formally, the exit of Singapore from Malaysia was a mutual decision between the Malaysian Federal Government and the Singapore State Government. In reality Singapore was forced to leave. The two years of marriage were unhappy ones. Malays increasingly feared that Singapore wanted to dominate Malaysia, and that the PAP was trying to join forces with the major ethnic Chinese opposition party in peninsular Malaya in order to gain a majority of the seats in the federal parliament. They feared changes to the constitution, which entrenched major privileges for the Malays. It was a highly emotional two years, with inter-ethnic typecasting abounding and with Malays fearing that their country was about to be taken over by foreigners.
Lee Kuan Yew was personally shattered by the exit of Singapore from Malaysia. The accepted wisdom in Singapore was that its economy was so closely linked to that of peninsular Malaya that economic prosperity depended on these links continuing. Singapore feared that its economy was too small and too vulnerable to anti-Chinese feelings among neighbouring Indonesians and Malays to stand alone. Thirty years later Singapore is a major economic success story. Since independence in 1965 its economy has grown at an average of nine per cent per annum. In 1988 per capita income was almost ten times that of 1965. This economic growth is the cornerstone of the generally high standing of the PAP government among Singaporeans, despite western complaints about its style and frequent disregard for western style civil liberties.
Even before independence the Singapore government led by Lee Kuan Yew determined that the economy had to undergo massive structural change very quickly if Singapore was to prosper. In thirty years Singapore has moved from an essentially entrepot economy to a predominantly industrial economy. The next thirty years will see Singapore move into a post-industrial phase with most of its wealth generated by service industries, ranging from providing regional financial and high technology services to other Southeast Asian nations to manufacturing high technology products for a world market.
The quite remarkable and sustained economic growth in post-independence Singapore is partially explained by Singapores strategic location at the crossroads of the ASEAN region. ASEAN countries have also experienced sustained high growth rates to Singapores advantage. As labour intensive industries have moved from Singapore to other ASEAN countries they have been replaced by a regional reliance on Singapore for more technologically sophisticated products and services. There are other important factors behind Singapores success. First, the PAP has brought strong, stable and corruption free government to Singapore. Above all, Singapore has been a model of planned development in every sphere. Second, through policies such as the creation of a Central Provident Fund, with Singaporean employers and employees compelled jointly to contribute up to forty per cent of salaries to a pension fund, it has created a very high rate of national savings. Third, it has adopted social policies which have ensured that all Singaporeans have benefited from the economic growth. For example, when the PAP came to power in 1959 most Singaporeans lived in squalid housing. By the mid 1990s Singapore has the highest home ownership rate in the world, thanks to the activities of the Housing Trust and the ability of people to fund mortgages by borrowing from their contributions to the Central Provident Fund. Fourth, it has developed an excellent comprehensive education system which has produced the skilled workers needed to sustain high rates of economic growth.
Government in Singapore is far more intrusive that that experienced in western societies. Some commentators allege the PAP has made it difficult for an opposition party to challenge its power. From time to time the Internal Security Act (brought in by the British) has been used to arrest and imprison those who are considered a threat to the State. Many western observers (and a growing number of Singaporeans) consider the government to be paternalistic and, at times, authoritarian but, despite this, there is absolutely no doubt the government does have popular legitimacy because of its delivery of clean government and its impressive social and economic achievements over thirty years.
Over the past thirty years the Singaporean government has been concerned to develop a Singaporean identity. In the first instance, this meant weaning Singaporeans away from too close an attachment to communist China. Language policy was a key part of this search for a Singapore identity. In the 1960s the stress was on the need for people to learn Malay and English, with government sponsored campaigns to learn a new Malay word each day.
As Singapores prosperity grew, as the economy became more internationalised and less dependent on Malaysia, and as China became less of a threat and more of a source of pride, policy shifted towards the promotion of Mandarin instead of regional dialects. More recently the emphasis has moved back to ensuring the survival of regional dialects alongside Mandarin and English.
If Singapores elite was uncertain about its identity in the 1960s and 1970s were they simply Chinese overseas or a genuine part of the region? by the 1980s they were far more confident about Singapores future in the ASEAN region and by the 1990s supremely confident of their ability to continue to prosper in a increasingly global economy and within the strongly developing Southeast Asia region. Some commentators have talked of a re-signification, not just of the Singaporeans, but of ethnic Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia as they network with each other and continue to have a dominant role in national and regional economies.
In the 1990s Singapore is by far the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia (aside from the aberration of the tiny State of Brunei). It is a society full of contradictions. In many ways it is a modern Confucian state mostly paternalistic, sometimes authoritarian and with a strong ideology of the peoples duties towards the state. It is ruled by a close knit meritocratic elite focussed on the PAP. The State claims the right to be involved in all aspects of its peoples lives: asserting the right to influence family size and the nature of personal relationships as well as to determine the structure of the economy.
The State directly owns or controls large sections of the economy and through a government owned investment company has shares in other Singaporean companies as well as overseas. Yet it is also the champion of free enterprise, welcoming foreign multinationals and nurturing its own multinational corporations. It has an enviable record in providing low cost housing, high quality education and extensive health care for all Singaporeans. Yet its social security net is almost non existent, insisting that individuals must work hard and stand on their own feet. It is a state which encourages aggressive economic activity, and rewards individual ability and achievement. Yet it is a puritan state, with a state controlled local media, strong censorship of foreign media and a very public concern about moral pollution of the young from western cultural influences.
Singapores prosperity gives it a higher per capita income than many western countries and by the beginning of the twenty first century it will be among the three or four most prosperous societies in the world. Its geographic location may be less important in the global economy with the advent of the computer revolution, yet in regional terms is still as important as ever. Singapores enthusiastic participation in a growth triangle with Malaysia and Indonesia reflects its view of itself as the economic engine of the region.
The Singapore government still worries about national identity, with repeated campaigns focussing on one or other aspect of the ideal Singaporean. It is also in the 1990s in the process of rediscovering its past, in part for tourist reasons but also as part of the continued search for a national identity.
Copyright © Asean Focus Group Pty Limited. All rights reserved.
About this edition:
This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. The first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.
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