My first stopover of my yearlong sabbatical is here. When I was planning my trip to Australia I was pondering several options for a stopover or stopovers even. Dubai was not high on my travel list and still isn’t. Another option was Singapore. I had heard many things about this city and seen lots of fabulous pictures taken by a friend I went to high school with. He spends many weeks during the year in Singapore for his job. He is an avid photographer and hiker. Not seldom does he walk 15-20km a day to get another good photo of the city. This spiked my interest so I decided to spend a few days in that city. I had another stopover in Kuala Lumpur, but postponed the exploration of that city to a future date.
What I like to do before I visit a new place is get some knowledge about its history to get a slightly better feel and understanding of the place. Don’t worry, I won’t make it a long history lesson, I’ll try to keep it short. Here it goes:
The first mentioning of the area of what is today Singapore can be traced back to the third century. Chinese sources describe this spot as the island at the end of a peninsula, which pretty much says it all. It took another 1000 years before the first settlements were founded.
After having been called Temasek ("Sea Town") for a while, the area finally received its current name thanks to Prince Sang Nila Utama who was on a hunting trip when he saw a lion which had been an unusual sight for him. As the legend goes, the prince took this sight as a good omen and founded a city which he called Singapura – The Lion City – deriving from the Sanskrit words ‘simha’ (lion) and ‘pura’ (city).
Throughout history the tip of the Malayan Peninsula became an important however still small trading post. Seafaring nations such as Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, and Buginese ships and vessels cast anchor and exchanged goods. For about another 500 years this was to be the case.
The modern Singapore was founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then the Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen (now Bengkulu) in Sumatra, on 29 January 1819. History sources differ a little bit here as to what Raffles encountered when he came to Singapore. One source I found claims Singapore was basically just a swamp and jungle with a small population whereas another source states that Singapore was already an up-and-coming trading post. Whatever it was, Raffles saw it as the ideal location for his purposes: to create a British base and influential trading post to counter the strong Dutch East India company.
Through trade and deals with the local rulers, Raffles bought the area and Singapore. He designed his Town Plan to give the different ethnic groups their own quarter. He virtually segregated the biggest four groups in order to establish order in the town. These quarters can still be seen today. From the British perspective there had, of course, to be a European Town where European traders, Eurasians, and wealthy Asians resided. The huge number of Chinese inhabitants, who historically were among the first settlers of that area, lived in what is today Chinatown. Then there were the Indians who lived north of Chinatown. The fourth group was Muslims. Those were ethnic Malays and Arabs who had migrated to the area. By 1824 Singapore had risen to a city of 10.000 inhabitants. About 40 years later, Singapore was put under British rule as a Crown Colony.
The establishment of the Suez Canal in 1869 gave further importance to Singapore’s location. The city became the gateway between Europe and western-Asia and eastern-Asia. Singapore’s importance manifested in its huge rise of inhabitants to 100.000 by 1870.
Let’s jump ahead a few decades and continue with Singapore’s history in the 1940s. The prosperous and busy city on the peninsula was dragged into the Second World War when the Japanese Army captured the city and forced the British rulers to surrender. The Japanese rule was cruel and thousands of Chinese Singaporeans were executed. With the end of World War 2 and Japan’s surrender, Singapore was liberated and put under British Government as a British Crown Colony again.
I will skip a few years again and leave out some political movements that led to Singapore’s complete and final independence. History fans are probably frowning now, please forgive me for merely stating the result here.
The foundation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) with their leader Lee Kuan Yew eventually managed to give Singapore its independence, created the constitution and Yew became the first Prime Minister. He ruled Singapore in a rather authoritarian and strict way from 1959 till 1990 when he resigned. Since then the government has been more liberal and continued to prosper and become very rich. This can be seen in the many modern and spectacular buildings and international companies that you can find here. For many people Singapore is the best place is the world. Hopefully I will be able to find out why when I explore the city that now is home to almost 6 million people.