While the earliest known historical records of Singapore are shrouded in the mists of time, a third century Chinese account describes it as “Pu-luo-chung”, or the “island at the end of a peninsula”. Later, the city was known as Temasek (“Sea Town”), when the first settlements were established from AD 1298-1299.
During the 14th century, this small but strategically- located island earned a new name. According to legend, Sang Nila Utama, a Prince from Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya), was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. Taking it to be a good sign, he founded a city where the animal had been spotted, naming it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).
The city was then ruled by the five kings of ancient Singapura. Located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, the natural meeting point of sea routes, the city served as a flourishing trading post for a wide variety of sea vessels, including Chinese junks, Indian vessels, Arab dhows, Portuguese battleships, and Buginese schooners.
The next important period in the history of Singapore was during the 19th century, when modern Singapore was founded. At this time, Singapore was already an up and coming trading post along the Malacca Straits. It was also then when Great Britain started to see the need for a port of call in the region. In particular, British traders needed a strategic venue to base the merchant fleet of the growing empire, and to forestall any advance made by the Dutch in the region.
The then Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen (now Bengkulu) in Sumatra, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819 after a survey of the neighbouring islands. Recognising the immense potential of the swamp-covered island, he helped negotiate a treaty with the local rulers and established Singapore as a trading station. Soon, the island’s policy of free trade attracted merchants from all over Asia and from as far away as the Middle East and the US.
In 1832, Singapore became the centre of government for the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of the telegraph and steamship, Singapore’s importance as a centre of the expanding trade between the East and West increased tremendously between 1873 and 1913. Its prosperity attracted immigrants from around the region. By 1860, the thriving country had a population that had grown from a mere 150 in 1819 to 80,792, comprising mainly Chinese, Indians and Malays.
But the peace and prosperity of the country suffered a major blow during World War II, when it was attacked by the Japanese on 8 December 1941. Once regarded as an impregnable fortress, Singapore fell under the Japanese invasion on 15 February 1942. It remained occupied for the next three and half years.
When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the island was handed over to the British Military Administration, which remained in power until the dissolution of the Straits Settlement comprising Penang, Melaka and Singapore. In April 1946, Singapore became a Crown Colony.
In 1959, the growth of nationalism led to self-government, and the country’s first general election. The People’s Action Party (PAP) won a majority of 43 seats and Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore. In 1961, Malaysia proposed a merger between Singapore, the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei to foster closer ties. A referendum held in Singapore in 1962 to vote on the merger with Malaysia showed the people’s overwhelming support for it. Following that, Malaysia was formed in 1963 and comprised of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah). However, the merger proved unsuccessful, and less than two years later on 9 August 1965, Singapore left Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign democratic nation.
Today, you can learn about Singapore’s rich historical heritage by visiting many of the national monuments, museums and memorials located around the city. On your trip here, remember to take a walk along one of the many heritage trails or visit the well-known landmarks.
A short video on Singapore’s histories,