Perched at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore as an island did not assume an individual national identity until relatively recent times, and the scant details of its early history are very much bound up with the history of mainland Malaya, with control of the island passing at various times through the hands the Siamese and Javanese empires and latterly, with the Islamisation of Malaya, the rule of the Sultans of Malacca and Johor.

Such records as do exist, however, testify to its existence as a trading port as early as the 2nd century AD, with trade links to India and the Mediterranean, its fortunes ebbing and flowing with prevailing history, and its early incarnation culminating with the complete destruction of the port by the Portuguese in 1613.


It was the arrival of the British, driven by the need to establish a rival regional power base to Portuguese and Dutch interests, that gave rise to the modern phenomena of Singapore. The man famously assigned by history to plant the seeds that would grow into today’s highly successful global trading nation was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was quick to recognise the island’s potential to fulfil British colonial trading ambitions.

Technically, along with the Sultanate of Johor, Singapore was at that time controlled by the Dutch, but Raffles was able to exploit divisions within the Sultan’s family to secure an arrangement whereby, in return for payment, the British were granted the right to establish a trading port, with a formal treaty being signed in 1819.

Raffles placed the project in the hands of Major William Farquhar and a regiment of Indian soldiers who began the enormous undertaking of building the port, and within three years the colony at Singapore had grown to a population of 5000, with Indonesian, Arab and Chinese traders taking advantage of its ‘free port’ status, ensuring its early success.

Returning in 1823, Raffles was disappointed however at the gambling and opium culture that had rapidly developed, and re-organised the colony into separate ethic groups, and re-defined the rules, appointing a new governor, John Crawford. As part of this re-organisation, Raffles negotiated financial settlements with the Sultan to extend British control to include the whole island and brought Singapore under the jurisdiction of British law.


The Dutch, unsurprisingly, initially resisted British ambitions in the region, but Singapore’s rapidly evolving importance to trade ensured its survival and, in 1824, was cemented with a formal Anglo-Dutch treaty which also brought Malacca under British control.

By 1826, with Singapore’s population having now surpassed 10,000, Penang, Malacca and Singapore were governed collectively as a sub-region of Bengal in British India, and administered by the British East India Company. By the following year Chinese traders had supplanted Malays to become the dominant ethnic group in Singapore.

Singapore’s rapid growth continued to accelerate, aided by technological advances in powered shipping, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and booming trade opportunities with Malaya and China. The resultant social problems had begun to cause unrest, with crumbling infrastructure, poor healthcare, gambling, forced prostitution, drug addiction and criminal gangs overtaking the colony’s sense of order.  

This unrest led to a change in the administration of Singapore, which became a Crown Colony of the British Empire, in an effort to improve law and order and social welfare.

By this time Indians, brought in by the British for labour, had become the second largest ethnic group in the colony, and there was much sympathy for the burgeoning movement for Indian independence from British rule, which thrived on the deprivation. The new social measures had important but limited success, yet were enough to prevent outright rebellion.

In 1915, a mutiny of British-Indian Muslim troops stationed in Singapore, fearful of being sent to fight for the Ottoman Empire during World War I, was quickly suppressed but did lead to bloodshed. At the end of the war, in anticipation of Japanese expansionism, the British undertook the task of building a Naval Base in Singapore, a project that would not be completed until 1939.  

Ominously, despite its vast scale, the base never permanently became home to a fleet, and by the time the Japanese inaugurated the Pacific War by attacking Pearl Harbour, British warships were busy with the survival of Britain itself in Europe. Although the British did send vessels in defence of Singapore, the accompanying aircraft carrier ran aground during the journey, and the principal vessels were sunk shortly after arrival.

Thus it was that British Forces in Malaya were unable to resist the relentless tide of the Japanese invasion, the legacy of which remains so important a part of British military history, particularly for the prisoners of war who endured the famously brutal Japanese forced labour camps.


As in Malaya, Japanese rule was also predictably harsh for the citizens of Singapore, particularly for the majority Chinese population, who were victims of the enmity borne towards their kinsfolk in Mainland China following the earlier Japanese invasion of China in 1937. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Chinese citizens were massacred across Malaya and Singapore during Japanese rule.

Though the occupation would not have appeared brief to the local inhabitants, the surrender of the Japanese to allied forces just three and a half years later, in August 1945, brought a new tide of fortune to Singapore. After a fleeting state of lawlessness, the British returned to set up governance and restore the decimated infrastructure.  

As elsewhere in the British and indeed other contemporaneous colonial empires, the post war period saw an upsurge in local restlessness for freedom, and encountered strong armed agitation from the widespread rise of communism sweeping many parts of Asia. Although the British certainly fought back hard, the old colonial structures were losing authority throughout their empires and the shift to the notion of partial self rule became irresistible.  

Limited elections, open only to British subjects, were first held in March, 1948 and were followed by other polls in 1951 and 1955 which saw the gradual shift to include ever wider sections of the local community, but despite the increased democracy, Singapore remained ultimately under British control.

In 1957, however, the British finally accepted the idea of complete self-rule and elections for an independent state of Singapore were held in 1959, producing the country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, whose government set about reforming Singapore’s society and economy, which they did with considerable success.

However sections of the ruling party had doubts about the island’s ability to sustain itself and harboured a hankering to join with the newly emerging Federation of Malaysia and following a highly dubious referendum in 1962, the result was declared in favour. After the widespread arrest of communist objectors, Singapore formally joined the union with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah in 1963.


Following Singapore’s membership of Malaysia, rivalry between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore as the business centre of the newly formed country led to tension, as did laws introduced to provide special privileges and economic advantages to those of Malay ethnic origin, which predictably aroused resentment among the Chinese majority of the island and several serious riots broke out, the most notable of which, on July 21, 1964, led to 23 deaths and considerable injuries.

Talks to resolve differences broke down and the Malaysian parliament finally decided to expel Singapore from the union in 1965.

Left alone, the uncertainties over the future which had led to the failed merger with Malaysia resurfaced, but plucky Singapore moved swiftly to be recognised by and join both the United Nations and the British Commonwealth, warding off the possibility of a military intervention by Indonesia and attracting essential inward investment to ensure its economic survival. Beneficial tax incentives and a willingness to diversify and promote industry rapidly paid off.

Coupled with economic success, an intensive drive to cure Singapore’s immense social problems through vast re-housing schemes utterly transformed the island. Profound educational investment ensured a well-qualified and able workforce, attracting even large multinationals, including oil giants Esso and Shell, and Singapore rapidly became one of the world's leading oil refiners.

The potential of its port, seen so long before by Raffles at the founding of modern Singapore, rekindled itself in the creative hands of its self governing descendants, easily surpassing previous ages with consistently powerful annual growth. The highly successful Singapore Airlines, together with the impressive Changi Airport, now one of the world’s major air hubs, also led to a massive increase in tourism.

Following the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990’s, and the emerging competition from neighbouring countries following its impressive model, Singapore began to invest in specialist technologies to keep ahead, and despite its diminutive size, remains one of the most economically and socially successful nations on Earth.

With the new millennium, Singapore continues to develop apace and to innovate and redefine itself, especially in its laudable environmental ambitions, holding its place among the richest of nations.