As a nation made up of pioneers from all over Asia, ethnic neighborhoods like Little India, Chinatown, Kampong Giam, and Katong give travelers the chance to dive into authentic sights, sounds, and tastes of a variety of cultures. From colorful street vendors and traditional delicacies, to trendy boutiques and modern dishes, Singapore's cultural diversity is unmatched.
The story of Singapore is rich with twists, turns and triumphs. Here is a quick primer on Singapore's history through the centuries.
A long, long time ago…
While the earliest known historical records of Singapore are shrouded in 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 flourished as a trading post for vessels such as Chinese junks, Arab dhows, Portuguese battleships, and Buginese schooners.
The Raffles Effect
Modern Singapore was founded in the 19th century, thanks to politics, trade and a man known as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.
During this time, the British empire was eyeing a port of call in this region to base its merchant fleet, and to forestall any advance made by the Dutch. Singapore, already an up-and-coming trading post along the Malacca Straits, seemed ideal.
Raffles, then the Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen (now Bengkulu) in Sumatra, landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819. 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. The city quickly grew as an entrepot trade hub, attracting immigrants from China, India, the Malay Archipelago and beyond.
In 1822, Raffles implemented the Raffles Town Plan, also known as the Jackson Plan, to address the issue of growing disorderliness in the colony. Ethnic residential areas were segregated into four areas. The European Town had residents made up of European traders, Eurasians and rich Asians, while the ethnic Chinese were located in present-day Chinatown and south-east of the Singapore River. Ethnic Indians resided at Chulia Kampong north of Chinatown, and Kampong Glam consisted of Muslims, ethnic Malays and Arabs who had migrated to Singapore. Singapore continued to develop as a trading post, with the establishment of several key banks, commercial associations and Chambers of Commerce. In 1924, a causeway opened linking the northern part of Singapore to Johor Bahru.
War and Peace
Singapore’s prosperity suffered a major blow during World War II, when it was attacked by the Japanese on 8 December 1941. The invaders arrived from the north, confounding the British military commanders who had expected an attack by sea from the south. Despite their superior numbers, the Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on Chinese New Year, 15 February 1942. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. The island, once feted as an “impregnable fortress”, was renamed Syonan-to (or “Light of the South Island” in Japanese).
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 British Crown Colony.
The Road to Independence
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 1963, Malaysia was formed, comprising of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah). The move was meant to foster closer ties. However, Singapore’s merger proved unsuccessful, and less than two years later on 9 August 1965, it left Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign democratic nation.
Today, many slices of Singapore’s multi-cultural, colonial and wartime past are preserved in and around the city. You can visit monuments, museums and memorials, or for a real trip through time, take a walk along a heritage trail.