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A Little History

Singapore's name, originally called 'Singapura' is believed may have come from a Sanskrit word meaning "Lion City" with the island being a trading port called 'Temasek' on the Singapore River possibly as early as the 1300's before coming under the control of the Sultanate of Malacca in the 1400's. Traders from China would sail down the South China Sea and sail up the Malay Peninsula through the Malacca Straits to small coastal ports, and Siam (Thai), Indian and Arab ships would sail east to the Malay Peninsula to also trade their goods with Malacca probably being the main port of call.

Another Malay story says that the Singapore name came the sighting of a strange lion-like creature that was seen here. Whatever the story, the name has stuck, with the 'Merlion' – a creature that is has a Lion Head but a fish body becoming the symbol of Singapore. You can see the 8.6 metre high statue of the Merlion near where the Singapore River enters Marine Bay at One Fullerton.

In 1511 the Portuguese captured Malacca from the Sultan, making Malacca their trading post in the region and in 1613 the Portuguese burnt Temasek down, with a possible reason being that pirates operated from here, interrupting their trade in spices from the Molucca Islands. The Island of Singapore was then largely abandoned with a small number of fishermen and locals continuing to live here.

The Spice trade involved growing pepper, nutmeg, cloves, mace, ginger and cinnamon with most of these spices being grown in the Molucca Islands(Now part of Indonesia), which became known as the Spice Islands. The Portuguese were the first European traders in the region, but it was the Dutch who dominated the trade from the year that the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was formed in 1602 and granted a 21 year monopoly on the trade by the Dutch Government. The VOC Company took control over the whole of Indonesia, establishing Batavia (Jakarta) as the Capital, and gained riches from the Spice Trade almost right up to 1799 – the year that the Dutch Government took control from the Company. By this time the British had also entered the trade, and were also intent on building their empire.

Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) an Englishman, born on board his father's ship in Jamaica, grew up in England, went to school there, then at age 14 he left school to work as a Clerk with the British East India Company in London. In 1805, aged 24 he was sent by the Company to Penang in Malaya (then called Prince of Wales Island) becoming an Assistant Secretary to the Governor of Penang.

At the time, the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) were being waged in Europe by the great powers – the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte taking on all others including the British and Dutch. In 1811, fearing the French taking over Java, the British under the leadership of Raffles, attacked Java and succeeded in taking control of Dutch interests there with Raffles becoming the Lieutenant Governor of Java.

Four years later in 1815, Java was returned to Dutch Control, under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty that was signed towards the end of 1814 and Raffles left Java. Under the terms of this Treaty, Britain gained control over Malacca and also Bencoolen in Sumatra, and Raffles in 1818 was made Governor General of Bencoolen. By this time Raffles had spent 13 years in Malaya, Java and Sumatran region, so had gained a great deal of knowledge about the region, language, Sultanate powers, and the people, even writing and publishing a book in 1817 titled "The History of Java" and receiving a British Knighthood that year.

Both Malaya and the Spice Islands have 100's of islands, so defining what island and territories should be considered Dutch and British was hard to define under the Treaty that was made. The Riau Peninsula Islands all lay just to the south of Singapore – Batam Island, Bintang Island and others, and at the time they all came under the control of the Sultanate of Johor and Riau. Raffles met with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, and on the 6th of February 1819 Agreement was reached for the East India Company to buy the rights to establish Singapore as a settlement. This meant that the British East India Company had three strategic port settlements – Penang, Malacca and Singapore – and the three ports became known as the "New Straits Territories" in the East Indies.

With Singapore's strategic trading location roughly midway between Britain's territories in India and China, Singapore grew rapidly, with Raffles spending time both in Singapore and Bencoolen. Plans for the City were drawn up by Phillip Jackson, who was given the task as the Singapore Colony's city engineer and in 1823 Raffles drew up a Constitution for the Colony.

In 1824 Raffles returned to London, and was instrumental in establishing the London Zoo and Zoological Society in 1825. While credit was given to him for his work for the Company and for establishing Singapore, he was taken to task for the amount of expenditures he had incurred in so doing, and asked to pay twenty-two thousand pounds back to the East India Company as recompense and denied a company pension.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles is considered the 'Father of Singapore' based on his remarkable achievements in the creation of the City. He had also suffered greatly in the process with three of his children dying from Dysentery or other tropical diseases, with his fourth child dying aged just 19 in 1840. He would also succumb to illness, and he died in London in 1826 aged just 45. Even after his death, the Company claimed ten thousand pounds from his Estate, and his local Church refused to bury him, based on the Vicar on the basis that Raffles 'anti-slavery' stance was against law of God and the Vicar's own 'pro-slavery' views.

In Singapore today, there is a statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles at Raffles Landing Place on the south bank of the Singapore River and another at Empress Plaza. The most recognized legacy of his life however is the Raffles Hotel built in 1887 by Armenian brothers, Martin, Arshak, Aviet and Tigran Sarkies. While Raffles had nothing to do with the hotel construction, having died in 1826, the Hotel was certainly named in his honour.

Raffles Hotel is located at 1 Beach Road and is a Singapore landmark and quintessential British Institution – with its British Colonial architecture, marble colonnades, open four storey atrium, teak verandas and 103 Guest Suites, 14 restaurants and bars. Here you can stay in a Grand Hotel Suite or just enjoy a Singapore Sling (Invented here), have a traditional English breakfast or High Tea or just take in the ambience of this great hotel. You can book to stay at Raffles Hotel on this website or at one of more than 100 other hotels here in the heart of Singapore.

It is also interesting to note that Armenians not only build the Raffles Hotel, but also the New Straits Times was also founded by an Armenian, Catchick Movessian in 1845, and the first church in Singapore, the Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator with its grand columns and vaulted ceiling and cupola was built in 1835. It is located at 60 Hill Street, not far from Raffles Hotel.

Singapore became a British Crown Colony in 1867, at which time around 87,000 people were living and working in Singapore, with the Port becoming increasingly important, particularly after the Suez Canal opened in 1869.

By this time Singapore had a Police Force, Hospital, a number of Schools including Girl's Schools, and a Newspaper – the New Straits Times (Est.1845) and the Botanic Gardens (Est.1859) with the City being a Free Port attracting ships and trade from near and far.

Large numbers of Chinese were also attracted to come and work in Singapore, and the British also brought with them numbers of Indians too from their Indian Colonial Settlements there. The Chinese came from a number of places in China, speaking different dialects and working on the wharves and labouring. Chinese Secret Societies and brokers also grew in power, and were able to control how work was restricted or made available.

In 1877 the British established what they called "A Chinese Protectorate" in the Penang, Malacca and Singapore Settlements to protect the Chinese from exploitation , and in 1885 the Gan Eng Seng School was established, one year later, an Anglo-Chinese School and in 1899 the Singapore Chinese Girl's School and others would follow in the early 1900's.

Britain had established Singapore as one of its Colonial outposts in the Far East building the City using Chinese and Indian workers for all the hard manual work. Where in South Africa, Canada, the United States and Australia large numbers of British settlers became the biggest immigrant number, here in Singapore, the number of British who settled here remained relatively small, with the City becoming more of a Chinese settlement than a British one. While British numbers may have been small, their influence and control over Government, Defence, Law, Banking, Shipping and Trade meant that Singapore was still very much a British New Straits Territory.

On the 7th of December 1941 the Japanese bombed Singapore and invaded Malaya, and more bombing raids followed with British surrendering Singapore to the Japanese on the 15th of February 1941. The Japanese took control over both Malaya and Singapore, and it would be another 4 years before the British would return to Singapore, with the Japanese surrendering on the 14th of February 1945.

Much has been written about the war and the Japanese atrocities inflicted on British, Australian, Indian, Chinese, Malays and other people during the occupation. Prisoner of War Camps, death marches, starvation, disease and brutality saw thousands of people die, with estimates of the numbers who died ranging from 5000 to 50,000 Chinese, with at least 9000 Allied troops dying on death marches and on the Burma Railway. The Kranji Memorial is located at 9 Woodlands Rd, a War Cemetery and former POW Camp. Here in this one Cemetery there are 4461 servicemen buried here, while a Memorial has the names of some 24,000 more people who were captured or declared missing.

World War Two was very much a turning point in World history, and while many may have thought it would be a return to the pre-war days, much of the world had changed. The Age of the Empire and Colonial powers ruling over colonies was over, and while 1946 still saw Singapore become a 'Separate Crown Colony' under British Authority, a new era was emerging.

Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch East Indies had declared its independence from Dutch Colonial rule on the 17th August 1945, so it was logical that the New Straits Territories would follow this lead.

The move towards self-government began slowly and was only achieved in 1959, with the PAP (People's Action Party) and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) becoming Prime Minister of Singapore following the election, a position that he held from 1959 to 1990.

Since the 1800's Singapore had been part of the 'New Straits Territories' with a close relationship with Malaya, even though it was sandwiched between Malay Peninsula and Sumatra in the the Dutch East Indies.

In 1963 Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined together to form independent states within the new nation, the Federation of Malaysia, with Lee Kuan Yew a strong supporter of this. Cracks in the relationship however began to appear and on August 9th, 1965 the Malaysian Parliament voted to expel Singapore from the Federation. The differences were just too great.

While Malaysia, like Singapore is a multi-racial country, it is a Muslim nation with the politics controlled by Malays, whereas in Singapore the majority of its population are Chinese.

Singapore is just a small island country, so no doubt Lee Kuan Yew recognized that Singapore needed to become as economically, socially and politically strong. In 1971 the last British forces stationed in Singapore were withdrawn and by 1979 Singapore had become the second busiest port in the world.

Where Malaya had a much greater land mass, rubber and tin mines, and more recently Palm Oil Plantations, Singapore had ingenuity and was able to build a strong Manufacturing sector. Manufacturing depends on low cost, and as Singapore became more wealthy, much of this manufacture moved from Singapore to the Malaysian Peninsula, Thailand and China, so again Singapore needed to re-invent itself.

New high tech electronics, oil refining, chemical industries, property development and finance have all become big industries, and Singapore has promoted itself as the 'Gateway to Asia' becoming the #1 Logistics hub in the world according to the World Bank.

Tourism has also changed too. In the 1970's tourists headed to Singapore for Duty Free Goods and also to a street called Boogie Street (Bugis Street) where tourists would be sit on tables to eat and drink awaiting a bevy of Transvestite boy-girls who would come by to sit on their laps, tease and party along with fortune tellers who would read your fortune.

The extravert fun of Boogie Street is gone now, and for a long period of time Singapore was seen as a bit sterile. Bugis Street MRT station is still here, but nothing remains of the famous Boogie Street.

In the 1980's long haired youth arriving in Singapore would be forced to cut their hair, chewing gum was outlawed, there were bans on certain books and music and anything remotely rebellious incurred heavy penalties with death to drug users. The death penalty still applies.

While all of this may have seemed extreme, at the same time run down parts of the city were cleaned up with new buildings, roads and parklands created to develop Singapore into a safe, clean city to both attract business and foreign professional workers to come and live in Singapore.

Singapore was once like Malaysia with many Kampong houses, but in the move to rapidly modernize Singapore, the Singapore Kampongs were demolished and in their place high rise apartment buildings took their place. You will see many of these in Singapore.

Tourism around the world relies heavily on people wanting to see amazing things, and while the natural environment and scenery plays one part, people also travel to see and experience different cultures, food and excitement – and Singapore has responded to this in a big way, creating a number of world class attractions.

Singapore is now an exciting city to visit. It is clean, safe, friendly and easy to get around and some of its new attractions are truly spectacular.

Welcome to Singapore. I hope you have a great time.

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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