Singapore : History


Singapore was known to the Javanese as Temasek(‘Sea Town’) in the late 1300s, when Siam (Thailand) and the Majapahit Empire of Java were contending for control of the Malay Peninsula. In 1390 Prince Parameswara, in flight from Majapahit, briefly set himself up as prince of Temasek, but was driven out and fled to Malacca. In the early 1400s Temasek was ruled by Siam, but the Malacca sultanate soon took control of the island. The Portuguese took Malacca in 1511, and the Malaccan admiral established himself in Temasek, or Singapura, building a capital which he called Johor Lama.

In 1587 the Portuguese took and destroyed Johor Lama. They made another punitive expedition to Singapore in 1613, destroying a town at the river-mouth. The island, henceforth sparsely populated, remained partly the property of the Sultan of Johor, partly that of the Temenggong (the Malay ruler of the island). In 1819 these two rulers, for a financial inducement, permitted Sir Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen, to establish a British trading post on the island.

Raffles was impressed by the magnificent harbour, and the island’s suitable position for both Far East and local trade. By 1824 Raffles’s move was paying off so well that Britain bought the island from its two rulers. In 1826 it was united with Malacca and Penang as the Straits Settlements, which were made a Crown colony in 1867. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, increasing the amount of shipping calling at Singapore. Its prosperity increased further after the 1870s, when Malaysian rubber became one of its important exports.

From the mid-19th century, there was considerable immigration from all over the region. In the early 1920s Britain began constructing a great naval base, suitable for the biggest ships, in the Johor Straits. The base was finished in 1938. From February 1942 until August 1945 Singapore was occupied by the Japanese army. In 1946, separated from the Straits Settlements, Singapore became a colony with a provisional advisory council. In 1955 Singapore became partially internally self-governing, with a legislative assembly with 25 elected members out of a total membership of 32, and a council of ministers. A speaker presided in the assembly. In 1959 it became a state with its own citizenship and complete internal self-government. The first prime minister was Lee Kuan Yew. In September 1963 Singapore was incorporated into the Federation of Malaysia. But in August 1965 it left the Federation, by mutual agreement, after months of dispute between it and the federal government, over a variety of issues, including ethnic affairs. On 9 August 1965, Singapore became a separate independent state and joined the Commonwealth. In December 1965, it became a republic with a non-executive president. The People’s Action Party (PAP) was first elected in 1959 and was continuously in power for the rest of the century, in many elections winning every seat. In 1981 the Workers’ Party (WP) won one seat in a by-election. Two opposition members were returned in the 1984 elections, one in 1988, and four in 1991.

During this period, Singapore developed a highly sophisticated economy with extensive social services and one of the world’s highest rates of GNI per capita. In 1990 Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of the PAP was succeeded by his former deputy Goh Chok Tong, who called elections in August 1991 and was returned to power, though with a reduced majority. In 1991 the presidency was made elective. Ong Teng Cheong won the first presidential election, held in 1993, and S R Nathan was the only candidate in the second presidential poll in August 1999.

The PAP won the general election of January 1997 taking 65% of the total vote, winning 81 seats (including all nine singlemember constituencies). The prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, the senior minister (former Prime Minister Lee) and many other ministers were returned unopposed. The Singapore Democratic Party took no seats, while the Singapore People’s Party held its one seat with a decreased majority. The WP held its one seat with an increased majority, and its leader was offered a non-constituency seat.