Singapore Travel Guide

Singapore is an island city-state in Southeast Asia, situated on the southern tip of Malay Peninsula, south of the state of Johor of Peninsular Malaysia and north of the Indonesian islands of Riau. The city has traded in its rough-and-ready opium dens and pearl luggers for towers of concrete and glass, and its steamy rickshaw image for hi-tech wizardry.

Singapore appears like a city full of contrasts, modern and anonymous, with Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions from feng shui to ancestor worship creating part of the everyday landscape. In the crowded streets of Chinatown, fortune tellers, calligraphers and temple worshippers are still a part of everyday life. In Little India, you can buy the best sari material, freshly ground spices or a picture of your favourite Hindu god. In the small shops of Arab St, the cry of the imam can be heard from the nearby Sultan Mosque. In spite of practices such as the ban of imports of chewing gum, that have led some to label it a "nanny state", authoritarian government intervention in social issues to the extent of behaving like overly concerned parents, Singapore is a popular tourist destination in Southeast Asia.

Facts in a glance

Area: 683 sq km
Population: 4 million
Country: Singapore
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +8 (Standard Time)
Telephone Area Code: There are no area codes in Singapore; just dial the eight-digit number.


3rd century: The earliest written record of Singapore was a Chinese account, describing the island of "Pu Luo Chung", probably a translation of the Malay Pulau Ujong, "island at the end".

13th century: The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) contains a tale of a prince of Srivijaya, Sri Tri Buana (also known as Sang Nila Utama),landed on the island.

1330: The Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan, visiting the island, described a small Malay settlement containing a number of Chinese residents.

1365: The island was apparently a haven for pirates preying on passing ships. The Nagarakretagama, a Javanese epic poem written, also referred to a settlement on the island, which it called Temasek ("Sea Town").

1390: Parameswara, the last Srivijayan prince, fled to Temasek after being deposed by the Majapahit Empire. Notwithstanding the legend from the Sejarah Melayu, the "Singapura" name possibly dates to this period. Parameswara held the island for a number of years, until further attacks from either the Majapahit or the Ayuthia Kingdom in Siam forced him to move on to Melaka.

17th century: Following the decline of Srivijayan power, Temasek was alternately claimed by the Majapahit and the Siamese. Its fortifications apparently allowed it to withstand at least one attempted Siamese invasion. It briefly regained some importance as a trading centre of the Johor Empire, but eventually sank again into obscurity.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Malay archipelago was gradually taken over by the European colonial powers, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese at Malacca in 1509.

17th century: The early dominance of the Potuguese was challenged, by the Dutch, who came to control most of the region's ports. The Dutch established a monopoly over trade within the archipelago, particularly in spices, then the region's most important product. Other colonial powers, including the British, were limited to a relatively minor presence.

1818: Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was appointed as the governor of the British colony at Bencoolen. Raffles believed that the British should find a way to replace the Dutch as the dominant power in the archipelago, since the trade route between China and British India, which had become vitally important with the institution of the opium trade with China, passed through the archipelago. Furthermore, the Dutch were stifling British trade within the region; the British were prohibited from operating in Dutch-controlled ports, with the exception of Batavia, where unfavourable prices were imposed. Raffles reasoned that the way to challenge the Dutch was to establish a new port in the region. Existing British ports were not suited to becoming major trading centres. Penang was too far away from the Straits of Malacca, the main ship passageway for the India-China trade, whereas Bencoolen faced the Sunda Straits, a much less important area. Many other possible sites were either controlled by the Dutch, or had other problems.

1818: Raffles managed to convince Lord Hastings, the governor-general of India and his superior at the British East India Company, to fund an expedition to establish a new British base in the region. The island of Singapore seemed to be a natural choice. It lay at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, near the Straits of Malacca, and possessed an excellent natural harbour, fresh water supplies, and timber for repairing ships.

1819: Raffles' expedition arrived in Singapore on 29 January. He found a small Malay settlement at the mouth of the Singapore River, headed by a Temenggong (governor) of Johor. The island was nominally ruled by Johor, but the political situation there was extremely murky. The current Sultan of Johor, Tengku Abdul Rahman, was controlled by the Dutch and the Bugis, and would never agree to a British base in Singapore. However, Abdul Rahman was Sultan only because his older brother, Tengku Hussein, had been away in Penang getting married when their father died. With the Temenggong's help, Raffles managed to smuggle Hussein, then living in exile on one of the Riau Islands, back into Singapore. He offered to recognize Hussein as the rightful Sultan of Johor, and provide him with a yearly payment; in return, Hussein would grant them the right to establish a trading post on Singapore. This agreement was ratified with a formal treaty signed on 6 February 1819, and modern Singapore was born.

Raffles returned to Bencoolen soon after the signing of the treaty, leaving Major William Farquhar in charge of the new settlement, which initially consisted of some artillery and a single regiment of Indian soldiers. Establishing a trading port from scratch was in itself a daunting prospect, but Farquhar's administration was, in addition, practically unfunded, as Raffles did not wish his superiors to view Singapore as a liability. In addition, it was forbidden from earning revenue by imposing port duties, Raffles having decided from the outset that Singapore would be a free port.

1822: Raffles returned to Singapore. Although Farquhar had successfully led the settlement through its difficult early years, Raffles was critical of many of the decisions he had made. For instance, in order to generate much-needed revenue for the government, Farquhar had resorted to selling licenses for gambling and the sale of opium, which Raffles saw as social evils. Raffles arranged for Farquhar's dismissal, and set about drafting a set of new policies for the settlement. He arranged for a second treaty with the Sultan and Temenggong, signed on 7 June 1823, which extended British possession to the entire island, except for the residences of the Sultan and Temenggong.

1826: After installing John Crawfurd, an efficient and frugal administrator, as the new governor, Raffles departed for Britain in October 1823. He would never return to Singapore. Most of his personal possessions were lost after his ship, the Fame, caught fire and sank, and he died only a few years later, at an age of less than 45. Raffles' founding of Singapore was based on rather shaky legal grounds, and the Dutch had lost no time in issuing bitter protests to the British government, arguing that their sphere of influence had been violated. The British government and the East India Company, though originally sympathetic to these complaints, became increasingly less so as Singapore's importance grew. By 1822, it was made clear to the Dutch that the British had no intention of giving up the island. The status of Singapore as a British possession was cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. In 1826, Singapore was grouped together with Penang and Malacca into a single administrative unit, the Straits Settlements, under the British East India Company.

1880: over 1.5 million tons of goods were passing through Singapore each year, with around 80% of it transported by steamships. Despite Singapore's growing importance, its government was generally underfunded, weak, and ineffectual. The Straits Settlements were a division of British India, and administrators were usually posted from India with little or no knowledge of the region. As long as British trade was not affected, the administration was unconcerned with the welfare of the populace. For instance, in 1850 there were only twelve police officers to keep order in a city of nearly 60,000.

As early as 1827, the Chinese had become the largest ethnic group in Singapore. During the earliest years of the settlement, most of the Chinese in Singapore had been Peranakans, the descendents of Chinese who had settled in the archipelago centuries ago, who were usually well-to-do merchants. As the port developed, much larger numbers of Chinese coolies flocked to Singapore looking for work. These migrant workers were generally male, poor and uneducated, and had left China (mostly from southern China) to escape the political and economic disasters wracking the country. They aspired to make their fortune in Southeast Asia and return home to China, but most were doomed to a life of low-paying unskilled labour. Until the 20th century, few Chinese ended up settling permanently, primarily because wives were in short supply.

The second largest ethnic group in Singapore, around the 1860s, was the Indians. These included unskilled laborers like the Chinese coolies, as well as traders, soldiers garrisoned at Singapore by the government, and a number of convicts.

There were also a large number of Malays in Singapore. Although many of the Malays continued to live in kampungs (traditional Malay villages), most worked as wage earners and craftsmen, rather than farmers like those in Malaya.

As a result of the government's hands-off attitude and the predominantly male, transient, and uneducated nature of the population, the society of Singapore was rather lawless and chaotic. Prostitution, gambling, and drug abuse (particularly of opium) were widespread. Chinese criminal secret societies (analogous to modern-day triads) were extremely powerful; some had tens of thousands of members, and turf wars between rival societies occasionally led to death tolls numbering in the hundreds. Attempts to suppress these secret societies had limited success, and they continued to be a problem well into the 20th century.

1867: the British government finally agreed to make the Straits Settlements a Crown Colony, receiving orders directly from the Colonial Office rather than from India. The colonial government embarked on several measures to address the serious social problems facing Singapore.

1877: A Chinese Protectorate under Pickering was established to address the needs of the Chinese community, including controlling the worst abuses of the coolie trade. Nevertheless, many social problems persisted up through the post-war era, including an acute housing shortage and generally poor health and living standards.

1906, the Tongmenghui, a Chinese organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing empire led by Sun Yatsen, founded its Nanyang branch in Singapore, which was to serve as the organization's headquarters in Southeast Asia. Today, this founding is commemorated in the Sun Yatsen memorial in Singapore.

During World War II, Japanese forces seized Malaya and the surrounding region. Despite numerical superiority the unprepared British were defeated, surrendering in 1942 to the Japanese.

The Japanese renamed Singapore as Syonan-to (Light of the South) and held it till September 1945, when they were defeated by the Allies.

1959: Singapore became a self-governing crown colony with Lee Kuan Yew from the People's Action Party (PAP) becoming the first Prime Minister of Singapore following the 1959 elections. It later joined the Federation of Malaysia along with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak as an autonomous territory on September 1963 till August 1965.

Singapore has signed treaties in 1961 and 1962 to buy water from Malaysia, which expire in 2011 and 2061 respectively. It currently appears both may not be renewed. Malaysia and Singapore have been known to chide or even issue threats to each other in the course taken after independence, but fortunately this has never become serious enough to develop into embargo or hostility.

1965: After intense ideological conflict developed between the People's Action Party and the Federal Government in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia on 7 August, gaining official sovereignty two days later on August 9 with Malaysia becoming the first country to recognize it as a sovereign nation. Among the problems the fledgling nation faced included mass unemployment, housing problems, lack of natural resources and land.

1959 to 1990: Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister. During his term, his administration curbed unemployment, raised the standard of living, developed Singapore's economic revenue and infrastructure, and overcame Singapore's initial problems of lack of housing, social stability and independent national defence. This elevated the nation to become that of a developed status, initially termed a developing nation.

1990: Lee Kuan Yew passed the reins to successor Goh Chok Tong, who saw the country through some of its most serious postwar crises, including the 1997 Asian economic crisis and SARS in 2003. During this period, many alleged members of the Jemaah Islamiah were arrested on internal security charges, such as the plot to detonate a bomb in a sewer near Yishun MRT.

2004: On August 12, Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew took over as the third Prime Minister of Singapore after securing the confidence of the Parliament, which till today is still ruled by the PAP.

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