SG53: The Long Journey of The Lion City

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Singapore celebrates its 53rd independence this year. A lot of activity and show held to mark this historic moment. Today is the right time to step back and see the long journey of Singapore before became the most developed country in Southeast Asia.

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According to, Singapore was founded centuries ago when a prince from Sumatra landed on the island and saw a lion. He took it as a good omen and founded a city called Singapura, which means lion city. The legend may or may not be accurate. In fact, the name Singapura was not recorded until the 16th century, and Singapore was only a trading post with a small population, not a city.

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.

The Raffles Effect

Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). Raffles became a clerk for the British East India Company in 1795. He rose rapidly in the company. In 1805 he was sent to Penang, and in 1811 he was made Lieutenant Governor of Java.

In 1818 Raffles was made governor of Bencoolen on the island of Sumatra. Raffles believed the British should establish a base on the Straits of Melaka and in 1819 he landed on the island of Singapore. The island consisted of swamps and jungle with a small population, but Raffles realised it could be made into a useful port.

At that time two men were vying to become Sultan of the Empire of Johor, which controlled Singapore. In 1812 the Sultan died, and his two sons quarrelled over the succession. Raffles supported the older brother Hussein and recognised him as Sultan. Raffles made a deal with him. The British East India Company was given Singapore in return for an annual payment. In 1824 the Company was granted the island in return for a lump sum of money.

The British established a new trading post at Singapore, and it proliferated. As well as Europeans, Malays, Chinese, Indians and Arabs came to live and work there. By 1824 the population had risen to 10,000.

In 1826 Singapore was joined with Melaka and Penang to form the Straits Settlements. In 1867 Singapore became a Crown Colony ruled directly by the British government rather than the East India Company. By 1870 the population of Singapore had risen to 100,000.

Many grand buildings were erected in Singapore in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them was the Victoria Theatre & Concert Hall, which was built in 1862.

Several temples were built at that time including the Thian Hock Keng Temple, which was built in 1842. The Sri Mariamman Temple was first established in 1823, but it was rebuilt in 1843. The Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple was built in 1855. The Leong San See Temple was built in 1917. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple was built in 1927.
When the Suez Canal was built in 1869 Singapore became even more important as a ‘gateway’ between Europe and eastern Asia.

Modern Singapore

In the early 20th century Singapore continued to prosper. Vast amounts of rubber and tin from the region were exported from Singapore. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants continued to arrive.

Then in January 1942, the Japanese conquered Malaysia. On 15 February 1942 Singapore was forced to surrender. The Japanese called Singapore Yonan, which means Light of the South, but their rule was tyrannical. Thousands of Chinese Singaporeans were executed. However, Japan surrendered in August 1945 and on 5 September 1945 the British re-occupied Singapore.

After 1945 Singapore slowly moved towards independence. In 1946 the Strait Settlements were dissolved, and Singapore was separated from Malaysia. The People’s Action Party was formed in 1954, and it proved to be a significant force in Singaporean politics. In 1955 a new constitution was introduced. Under it, 25 out of 32 members of the legislature were elected. In 1957 it was replaced by an elected 51-member parliament. The People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won 43 out of 51 seats. Self-government was granted in 1959. Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister.


In 1963 Singapore joined with Malaysia. However, the union was short-lived. Singapore left in 1965 and became completely independent. Independent Singapore was admitted to the United Nations on 21 September 1965, and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations on 15 October 1965. On 22 December 1965, it became a republic, with Yusof bin Ishak as the republic’s first President.

After that commenced Singapore’s struggle to survive and prosper on its own. It also had to create a sense of national identity and consciousness among a disparate population of immigrants.

During Lee Kuan Yew’s term as prime minister from 1959 to 1990, his administration curbed unemployment, raised the standard of living and implemented a large-scale public housing programme. The country’s economic infrastructure was developed, racial tension was eliminated, and an independent national defence system was created. Singapore evolved from a developing nation to first world status towards the end of the 20th century.

On 28 November 1990, a new chapter opened in Singapore’s modern history Goh Cheok Tong became the second Prime Minister of Singapore when he took over the office from Lee Kuan Yew who resigned after having been Prime Minister since 1959.

During his tenure, the country tackled the economic impacts of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2003 SARS outbreak, as well as terrorist threats posed by the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) post–11 September and the Bali bombings. In 2004 Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, became the third prime minister.

Singapore Election
image: AFP

The general election of 2011 was yet another watershed election as it was the first time a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was lost by the ruling party PAP, to the opposition Workers’ Party. The final results saw a 6.46% swing against the PAP from the 2006 elections to 60.14%, its lowest since independence. Nevertheless, PAP won 81 out of 87 seats and maintained its parliamentary majority.

In 2015, Singapore held the first election since Singapore’s independence which saw all seats contested. The vote was also the first after the death of Lee Kuan Yew in 2015. The ruling party PAP received its best results since 2001 with 69.86% of the popular vote, an increase of 9.72% from the previous election in 2011.

Following amendments to the Constitution of Singapore, Singapore held her first reserved Presidential Elections in 2017. The election was the first to be reserved for a particular racial group under a hiatus-triggered model.

The 2017 election was reserved for candidates from the minority Malay community. Then-Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob won the polls through a walkover and was inaugurated as the eighth President of Singapore on 14 September 2017, becoming the first female President of Singapore.



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