Brief history of Singapore from the colonial era to Lee Kuan Yew

The earliest written records mentioning Singapore date back to the 14th century. At that time Singapore was a flourishing port known by the name of Temasik or Singapura. Having a very strategic position, the port was connected by trade (and politics) with China, Malaysia, Siam and India.

The british era

Few centuries later, in 1819, the british era started; agreements were made with the local rulers in order to set up a british trading port that would “open to ships and vessels of every nation free of duty” according to the declarations of Sir Stamford Raffles. By the 1850s, Singapore was the centre of trade in southeast Asia and it became a Crown colony in 1867.

The opening of the free port triggered a huge transformation: the population grew rapidly and many labourers from China and British India moved here. By the 1830s, the chinese were the largest ethnic group in Singapore and dominated the commercial activities.

Singapore - National Museum

The National Museum of Singapore

Modern age

In 1919 Singapore celebrated its centenary: it was an international financial centre, it had the second largest dry dock in the world and was a modern town with electricity, motorcars, cinemas, telephone and telegraph connections. The innovations and the era of the mass media enhanced the relationship between the immigrants and their homeland and allowed them to get in touch with the anti-colonial political movements that were spreading around the world: the end of the british era was approaching.


Before the beginning of WWII, Britain enforced the control over Singapore territory building a naval base, strenghtening the air force and transforming the town in a sort of Gibraltair of the east. In the meanwhile the chinese community was supporting the mother land during the Second sino-japanese war, raising funds and organising boycotts of japanese goods and businesses. In december 1941 japanese troups invaded the Malay peninsula and defeated the british troups in february 1942; this was the beginning of the japanese rule, named Syonan-to or Light of the south.

The occupation ended few years later, when Japan surrended to the Allies in 1945.

Singapore - Marina Bay
Marina Bay by night

The quick merger with Malaysia

Few years after the end of war and after some “discussions” with Britain, Singapore managed to become a self-governing state within the Commonwealth and Lee Kuan Yew became the country’s first prime minister. As a result of a referendum held in 1962, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia; this decision was taken in consideration of the scarce natural resources of this new small nation but the deep disagreement on political and economic issues led to the declaration of independence of the Republic of Singapore in 1965.

Lee Kuan Yew and his idea of Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew is considered the founder of the modern state of Singapore and was also the strongest supporter of the union with Malaysia. When it was clear that the federation couldn’t go on and it was time for Singapore to become indipendent, Lee made a public speech to explain to the press and to Singaporeans what was happening.

In this famous speech he said that it was no longer possible for Singapore to be part of a nation that didn’t share its ideals and visions. Lee envisioned a meritocratic, multiracial, multi-religious and multi-lingual society where no one would be discriminated against or favoured because of race or language or faith. He strongly fighted against corruption and believed that the integrity of institutions was the cornerstone for the country’s success. He also wished that this unique form of multiculturalism could set an example for the rest of the world.

Singapore - Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the Bay by night

In the meanwhile around the world

The vision of Lee Kuan Yew was very modern in a world that was still facing racial problems. Below a short list of some events that took place in 1965; I think they might be useful to understand what was going on in that period of time and how modern and open was the society in Singapore:

  • Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan
  • Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Voting Rights Act to outlaw discriminatory voting practices
  • Sukarno announced the withdrawal of Indonesia from United Nations
  • Maldives and Gambia become indipendent from UK
  • The indo-pakistani war began
  • Demonstrations started in Yerevan demanding official recognition of the Armenian Genocide
  • US were involved in bloody vietnam war
  • In South Africa black people were getting oppressed by apartheid


The mottos that best represent me? "Worry more about your conscience than your reputation. Because your conscience is what you are, your reputation is what others think of you. And what others think of you is their problem." and..."Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"

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