History of Singapore

Visitors can discover Singapore's rich historical heritage by visiting many of the national museums, memorials, and monuments located around the city.
Visitors can discover Singapore's rich historical heritage by visiting many of the national museums, memorials, and monuments located around the city.

Once a section of British Malaya and briefly a colony of the Empire of Japan, Singapore's history is colorful and interesting, particularly for an island of such modest size. From its early beginnings as a trading post for Malaysian settlers and Thai trade ships to its current status as one of the world's most prosperous ports, Singapore's history shows its steady progression into a regional power.

When visitors first fly into Singapore, the first thing they'll likely notice is the island's immense fleet of trading ships, container boats, and general watercraft. Singapore is one of the world's top ports by cargo traded inwards and outwards daily, and it certainly shows. The island's position as one of the world's busiest ports isn't modern, either – it extends back hundreds of years.

Once a small port controlled by Dutch colonial powers in the region, Singapore was turned into an important trading post for the British in the early 19th century. The island's position between Europe and China made it a valuable asset for the British Empire of the time, allowing them to trade with Eastern partners while avoiding the Dutch and Portuguese controlled colonies in the area.

This establishment marked the founding of Modern Singapore – a state that's existed until shortly after World War II. Located close to Indochina and occupied Siam – now Thailand – Singapore was a target of Imperial Japan, and was briefly occupied during World War II. Following the war, the island broke free of British influence and established its own government, that still exists today.

Over the last sixty years, Singapore has transformed into one of Asia's most prosperous ports, and icons of its growth and history are visible today. The statue of Thomas Raffles, the man that many believe is most responsible for Singapore's independence from Dutch influence, is featured on the waterfront in the city itself, and other streets have been named in his honor.

Due to its years as a British colony, Singapore's history, and also its current culture, has a relatively large amount of influence from other former colonies. The island is home to a large population of Malay immigrants, many of whom left their native Malaysia during the early 20th century. Likewise, a large Indian population also resides in Singapore, much of which is several generations old.

Singapore's largest immigrant community, however, and the one that's had the largest influence on the island's recent history, is its Chinese community. The wave of Chinese immigration during the 20th century helped shape Singapore's recent image – introducing Buddhism to the island, giving a new edge to its trade with East Asia, and influencing its overall culture.

These different cultures are shown in Singapore's huge range of historical buildings and small urban communities. From the island's authentic Chinatown to its Arabic Kampong Glam district, there are constant reminders of Singapore's modern history as a cultural melting pot. It's this multiculturalism that best shows off Singapore's best asset – its status as a vital trading point for the world's cultures.

In fact, many of Singapore's most popular tourist districts were once it's biggest trading spots. The area around Clarke Quay, now a popular nightlife area, was once the city's biggest commercial area, with hundreds of boats humming up and down the river every hour. Other riverfront districts, most of which are now entertainment and dining areas, were also popular docks and trading posts.

While it's glitzy shopping malls and imposing skyscrapers may not give the impression of an island that's rich in culture and history, Singapore is actually one of Southeast Asia's most unique historical locations. From its centuries-long history as an important trading post to its importance for some of the continent's biggest cultures, Singapore has a unique history to share with residents and visitors.