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What little is known of Singapore's ancient history relies heavily upon legend and supposition. In the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo reported seeing a place called Chiamassie, which could also have been Singapore: by then the island was known locally as Temasek - "sea town" - and was a minor trading outpost of the Sumatran Srivijaya empire. The island's present name - from the Sanskrit Singapura , meaning "Lion City" - was first recorded in the sixteenth century.

Throughout the fourteenth century, Singapura felt the squeeze as the Ayutthaya and Majapahit empires of Thailand and Java struggled for control of the Malay Peninsula. Around 1390, a Sumatran prince called Paramesvara threw off his allegiance to the Javanese Majapahit Empire and fled from Palembang to present-day Singapore. There, he murdered his host and ruled the island until a Javanese offensive forced him to flee north, up the Peninsula, where he and his son, Iskandar Shah, subsequently founded the Melaka Sultanate.

With the rise of the Melaka Sultanate , Singapore evolved into an inconsequential fishing settlement; a century or so later, the arrival of the Portuguese in Melaka forced Malay leaders to flee southwards to modern-day Johor Bahru for sanctuary. A Portuguese account of 1613 described the razing of an unnamed Malay outpost at the mouth of Sungei Johor to the ground, an event which marked the beginning of two centuries of historical limbo for Singapore.

Raffles and the British
By the late eighteenth century, with China opening up for trade with the West, the British East India Company felt the need to establish outposts along the Straits of Melaka to protect its interests. Penang was secured in 1786, but with the Dutch expanding their rule in the East Indies (Indonesia), a port was needed further south. Enter Thomas Stamford Raffles . In 1818, the governor-general of India authorized Raffles, then lieutenant-governor of Bencoolen (in Sumatra), to establish a British colony at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula; early the next year, he stepped ashore on the northern bank of the Singapore River accompanied by Colonel William Farquhar, former resident of Melaka and fluent in Malay. Despite living and working in a period of imperial arrogance, Raffles maintained an unfailing concern for the welfare of the people under his governorship, and a conviction that British colonial expansion was for the general good. Today he is the man whom history remembers as the founder of modern Singapore.

At the time of his first landing there, inhospitable swampland and tiger-infested jungle covered Singapore, and its population is generally thought to have numbered around 150, although some historians suggest it could have been as high as a thousand. Raffles recognized the island's potential for providing a deep-water harbour, and immediately struck a treaty with Abdul Rahman , temenggong (chieftain) of Singapore, establishing a British trading station there. The Dutch were furious at this British incursion into what they considered their territory, but Raffles - who still needed the approval of the Sultan of Johor for his outpost, as Abdul Rahman was only an underling - disregarded Dutch sensibilities. He approached the sultan's brother, Hussein, recognized him as the true sultan, and concluded a second treaty with both the temenggong and His Highness the Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah . The Union Jack was raised, and Singapore's future as a free trading post was set.

With its strategic position at the foot of the Straits of Melaka, and with no customs duties levied on imported or exported goods, Singapore's expansion was meteoric. The population had reached ten thousand by the time of the first census in 1824, with Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans arriving in search of work as coolies and merchants. In 1822, Raffles set about drawing up the demarcation lines that divide present-day Singapore. The area south of the Singapore River was earmarked for the Chinese; a swamp at the mouth of the river was filled and the commercial district established there. Muslims were settled around the Sultan's Palace in today's Arab Quarter.



Nineteenth-century boom
In 1824, Sultan Hussein and the temenggong were brought out, and Singapore ceded outright to the British. Three years later, the fledgling state united with Penang and Melaka (now under British rule) to form the Straits Settlements , which became a British crown colony in 1867. For forty years the island's laissez-faire economy boomed, though life was chaotic, and disease rife. More and more immigrants poured onto the island; by 1860 the population had reached eighty thousand, with each ethnic community bringing its attendant cuisines, languages and architecture. Arabs, Indians, Javanese and Bugis all came, but most populous of all were the Chinese from the southern provinces of China, who settled quickly, helped by the clan societies ( kongsis) already establishing footholds on the island. The British, for their part, erected impressive Neoclassical theatres, courts and assembly halls, and in 1887 Singapore's most quintessentially British establishment, the Raffles Hotel, opened for business.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of the steamship had consolidated Singapore's position at the hub of international trade in the region, with the port becoming a major staging post on the Europe-East Asia route. In 1877, Henry Ridley began his one-man crusade to introduce the rubber plant into southeast Asia, a move which further bolstered Singapore's importance as the island soon became the world centre of rubber exporting. This status was further enhanced by the slow but steady drawing of the Malay Peninsula under British control - a process begun with the Treaty of Pangkor in 1874 and completed in 1914 - which meant that Singapore gained further from the mainland's tin- and rubber-based economy.

Between 1873 and 1913 trade increased eightfold, a trend which continued well into the twentieth century. Singapore's Asian communities found their political voice in the 1920s. In 1926, the Singapore Malay Union was established, and four years later, the Chinese-supported Malayan Communist Party (MCP). But grumblings of independence had risen to no more than a faint whisper before an altogether more immediate problem reared its head.



World War II
The bubble burst in 1942. In December 1941, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour and invaded the Malay Peninsula. Less than two months later they were at the top of the causeway, safe from the guns of "Fortress Singapore", which pointed south from what is now Sentosa island. The inhabitants of Singapore had not been prepared for an attack from this direction and on February 15, 1942, the fall of Singapore (which the Japanese then renamed Syonan, or "Light of the South") was complete. Winston Churchill called the British surrender "the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history"; cruelly, it later transpired that the Japanese forces had been outnumbered and their supplies hopelessly stretched immediately prior to the surrender.

Three and a half years of brutal Japanese rule ensued, during which thousands of civilians were executed in vicious anti-Chinese purges and Europeans were either herded into Changi Prison , or marched up the Peninsula to work on Thailand's infamous "'Death Railway". Less well-known is the vicious campaign, known as Operation Sook Ching, mounted by the military police force, or Kempeitai, during which upwards of 25,000 Chinese males between 18 and 50 years of age were shot dead at Punggol and Changi beaches as enemies to the Japanese.




Towards independence
Following the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Singapore was passed back into British hands, but things were never to be the same. Singaporeans now wanted a say in the government of the island, and in 1957 the British government agreed to the establishment of an elected, 51-member legislative assembly. Full internal self-government was achieved in May 1959, when the People's Action Party (PAP), led by Cambridge law graduate Lee Kuan Yew , won 43 of the 51 seats. Lee became Singapore's first prime minister, and quickly looked for the security of a merger with neighbouring Malaya. For its part (despite reservations about aligning with Singapore's predominantly Chinese population), anti-Communist Malaya feared that extremists within the PAP would turn Singapore into a Communist base, and accordingly preferred to have the state under its wing.

In 1963, Singapore combined with Malaya, Sarawak and British North Borneo (modern-day Sabah) to form the Federation of Malaysia . The alliance, though, was an uneasy one, and within two years Singapore was asked to leave the federation, in the face of outrage in Kuala Lumpur at the PAP's attempts to break into Peninsular politics in 1964. Hours after announcing Singapore's full independence , on August 9, 1965, a tearful Lee Kuan Yew went on national TV and described the event as "a moment of anguish". One hundred and forty-six years after Sir Stamford Raffles had set Singapore on the world map, the tiny island, with no natural resources of its own, faced the prospect of being consigned to history's bottom drawer of crumbling colonial ports.



Contemporary Singapore
Instead, Lee's personal vision and drive transformed Singapore into an Asian economic heavyweight, a position achieved at a price. Heavy-handed censorship of the media was introduced, and even more disturbing was the government's attitude towards political opposition . When the opposition Worker's Party won a by-election in 1981, the candidate, JB Jeyaretham, found himself charged with several criminal offences, and chased through the Singaporean law courts for the next decade.

The archaic Internal Security Act still grants the power to detain without trial anyone the government deems a threat to the nation, which has kept political prisoner Chia Thye Poh under lock and key since 1966 for allegedly advocating violence. Population policies, too, have brought criticism from abroad. These began in the early 1970s, with a birth control campaign which proved so successful that it had to be reversed.

At other times, Singapore tries so hard to reshape itself that it falls into self-parody. "We have to pursue this subject of fun very seriously if we want to stay competitive in the twenty-first century" was the reaction of former Minister of State George Yeo, when confronted with the fact that some foreigners find Singapore dull. The government's annual courtesy campaign, which in 1996 urged the population to hold lift doors open for neighbours and prevent their washing from dripping onto passers-by below, appears equally risible to outsiders.

However, adults beyond a certain age remember how things were before independence and, more importantly, before the existence of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, housing projects and saving schemes. But their children and grandchildren have no such perspective, and telltale signs - presently nothing more extreme than feet up on MRT seats and jaywalking - suggest that the government can expect more dissent in future years. Already a substantial brain drain is afflicting the country, as skilled Singaporeans choose to move abroad in the pursuit of heightened civil liberties.

The man charged with leading Singapore into the new millennium is Goh Chok Tong , who became prime minister upon Lee's retirement in 1990. Goh has made it clear that he favours a more open form of government. Certainly, he has the mandate to make whatever changes he wishes.


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