Singapore's bicentennial: 1819-2019

700 years of history, a bicentennial and four cycles of settlement

Far from being an abandoned fishing village in 1819, Singapore was in fact a port city which had been settled twice in its history. The arrival of British traders marked the third cycle of settlement, and independent Singapore in 1965 marked the fourth.

Nearly 200 years ago, British merchant Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore searching for a place to establish an East India Company settlement to service the company's trade to China. He met the local chieftain ,Temenggong Abdul Rahman, and worked out an arrangement for the British to establish a port on the unpopulated island of Singapore.

Dr John Crawfurd recorded that prior to Raffles' arrival, "for a period of about five hundred years and a half, there is no record of Singapore having been occupied, and it was only the occasional resort of pirates". As the second Resident of Singapore in 1823, Crawfurd would be an authority on the founding of Singapore.

Crawfurd was also aware of an earlier settlement on Singapore which he systematically recorded the remains of, on a visit to Singapore in 1822. He knew from the Portuguese records that this settlement was abandoned at the end of the 14th century and inferred that Singapore was deserted for the next five centuries and a half until Raffles arrived.

Archaeological excavations in 1984, and in the following three decades around Fort Canning confirmed Crawfurd's observations of the remains of a 14th-century regional entrepot engaged in a thriving trade with China under the Yuan dynasty.

The archaeological evidence also indicates that the settlement was abandoned at the end of the 14th century, when Malacca was founded and rose to become the lead emporium in the Malacca Strait.

This then has been the underlying assumption of Singapore's history, that Singapore was founded as a British colony on an unpopulated island. The prevailing narrative is that even if there is evidence of earlier settlement on this island, it was sporadic and has no connection, and is thus irrelevant, to Raffles' arrival in Singapore and the subsequent success of the settlement he founded.

Next year is the bicentenary of Singapore's "founding" as a British entrepot city. The challenge will be whether residents in this city can remain alert and respond to the forces of change in the region and wider world to survive and celebrate its centenary of independence 47 years from now in 2065, says the writer. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM


Such a construction of Singapore's past, however, disregards Portuguese and Dutch reports of a thriving harbour in Singapore in the late 16th and early 17th century which was controlled by a harbour master or shabandar appointed by the Sultan of Johor in his capital up the Johor River, in Kota Tinggi or Johor Lama and especially in Batu Sawar.

Portuguese and Dutch maps mark a harbour under a shabandar at either the Singapore River or the Kallang River. The missionary Francis Xavier called at this harbour in Singapore on his travels in the mid-16th century to China and back to Malacca, and was able to dispatch letters from the harbour. The Portuguese trader Jacques de Coutre, who travelled extensively around the region from 1593 to 1603, provides the most explicit reference to this harbour he called at, and described as "one of the best that serves the Indies".


The Dutch East India Company's Admiral Cornelis Matelieff de Jong met this shabandar, who claimed to represent the Sultan of Johor, in 1606 to negotiate a Johor-Dutch alliance to attack the Portuguese in Malacca. Both the Dutch and the Portuguese recognised the strategic location of Singapore for the security of their ships sailing to trade in China, and planned to construct forts in Singapore to protect the waterways for their ships. Singapore's history would have taken a rather different course if either the Portuguese or Dutch had the resources to construct the forts they planned on the island.

Crawfurd and generations of historians following him were right that there was no continuous settlement in Singapore prior to Raffles' arrival. But this is to ignore the argument for cycles of settlement on Singapore, of which there were at least three.


The first cycle of settlement was 14th-century Temasek which survived on Yuan China trade with the South Seas, and declined with the Yuan. Temasek's eclipse as a port continued through the century of Malacca, when it was a homeland for the sea nomad warriors of the sultans of Malacca.

The second cycle of settlement on Singapore was with the scions of the Malacca sultans after they lost their emporium to the Portuguese in 1511. They established a port in Singapore to serve the thriving riverine trade of the Johor River they controlled from their upstream capitals. This shabandar in Singapore thrived on Johor's riverine trade with Ming China and other Malacca Strait ports.

It was abandoned when a new line of Johor sultans moved their capital from upstream Johor to Tanjong Pinang on Bintan island in what is now Indonesia.

Raffles arrived in 1819 on a depopulated island to build the third cycle of settlement in Singapore. Like the earlier two cycles of settlement, Raffles' settlement rose to pre-eminence within 30 years of its establishment, despite the lack of support from the East India Company, which provided minimal administrative help and funding for the running of its settlement. But unlike the earlier two cycles of settlement, it survived its centenary and is due to celebrate its bicentennial next year.

The colonial port city Raffles established has, however, been changing since 1965, when Singapore became a sovereign nation. In that sense, its fourth cycle of settlement can be said to date from that year. Just as the settlement in 1819 was not expected to survive the opposition of the Dutch and lack of support from the East India Company , so too Singapore after 1965, which survived against the odds.

Singapore's success was in large part because, with the other anti-communist nations of the region, it was able to bandwagon with the United States and Japan to receive investments, aid and technology, and access to their markets.

It regionalised its economy after 1989 and aspired to become a global city, networking with other global cities, including London, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai.

Was the end of the Cold War also the end of the cycle of globalisation dominated by the United States? Is the region at the beginning of another cycle of globalisation to be driven by a "peaceful rising" China?

Within the long cycles of trade, China, under the Tang, Song and Ming dynasties, has driven earlier cycles of trade and prosperity in the region. It was Yuan and Ming maritime trade which enabled in part the first and second cycles of settlement in Singapore.

It appears that Singapore's current cycle of development may be dependent on access to China's market and the One Belt One Road which China is now pioneering.

In 2015, Singapore celebrated the half century of its current fourth cycle of development, after it became a sovereign state. Next year, 2019, is the bicentenary of Singapore's "founding" as a British entrepot city.

As we look back at our past and come to understand the periods of settlement of this island-city better, the challenge will be whether residents in this city can remain alert and respond to the forces of change in the region and wider world to survive and celebrate its centenary of independence in 2065, 47 years from now.

• Kwa Chong Guan is the author of the recently published Pre-Colonial Singapore, in the series Singapore Chronicles co-published by the Institute of Policy Studies and the Straits Times Press.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2018, with the headline '700 years of history, a bicentennial and four cycles of settlement '. Print Edition | Subscribe