Although a thriving seaport existed in Singapore as early as the 14th century, it was the year 1819 that marked the beginning of a modern, outward-looking and multicultural Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
That year was when the British arrived and made Singapore a free port. PM Lee said the move drew immigrants from South-east Asia, India, China and beyond to the island.
As well, it made trade Singapore's lifeblood and over nearly 150 years, helped to nurture political values, inter-communal relations and world views that "diverged from the society on the other side of the Causeway".
So, without 1819, the path to nationhood as Singaporeans know it today may not have happened, PM Lee said at the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Also, Singapore would not have had 1965, and it would certainly not have celebrated the success of SG50, he added, explaining why the bicentenary is worth commemorating.
"We are not just remembering Stamford Raffles or William Farquhar, though we should. We are tracing and reflecting upon our longer history, one that stretches back way before 1965. We are acknowledging and appreciating the broader context which shaped and created today's Singapore.
"This was our journey, from Singapore to Singaporean."
The Prime Minister, in elaborating on the journey, set out the milestones in the Singapore story, which goes back 700 years. He pointed out that Raffles did not "discover" Singapore, any more than Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.
By the time Raffles arrived in 1819, Singapore already had hundreds of years of history, he said, citing, among others, the founding of a kingdom here, around the 14th century, by Sang Nila Utama, who named it Singapura.