SINGAPORE - 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 on Monday (Jan 28).
That year was when the British arrived and made Singapore a free port.
The move drew immigrants here, made trade Singapore's lifeblood and over nearly 150 years, helped to nurture political values, inter-communal relations and worldviews that "diverged from the society on the other side of the Causeway", he added.
So, without 1819, the path to nationhood as Singaporeans know it today may not have happened, Singapore would not have had 1965 and it would not have celebrated the success of SG50, PM Lee said, while explaining why the Singapore Bicentennial is worth commemorating.
Speaking at its launch at the Asian Civilisation Museum, he said: "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."
In his speech, the PM set out the milestones in the Singapore story that goes back 700 years.
He noted that Raffles did not "discover" Singapore, any more than Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.
By the time he arrived in 1819, Singapore had already had hundreds of years of history, he said, sketching broadly the main highlights.
In the 14th century, the mouth of the Singapore River was already a thriving seaport called Temasek. Around this period, Sang Nila Utama founded a kingdom here and named it Singapura.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans who came to South-east Asia knew about the island. Flemish gem trader Jacque de Coutre had, in fact, proposed to the King of Spain to build a fortress in Singapore, because of its strategic location.
This was around 1630, two centuries before Raffles, PM Lee noted, adding: "Had the King accepted de Coutre's proposal, Singapore might have become a Spanish colony, instead of a British one."
About 200 years later, Raffles arrived and coaxed the Sultan of Johor to let the British East India Company set up a trading post in Singapore.
The PM said Singapore recognises the British left an indelible imprint on Singapore, citing the rule of law, parliamentary system of Government and the English language.
The establishment of the free port was a "crucial turning point in our history" he said, as "it set this island on a trajectory leading to where we are today".
Immigrants came to Singapore from South-east Asia, China, India and beyond. The population grew rapidly. And the streets of Singapore, with their evocative names, tell the diverse origins of Singaporeans' ancestors. These include Malacca Street, Amoy Street, Kadayanallur Street, Bugis Street and Bussorah Street.
"Thus we became a multicultural and open society," he said.
Trade, the island's lifeblood, linked Singapore to the neighbouring archipelago and the world beyond and economic and family ties were developed with regional neighbours, especially the Malay peninsula, said PM Lee.
He said this identification as South-east Asian and Malayan was, seeded in 1819, drove Singapore to join the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
"But though we did not realise it then, this history had also made us quite different from our neighbours and friends," he said.
He pointed out that during the colonial period, Singapore was never governed as part of Malaya. In fact, it functioned either a separate crown colony or a part of the Straits Settlements, which included Penang and Malacca - but not the other Malay states.
PM Lee said: "Over nearly 150 years, our political values, inter-communal relations, and worldviews had diverged from the society on the other side of the Causeway. In retrospect, it was not surprising that less than two years after merging with Malaysia, we had to part ways, in an emotionally wrenching Separation."
However, Singapore's history since 1819 ensured that Singapore not only survived but thrived after Separation.
Overtime, the sojourners who had sunk their roots permanently here, went through World War II. Later, they were also "swept up in the worldwide wave of nationalism, anti-colonialism, and struggle for self-determination". When the Communists won the civil war in China, Singapore felt the impact when the population had to decide who they were, and if they should settle and seek citizenship, he said.
Of the many who stayed, PM Lee said they organised themselves and fought to shake off the British colonial yoke. Starting as an emporium, Singapore was now their home and country where a national consciousness and sense of identity were nurtured. This is when they started thinking of themselves as Singaporeans, he said.
He credited the Pioneer Generation as having the grit and resolve to show the world and themselves they could endure and be masters of their own fate when Singapore separated from Malaysia.
Paying tribute to the nation's forebears, he said they paid with blood, sweat and tears. They cleared the jungles, and planted nutmeg, gambier, and rubber. Indentured coolies slaved at the quayside. Resourceful traders built import and export businesses, creating wealth and prosperity. In the process, communities were formed to help one another. These include clans, welfare bodies and ethnic-group associations.
He said he is glad that over 200 groups and organisations are holding commemorative events for the Bicentennial.
"In this Bicentennial year, as we reflect on how this nation came into being, let us also think of how we can move forward together. For we are never done building Singapore. It is every generation's duty to keep on building, for our children, and for our future so that in another 50 or 100 years, Singaporeans not yet born will have a richer and greater Singapore Story to tell, one that we will have helped to write together."
Read PM Lee's full speech here.