This weekend I ventured to the National Museum of Singapore and stumbled into a guided tour through the exhibits. I was glad I did! The tour guide shared some stories and provided context for the various displays. Highly recommended for residents and tourists alike!
Without further ado, here are a few things that we learned (all oversights due to my memory alone).
Ancient history: Singapore can be found on 15th century maps, suggesting its importance on early trade routes. However, there is little written history or surviving relics from the very early years.
The British arrive: In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore. His contingent struck a deal with local Malay rulers to set up a British trading post on the island (to continue the expansion of the British East India Company and combat the influence of the Dutch in the region). The influence of the British continued to grow and they ultimately persuaded (aka bribed) the Malay chiefs to cede the island (ironically in an agreement called the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance).
Growth through trade: With the opening of the Suez Canal through Egypt, Singapore’s strategic importance as a shipping port increased, and trade (and the population) grew dramatically. Despite rapid growth, the city roughly continued to follow the outlines of the original city plan commissioned by Raffles.
Japanese occupation: Although Winston Churchill referred to it as “Fortress Singapore” the Japanese captured the country in 1942. Japanese troops massacred tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese men and captured and sent Prisoners of War to construct the “death railway” (between Thailand and modern-day Myanmar). The country was even renamed (Syonan-to) and children were taught Japanese in school.
Journey to independence: Singapore was granted self-government from Britain in 1959 and briefly became part of Malaysia (1963-1965) before becoming fully independent in 1965. There is much more to this story than can be recounted in a short paragraph and it is an area of Singaporean history that I want to learn more about. Part of the story involves the influence of Indonesia to stoke racial tensions between ethnic groups, making it difficult for Malaysia to see a future for Singapore in the federation. At the museum, there are videos of the Singaporean Prime Minister at the time emotionally announcing the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia and taking his place as the leader of a suddenly and unexpectedly sovereign nation.
What makes a nation? The part of the museum that I found most interesting was the section following independence. Singapore had to quickly establish a currency, pen a national anthem and figure out how to compete on a global scale with very little land and natural resources. They looked to other countries for lessons in nation building (following Israel in implementing mandatory military service) and economic advice (advised by a Dutch economist for the UN about attracting foreign investment and building high-value sectors). The growth of Singapore in subsequent years is impressive, especially considering the lack of natural resources.
There is much more to discuss in future posts as I learn more about my adopted home!