It is believed that Singapore was a trading centre in the Malay kingdom of Sri Vijaya until the 14th century, when title passed to the kingdom of Majapahit. It was claimed in the 15th century by the Malacca (Melaka) sultanate under Tun Perak.

A European Colonization

The modern city was founded in 1819 on the site of a fishing village by the British colonial administrator Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, one of the first to see the location’s potential as a trading base, and deeded to the British East India Company in 1824 by the sultan of Johor. In 1826 Singapore was incorporated into the colony of the Straits Settlements. Its advantageous location on the narrow passage between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and its free-port status soon turned Singapore into a major commercial centre, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The population grew through British-supported emigration, with Chinese becoming a majority in Singapore over Malays and Indians. In 1921 Britain designated the island its principal naval base in East Asia and undertook extensive military construction.

During World War II, Singapore was captured and occupied by Japanese forces in February 1942 in a week-long campaign that followed their conquest of British Malaya, despite its supposed status as the impregnable fortress of the British Empire in the Far East. As the British retreated, they only partially destroyed the causeway that linked Singapore with the Malay peninsula. Thus the invaders had easy access to the great port; however, important installations, including the world’s largest floating dry dock, were destroyed to deny them to the Japanese. Anti-Japanese resistance by Singaporeans, including such notable heroes as Lim Bo Seng, was met with stern repression. On September 6, 1945, the city was liberated by British troops. The following year Singapore was made a separate Crown Colony from Malaya. In 1955 responsibility for domestic policy passed to the locally elected ministers and legislative assembly, and on June 3, 1959, Singapore became a self-governing state in the Commonwealth of Nations. On September 16, 1963, Singapore, Malaya, North Borneo (renamed Sabah), and Sarawak united to form Malaysia.

B The Republic

In 1965 Singapore separated from Malaysia, owing to differences with the federal government, and became a sovereign state, remaining in the Commonwealth and becoming a member of the UN. In December of that year the island was proclaimed a republic. Inche Yusof bin Ishak, head of state since 1959, became the first president. His successors were Benjamin Henry Sheares who held the office from 1971 until his death in 1981, and C. V. Devan Nair, who was elected in 1981.

C Economic Expansion

From 1959 to 1990 executive power was exercised by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. His People’s Action Party captured parliament in every election from 1968 onwards, and he governed with a firm hand. Policies masterminded by Hon Sui Sen and other government technocrats caused the Singaporean economy to grow by an average of 8.5 per cent from 1966 to 1990, making Singapore one of the economic “tigers” of Asia. Singapore was changed from a distribution entrepôt to a manufacturing centre, specializing in skill- and capital-intensive industries and high technology, and a financial centre. Government social and political policies were paternalistic, tending to confirm the ruling position of the PAP in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew and his fellow officials answered outside criticism by highlighting Singapore’s economic strength, its delicate social balance between various races, and its vulnerability to the political and economic ambitions of its neighbours.

Fearing Communist subversion, Lee was a staunch supporter of US policies in South East Asia and in August 1967 made Singapore a founder member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 1971, after the final withdrawal of British troops from Singapore, he led Singapore into a defence alliance with Australia, Britain, Malaysia, and New Zealand. After the end of the Vietnam War he adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards the Communist regimes in the area, finally extending diplomatic recognition to China in 1990. Nair resigned the presidency in 1985 and was replaced by Wee Kim Wee. Lee resigned in 1990 and designated Goh Chok Tong as his successor, retaining a position as senior minister in the government.

D The 1990s

In 1991 the government began the explicit promotion through the educational system of values based on Confucianism, emphasizing society over the individual and seen in contrast to “Western values”. Goh’s government won 77 out of 81 seats in the 1991 parliamentary elections, despite the lowest PAP vote tally since 1968. Goh polled strongly in a by-election in December 1992, and was elected to succeed Lee Kuan Yew as Secretary-General of the PAP, strengthening his authority. Ong Teng Cheong of the PAP became the country’s first directly elected president on September 2, 1993, polling 57.4 per cent of the vote against Chua Kim Yeoh, a retired civil servant who polled 40.4 per cent.

In February 1995 the disclosure of vast losses on unsupervised tradings made by a Singapore-based derivatives trader caused the collapse of his employer Barings, the oldest merchant banking group in the United Kingdom. Relations between Singapore and the Philippines were thrown into crisis by the execution on March 17, 1995, of a Filipino maid convicted of murdering a fellow domestic worker and a child in Singapore; the Singaporean authorities rejected pleas from the Philippines for a stay of execution. In December 1995 a Singapore court sentenced Nick Leeson, the trader responsible for the collapse of Barings, to six years in prison for deception.

The general election of January 1997 brought an improved performance for the ruling PAP, which won 81 out of 83 parliamentary seats; outside commentaries on the election remarked on government policies such as the threatened withdrawal of state housing-renovation funding to areas returning opposition candidates.

The flight of the opposition Workers’ Party candidate Tang Liang Hong to Malaysia after the election, citing death threats and facing defamation threats from several figures including Lee Kuan Yew, led to a worsening of relations between the two countries in March 1997 after Lee criticized Tang’s refuge, the Malaysian state of Johor. A Singapore court ordered Tang to pay a record S$8.08 million (US$5.65 million) in libel damages to Goh and other senior PAP members in April 1997, but in September another defamation trial against a Workers’ Party official led to a considerable reduction in the libel damages asked for by Goh and criticism of the handling of the case. In November the Singapore Court of Appeal halved the damages Tang was liable to pay.

Singapore escaped significant damage from the financial crisis during 1997. In February 1998 the government announced liberalizing financial reforms to improve Singapore’s competitiveness; it also banned political parties from access to television time and from making promotional videos. Sellapan Ramanathan became the sixth president of Singapore in September 1999, after he was returned unopposed without an election when the election committee ruled that the two other candidates had not fulfilled its strict selection criteria. Singapore’s first popularly elected president, Ong Teng Cheong, declined to run for a second term owing to opposition within the government at his attempts to clearly define an independent role for the presidency.

E New Millennium Politics

A general election was held on November 3, 2001, and saw a victory for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which won 82 of the 84 seats. The opposition, the Singapore Democratic Party, won just one seat (as did the Workers’ Party). Twenty-nine of the seats won by the PAP were uncontested. Goh Chok Tong remained as prime minister. In March 2003, Singapore experienced its first outbreak of SARS; in total the disease accounted for more than 30 deaths in the country before it was largely contained.

Lee Hsien Loong of the PAP took office as prime minister in August 2004. He is the son of the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Only one candidate, the current office-holder Sellapan Ramanathan, was nominated as eligible to stand in the 2005 presidential election and he was duly sworn in in September.