The History of Singapore: From Fishing Village to Metropolis

If you walk down the bustling streets of Singapore’s downtown and towering skyscrapers, you’ll find it hard to believe this ultra-modern metropolis was once a tiny fishing village.

How did we get from there to here?

Well, buckle up for a wild ride through the history of Singapore. From its humble beginnings as a sleepy coastal town to its current status as an economic powerhouse, Singapore has undergone an astonishing transformation.

The journey has had its share of twists and turns, from Japanese occupation to independence and more. But through it all, Singapore has emerged as a diverse, thriving island nation. So join us on an adventure through time to discover how the Lion City became the metropolis you see today…

The Early History of Singapore: From Fishing Village to British Colony

As early as the 13th century, Singapore was already a bustling port of call along trade routes between China, India, and the Malay Archipelago. However, until 1819, Singapore remained a small fishing village. That all changed when Sir Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading post for the British East India Company.

The Sultan of Johor and Sir Stamford Raffles

We can’t talk about Singapore’s founding without mentioning Sir Raffles. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles negotiated a treaty with the Sultan of Johor and established Singapore as a trading post. Raffles saw the potential in the Singapore River, its strategic location and its natural harbour. Under Raffles’ leadership, Singapore grew into a major port.

Growth of Trade and Commerce

Located in an ideal location, Singapore soon became a centre for trade and commerce. Traders and merchants from Europe, India, China, the Malay Peninsula, and beyond flocked to the island, and Singapore’s population grew rapidly. Raffles laid down the foundations for Singapore’s infrastructure, including erecting government buildings.

By 1822, Singapore had become a British colony. The early settlers comprised Chinese, Malays, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans. Despite the mix of different ethnic groups, people lived together harmoniously. Trade and business prospered, and Singapore’s economy grew steadily under British rule.

From a small fishing village, Singapore grew into a thriving port and eventually a British colony. Thanks to its strategic location and Sir Stamford Raffles’s vision, Singapore was poised to become a key hub for trade between the East and West. The island’s destiny as a global financial and business centre was set. Now, let’s explore these timelines in even more depth, beginning with Sir Raffles’ period.

Raffles and the Founding of Modern Singapore in 1819

The founder of modern Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, landed on the island on January 28, 1819. At the time, Singapore was a small fishing village under the Sultanate of Johor. Raffles, an agent of the British East India Company, saw the potential of the island as a strategic British port along the trade route between Europe and China and decided to go into a treaty with the incumbent rulers.

Signing the Treaty

On February 6, 1819, Raffles signed a treaty with the founders of Singapore—Sultan Hussein Shah and Temenggong Abdul Rahman—to establish a British settlement on Singapore Island. This treaty allowed the British East India Company to set up a trading post in Singapore. Raffles did not gain outright sovereignty over Singapore but was permitted to establish a British settlement.

Hoisting the Union Jack

The same day the treaty was signed, Raffles held a ceremony where the Union Jack flag was hoisted, marking the official founding of modern Singapore. Raffles’ vision was for Singapore to become a free port where ships of all nations were welcome to trade. This would turn out to be instrumental in turning Singapore into a bustling centre of trade and commerce in Southeast Asia.

Raffles’ Legacy

Though Raffles was only in Singapore for a brief period, he made an indelible mark on the island. He laid down the framework for Singapore’s colonial government, judiciary, and urban infrastructure. Raffles is fondly remembered as the founder of modern Singapore — places, schools, and institutions across Singapore are named after him in honour of his contributions. His legacy lives on in the thriving, independent metropolis Singapore has become today.

Raffles’ foresight and determination more than 200 years ago paved the way for Singapore’s remarkable transformation from a small fishing village into a global powerhouse. It’s truly amazing how much olden Singapore has progressed, thanks to Raffles’ vision of establishing it as a strategic port and free trade hub. But soon after the treaty, the region became a Crown colony.

Singapore as a Crown Colony: Immigration and Development

By the mid-19th century, Singapore was bustling with life. The transformation was staggering, all from a sparse settlement of about 150 souls in 1819 when the British East India Company first seized control to a teeming hub of commerce. However, the landscape of colonial interest shifted when the company’s monopoly over the China trade ended in 1833, leading to a wane in their involvement with Malaya.

In 1851, the settlements, including Singapore, came under the direct supervision of the governor-general of India. Further change ensued in 1867, when Singapore was designated a Crown colony, bringing it under the direct purview of the Colonial Office in London. This set the stage for a new chapter in Singapore’s history.

A Melting Pot of Cultures

Singapore became a Crown colony of Britain in 1867, and its population skyrocketed to over 97,000. Two-thirds were Chinese migrants or their descendants, with many labourers also coming from India and the Malay Archipelago. This influx of immigrants from diverse backgrounds led to Singapore developing into a melting pot of cultures.

The Chinese population alone grew from 3,317 in 1820 to over 64,000 just 47 years later. These immigrants were seeking jobs and economic opportunities, escaping poverty and unrest in China. They worked as labourers, craftsmen, and merchants. Their influence on Singapore’s culture, food, and architecture is evident to date.

An Economic Hub

Singapore’s population boom fueled its growth into a centre of trade and commerce. Its strategic location and status as a free port made it an ideal hub for regional commerce and trade. Goods and raw materials from Malaya, Indonesia, and beyond flowed through Singapore.

This economic activity spurred infrastructure development on the island. Roads, harbours, and railways were built, while commercial plantations produced rubber, pepper, and pineapple. Singapore began to urbanise, with shophouses, schools, and civic buildings sprouting up.

By the start of the 20th century, Singapore was a bustling port city and commercial centre. Its diverse, immigrant-descended population coexisted relatively harmoniously. Though still a British colony, Singapore continued to shape its own unique identity as a crossroads between East and West. However, the story of Singapore took a different turn following the advent of World War II.

World War II and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore

Singapore enjoyed a period of relative tranquillity during the 1920s and 30s, its bustling port a jewel of the British Empire. However, with the advent of World War II, this peace was threatened. Japan, having allied with the Axis powers in 1941, was aggressively expanding its empire across Asia and the Pacific. Singapore, with its strategic location and status as a major naval base, was in Japan’s crosshairs and was seen as a prime target.

The Fall of Singapore

On December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces began their assault on British Malaya (now Malaysia) from the north. The British had expected an attack from the sea, so they were unprepared for the invasion through the jungle. The Japanese forces used bicycles and tanks to swiftly advance southward. Within weeks, they had taken northern Malaya and were closing in on Singapore.

The Battle of Singapore lasted from February 8 to 15, 1942. Although the British had superior numbers, the Japanese had better-trained troops and dominated the air and sea. After just one week of fighting, the Allied forces surrendered. It was a humiliating defeat for the British and a major blow to the empire.

Life Under Occupation

For over 3 years, Singapore was under Japanese military rule. The occupiers imposed harsh conditions and tortured and executed thousands of civilians. Resources were scarce, and many people suffered from malnutrition and disease. The Japanese cut Singapore off from trade and seized control of transportation routes, disrupting the supply of rice and other necessities.

Under Japanese rule, Singaporeans faced extreme shortages of food and medical supplies, suffering from malnutrition and diseases as resources were redirected to support Japan’s war effort. Despite the brutality and deprivation, these trying times also sparked a unification among Singapore’s diverse populace. The shared adversity fostered a sense of national identity, which later fueled the drive for self-governance and independence after the British returned following Japan’s surrender in 1945.

The Japanese occupation shaped Singapore’s path to becoming a sovereign nation. It has never been forgotten, but Singapore founded a new focus, moving forward to forge a peaceful society and thriving global hub.

Post-War Singapore and Self-Governance

As World War II came to an end, Singapore was still under British rule. However, the tide was turning towards self-governance. In 1948, the British granted Singapore citizenship and established an elected legislative council with 25 seats. For the first time, this gave locals a say in how the island was run.

The People’s Party

The People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 to fight for independence. Led by Lee Kuan Yew, the PAP promised social reforms and an end to British colonial rule. The party won 43 of the 51 seats in the 1955 election, showing the people’s desire for change. This victory led the British to grant Singapore self-governing status in 1959, giving the PAP control over domestic affairs like commerce, education, and infrastructure.

Foreign policy and military defence still rested with Britain. Although not fully independent, self-governance was an important first step. The PAP began shaping Singapore into a modern nation, investing in public housing, education, and manufacturing. Living standards rose quickly as people gained access to affordable homes and jobs.

A New Assembly

With self-governance came a new constitution that established a fully elected assembly to replace the legislative council. The assembly had control over areas like finance, health, public works, and education. For the first time, Singaporeans could shape most aspects of daily life on the island.

Self-governance whet the appetite for full independence. Lee Kuan Yew began to take strategic decisions towards complete freedom from the British government. One such action was his proposal to merge with Malaysia.

Merger With Malaysia and Independence in 1965

In the early 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew proposed merging with Malaysia. At the time, Singapore was a self-governing colony but still part of the British Empire. Lee believed that a merger with Malaysia would give Singapore political stability and economic progress.

In 1963, Singapore merged with Sarawak, Sabah, and Malaya to form Malaysia, thereby granting them independence from the British. However, this merger was not without its fraught moments, lasting only 2 years.

Matters Arising

After Singapore declared independence from British control, their merger with Malaysia proved unsuccessful. There were deep economic and political differences between them. The two governments clashed on various issues, such as the status of Malays in Singapore, the influence of the People’s Action Party in Malaysian politics, and the sharing of revenue from import and export duties. These issues formed the basis of their separation in 1965, making Singapore a sovereign state.

Road to Independence

Due to the increasing tensions, Malaysia and Singapore decided to separate in 1965 (which is now known as the Singapore independence year). On 9 August 1965, Singapore was officially expelled from Malaysia and gained independence. The Independence of Singapore Agreement was signed on 7 August 1965 between the governments of Malaysia and Singapore. Under the agreement, Singapore became a fully independent and sovereign nation.

A New Nation is Born

On that historic day, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, faced the nation with a heavy heart. His voice, laden with emotion, resonated with the gravity of the moment: “For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life… I had believed in merger and the unity of these two territories…” 

Despite the pain of separation from Malaysia, Lee harboured a vision of prosperity for Singapore, describing it as “a prosperous and flourishing Singapore doing better than the rest of Malaysia.” He recounted the wise words of Tunku Abdul Rahman, indicating a future of friendship and cooperation beyond the separation. Lee felt a profound sense of responsibility, acknowledging in his memoirs the disappointment of those who had believed in his call for a “Malaysian Malaysia” and how their shattered hopes weighed heavily upon him.

Yet, in the face of these tumultuous emotions, Lee Kuan Yew delivered a powerful message of unity and resilience to his citizens: “Be firm, be calm. We are going to have a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set the example… Everybody will have his place. Equal. Language, culture, religion.” His closing words at the press conference, “We unite, regardless of race, language, religion, culture,” echo as a clarion call that has shaped the Singapore of today.

From a modest fishing village, Singapore has emerged as a modern metropolis. Its success is a testament to the enduring spirit of its people and the visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee Kuan Yew and the Rise of Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew served as Singapore’s first Prime Minister, governing for over 3 decades from 1959 to 1990. Under his leadership, Singapore was transformed from a small British trading post into a prosperous financial hub. Lee helped establish Singapore as a dominant commercial centre of Southeast Asia.

A Vision for Success

Lee had an ambitious vision for Singapore’s future. He aimed to build a competitive economy by developing Singapore’s port, attracting foreign investment, and pushing citizens to work in skilled jobs. His authoritarian style of leadership and policy of promoting ethnic harmony were instrumental to Singapore’s stability and economic success.

An Economic Powerhouse

Lee embraced globalisation and foreign trade, making Singapore an attractive destination for multinational corporations. Strict laws and low taxes created a business-friendly environment. The government invested heavily in education, housing, and healthcare, developing a highly skilled workforce. Singapore’s port, along with its strategic location, established it as a centre for trade, shipping, and finance.

Over Lee’s 3 decades in office, Singapore’s economy grew at an average rate of 8.2% per year. Per capita income rose from under $450 to $11,862. Low crime rates, clean streets, and modern infrastructure became the hallmarks of Singapore under Lee’s leadership.

The modern Singapore founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, governed the island city with a firm hand but is recognised for spearheading its transformation into a global financial hub and one of the wealthiest, most successful economies in the world. His vision, policies, and leadership shaped modern Singapore and made it a model of good governance and economic development. Under Lee, Singapore progressed from a small seaport into a leading global city where people from all over the world come to live, work, and do business today.

Singapore Today: An Economic Powerhouse

Today, Singapore is one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a booming economy. Its strategic location and pro-business policies have transformed this tiny island nation into a global financial and transportation hub.

A Prosperous Nation

Singapore’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, particularly electronics and petroleum products. It has developed into a major oil refining and distribution centre. The country is also a world leader in several sectors, including international finance, biomedical sciences, global logistics, and transport. Today, Singapore’s port is the second busiest port in the world — it docks over 140,000 vessels yearly, amounting to 39 million TEU of goods bound for different parts of the globe.

A Place for Business

Singapore has a highly developed free market economy and ranks as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Income tax rates are among the lowest in Asia, attracting many global companies and businesses to establish regional headquarters there. Also, strict laws and business-friendly policies have made Singapore an ideal place to do business.

The city-state aims to position itself as a global hub for new industries like fintech, e-commerce, and the digital economy. It has invested heavily in education and healthcare, developing a skilled workforce. With no natural resources, Singapore’s only resource is its people.

What Does Singapore Look Like Currently?

Today, Singapore is a cosmopolitan society with high living standards. Its cultural diversity is reflected in its cuisine and architecture. Safety, cleanliness, and environmental sustainability are hallmarks of Singapore’s urban landscape.

Though small in size, Singapore punches well above its weight economically and culturally on the global stage. This tiny red dot has transformed itself into a modern metropolis and inspires developing countries. Its rags-to-riches story demonstrates how, with vision, discipline, and determination, a country can achieve greatness against all odds.

Before you go…

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main history of Singapore?

Singapore’s history is a tapestry of transformation and growth. Originally a British trading post in the 19th century, it later became a Crown colony. Its strategic location spurred its development as a global commerce, finance, and transport hub.

In 1963, Singapore briefly merged with the Federation of Malaysia, but ideological differences led to its secession, and it became an independent nation on August 9, 1965. Since then, Singapore has undergone rapid economic development, evolving from a port city into a thriving, high-income country with a well-developed market economy.

What was Singapore before it was Singapore?

Before the bustling metropolis of Singapore came to be, it was known as Temasek, meaning “Sea Town,” a name reflecting its early establishment as a settlement around 1298–1299 AD. This period marked the beginning of its history as a significant port in the region, long before it was rechristened “Singapore” and became a pivotal hub of trade and economy under British colonial rule.

Why did Singapore split from Malaysia?

Singapore’s split from Malaysia in 1965 was primarily due to deep-rooted political and economic disagreements. There was a concern that Singapore’s burgeoning port would overshadow Kuala Lumpur’s influence, potentially shifting the balance of power. These tensions culminated in Singapore pursuing a separate path to maintain its own economic interests and political autonomy. The separation allowed Singapore to develop its own identity and economic policies, which have contributed to its success as a global financial hub.

Was Singapore a British Colony?

Yes, Singapore was a British colony. It was known as the Colony of Singapore when it was under the British Crown from 1946 until 1958. During this period, Singapore was governed by the United Kingdom before moving towards self-governance and eventually gaining full independence.

Why did the British Colonise Singapore?

The British colonised Singapore largely due to economic interests, particularly in the lucrative spice trade that was flourishing in the region. Recognising its strategic position, Stamford Raffles negotiated a lease on behalf of the British East India Company. Singapore’s prime location along key maritime routes made it an ideal hub for trade and commerce, promising wealth and increased influence for the British Empire. The establishment of a British colony there allowed for greater control over the trade routes and access to the Asian markets.

Who gave Singapore to the British?

Singapore was ceded to the British through a treaty facilitated by Stamford Raffles. On February 6, 1819, Raffles, alongside Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, signed an agreement granting the British East India Company the rights to establish a trading post in Singapore. This pivotal moment marked the beginning of British colonial influence over Singapore, transforming the island into a significant port within the British Empire’s trading network.


The history of Singapore narrates the city-state’s transformation from a tiny fishing village to the booming metropolis it is today. We’ve seen how its strategic location led to its rise as a trading port, its turbulent occupation during World War II, and its eventual independence and rapid development into one of the most prosperous countries in Asia. Suffice to say, Singapore’s journey has been anything but dull!

The island country’s unique culture and economic success make it a fascinating case study of how a small territory can transform itself in just over 200 years. As Singapore continues to evolve, its colourful history provides a vibrant backdrop to its future. And if its rapid progress so far is any indication, this little island nation has a very bright future ahead.

If you are living—or plan to live—in this city-state and need a place to stash your stuff, don’t hesitate to contact Storefriendly for secure self storage.