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By Alex Brown


1.0    HISTORY


Singapore’s culture comprises the cultures of four main racial groups namely Chinese (70+%), Malays (20+%), Indians (5+%), Eurasians and others (5+%).


All the main racial groups have got distinctive cultures of their own, brought over from the land of their ancestors. Most young Singaporeans today are 2nd generation Singaporeans. This means that only their grandparents came from afar. This is especially true of the Chinese.


Singapore’s society is an immigrant society - most came in search of a better life. This can be traced by :


1.      The age of their immigrant ancestors, and


2.      The political and social conditions that existed during the time of immigration e.g. many Chinese immigrants came to Singapore in the early 1900s. During this time, there was much turmoil in China.


3.      The immigrants were basically economic migrants and their main aim was to make a better Life for themselves and their future generations. Thus while basic cultural traits came with your ancestors, they could not be too concerned with the finer things in life because they had to survive first.


Singapore’s history can be divided into 5 sections namely :


1.      Early Singapore

2.      Raffles

3.      World War II

4.      Independent Singapore

5.      Singapore in Malaysia

6.      Singapore as a Republic




This island was inhabited by a few hundred Malays and other indigenous races. There were also orang lauts (sea gypsies) living around the island. There was inter-island trade between Sumatra, Java and other islands. Singapore then was not yet a major trading post of the Indians, Arabs and Chinese. The Europeans were interested in spices in larger islands.


The Dutch were actively involved in the colonisation of Indonesia for its spices. This was done through the Dutch East India Company. Their British rivals worked through their British East India Company. Raffles had to establish a trading post `South of Peninsula Malaya’ which was strategic. Malacca was already a major trading post before the founding of Singapore.




Raffles had actually wanted to establish a trading post for the East India Company in the Karimun Islands but because of rough seas and poor anchorage, he took shelter off the coast of Singapore. The then Temenggong of Johore who moved down to Singapore wanted a British post on Singapore soil because the Dutch were already in the Rhio archipelago. Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819 and negotiated a treaty with the Temenggong whereby the whole island was ceded to the British.


Sir Stamford Raffles was responsible for the planning of Singapore. He was succeeded by Major William Farquhar. Because of misunderstandings, Major Farquhar was dismissed. He was succeeded by William Crawfurd who executed most of Raffles’ planning. Raffles died at the age of 45 in England.


3.1    The Development of Singapore


The city of Singapore grew into an important trading port. It had an excellent deep harbour and was along the strategic sea route between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.  The British understood this and their East India Company acquired Penang in 1786. In 1826, The Straits Settlements was formed. His consisted of Singapore, Penang and Melaka. In 1867, Singapore became a crown colony under the Colonial Office.


But Singapore had other competitors in the region namely Batavia (Jakarta) and Manila. But Singapore’s advantage was that it was a free port and that it was along the route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. It was also linked to the commercial and industrial empire of Britain which was then the dominant colonial power in S.E. Asia.


Many British business relocated to Singapore which of couse attracted the Chinese who were already in S.E.Asia before the British. It also attracts Malay, Indian and Arabs from the region and became the centre of a regional network. Colonisation increased Chinese immigration from mainland China as well. The King of Thailand and Sultans of the Malay States also welcomed Chinese emigrants because of their networking skills with China and the western powers.


3.2 Singapore as a world Port


Singapore became the exporting centre for tin and rubber produce from Malaya, and the importing centre for foreign goods for Malaya. Most Chinese came as indentured labour. Britain’s annexation of Hong Kong in 1842 and the opening up of Treaty ports in Southern China stimulated extensive Southern Chinese immigration to Singapore, S.E.Asia, Australia, the pacific and the United States. The Southern Chinese comprise mainly of Hokkiens and Teochew people.


Migrations were organised and exploitative. Only males came, most with visions of making it big before returning to China. Many did not make it and died as labourers without going back. Because of lack of womenfolk, most of the immigrants sought fort and protection through prostitutes, gambling, opium smoking and secret societies.


It must be realised that Singapore’s economic history were interwoven with the economic history of the Malay States. All the western Malay states eventually acquired by Britain in 1874 to ward off French and German intentions in S.E.Asia. This benefited Singapore greatly because it meant more protected business.


Singapore became a great port by the early 19th century. Investments in tin and rubber lead to investments in infrastructure developments. Singapore became the distributing warehouse for Peninsula Malaya. But as early as 1930, the colonial powers realised that if Singapore were to become a strong industrialised base, the Singapore and Malayan economy must unite.


In the 1920s, countries like Burma (Myanmar) and the Philippines were nationalistic and wanted independence. Singapore was exceptional because the people did not owe allegiance to the government as most overseas Chinese identified with China. The politics in the 1920s and 1930s were focused mainly on the  activities of the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist parties. The Chinese communities in S.E.Asia were caught in events of the homeland. The communists exploited this emotion.


Singapore was predominantly Chinese beyond the commercial core. The Indian community then was far from united. The Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Bengalis all had their own political views of Indian politics. Divisions of caste remain strong. Northern and Southern Indians considered themselves different.




The 2nd World War started with the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese. The war reached Malaya and Singapore in 1941 when the Japanese invaded from the North and the British had to surrender. All races suffered tremendously during the Japanese occupation, moreso the Chinese because of its history with the Japanese. American allied forces dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which was devastating. The Japanese surrendered immediately and Singapore was liberated in 1945. This was called the liberation of Singapore. The British reoccupied Singapore until 1946 when it was returned to the Colonial Office.


After the war, the British saw Malaya moving towards independence. Not so for Singapore for 3 reasons :


1.      Singapore was commercially vital to Britain in S.E. Asia and must be under its control.


2.      Singapore was a strategic naval base in S.E.Asia.


3.     Singapore’s mainly ethnic Chinese majority raised fears for British interest in Singapore and Malaya because an independent Singapore would come under communist control with the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek. S.E.Asia would also be affected. The Malayan Communist Party was also gaining favour amongst Singapore workers.




Limited self-government was given to Singapore in 1955 when the PAP was elected by the people under Lee Kuan Yew. This saw the emergence of a new English-educated elite emerging in Singapore in the 1950s. They were strongly influenced by European social democratic ideals and developed a blueprint for Singapore’s economic programme that was based on state participation.




By the 1960s, Singapore was pushing for independence. Britain was having problems with Sabah and Sarawak. The creation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963 was seen as a solution as it provided the necessary racial balance needed to curb communism. In this way, Britain would not lose Singapore to the communist. It was also seen by the British and Singapore elites as a consummation of strong interdependence between Malaya and Singapore which had developed over the past 100 years.


6.1    Singapore as a Republic.


Unfortunately, Singapore had to leave the union in September 1965 because of political differences.  The Malayan government feared changes to the constitution that would see their country taken over by `foreigners’.


The success of Singapore today was based on the foresight of the government more than 30 years ago. The Republic today enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world with equality for all races and freedom of worship. The hallmark of the government has been efficiency and incorruptibility. ASEAN’s formation has also made Singapore a panacea for the region.


7.0    THE ‘BABAS’


The BABAS and the NYONYAS are also known as PERANAKANS/ THE STRAITS CHINESE. There are various versions of how this community of people started:


1.      Chinese traders and labourers came to Malaya. They married local slave girls. Their  descendants became the first             generation of Babas and Nyonyas.

2.      Chinese Emperor sent Princess Hang Li Po to marry a Malay ruler. 500 Chinese youths were given Malay court girls           to marry.

3.      The amazing voyage of Admiral Cheng Ho.

4.      Penang, Singapore and Malacca under the British rule.

5.      Exodus of Chinese males from South China (the sinkhehs).


7.1    Their Cultural Hallmarks


         Eclectic Terrace Houses

         Nyonya Food

         Nyonya Dress

         Language: Baba Malay ( Singlish )

         Baba Dress: First Chinese, later became Westernised.


7.2  Way of Life: The Baba


         Baba (male) Way of Life :

         Highly chauvinistic, English educated. They enjoyed life.

         Their recreations, their institutions. Their freedom.

         Occupations (Traders, Merchants, Tin Miners, Plantation Owners, etc.)

         Professionals (Doctor, Lawyers, Engineers, Bankers, etc.)

         Their Social Life.


7.1    Nyonya (female) Way of Life:


 Nyonyas led secluded and sheltered lives.

 Dress: for the Young, the Middle-aged, the Elderly. Hair-do styles.

 Female Education - school life, Much later allowed to proceed to Tertiary Education.

 Domestic life - traditional strict upbringing.

 Preparation for Marriage - traditional arranged marriage.

 Female emancipation.




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