By Lee Soo Ann
IN WRITING Singapore: From Place To Nation for students, I came to the paradoxical conclusion that Singapore is no more than a place where foreigners sustain foreigners. More accurately, it is a case of one kind of foreigner sustaining another kind.
Singapore may be returning from being a nation to being a place again. What had sustained Singapore, then, in its history?
During the British trading settlement in 1819, Singapore was established by the East India Company out of maritime rivalry between the British and the Dutch at that time. Located in Malacca, the Dutch had a chokehold on shipping going to China unless the British could establish a station south of Malacca.
Stamford Raffles had heard of Temasek from the Malay Annals, which he could read from his knowledge of Malay acquired when he was governor of Java. Consequently he sailed to the mouth of the Singapore River and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
The location of Singapore at the tip of the Malay peninsula gave sailing ships an advantage when resting between the two monsoons, unlike resting in Penang, which was already British, as it was too far north. Chinese junks used to sail from China to South-east Asia from Zheng He’s time.
Its location on the Strait of Malacca route to Australia and New Zealand gave Singapore a further advantage when the telegraph and telephone linked Britain to these colonies. With the shift to steam from sailing ships, Singapore became a coaling depot, for ships sailing to Japan and China as well. Singapore’s proximity to oilfields in Sarawak made it into an oil distribution centre.
One may conclude that the prime maritime location of Singapore is responsible for its success in its first hundred years as a British territory. However, the location of Singapore has never changed in its entire history.
What did change was the capacity of foreigners to meet foreigners in Singapore in safety and to make a living for themselves. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 ensured that Dutch rivalry did not menace the economic growth of Singapore. The Dutch had all of the 15,000 islands of what is now Indonesia to grapple with.
Foreigners meeting foreigners is not a new concept but British rule made this concept real in Singapore. When foreigners brought with them different currencies as the medium of exchange, the British instituted the Straits dollar. This dollar gave birth to local banks which complemented the previous dominance by British exchange banks. Continue reading