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Singapore National Museum


The National Museum was a lookalike for St. Pauls Cathedral and an impeccable blend of marble and hi-tech inside. A student discount bagged me a half price pointless walk upstairs just to grab a free audio guide, which blethered to me on the way back down a long helter skelter ramp. It all started in the 14th century when Singapore was known as Temasek (literally "Land surrounded by water"). First referred to by the Chinese in 1320, it was very cosmopolitan even then, doubtless already acting as a trading crossroads. The first artifact, dubbed the Singapore Stone was an inscribed rock of unknown era and translation, written in an unknown language as it is. Details of ancient kings are scarce but connections to Java are suspected. There were many pottery artifacts, excellently crafted and glazed, found along the Singapore River. Again there is scant information on the original owners however.

There was then an explanation of the Sejarah Melayu, a collection of fables compiled in the 16th century in Melaka, some of which tell of attacks on Temasek. The Raja (king) of Palembang (in present day Sumatra) was one successful usurper, who renamed it Singapura (Lion City) after reputedly seeing one there. They are not indiginous though. The Portugese showed up when big Fonzy Albequerque arrived circa 1500.

It is a related point to explain that the Spice Trade was soon initiated by Magellan's circumnavigational expedition who returned with "just a couple of bags of cloves". So lucrative was it that it is said to have paid for the entire 4 year odyssey. With the taking of Melaka in 1511, Singapore was a natural waypoint for the trade then, assisted by the Chinese. The Portugese finally lost influence due to corruption and being overstretched, doubtless impeded by other colonial contenders. The English and Dutch arrived circa 1600 with the establishment of the East India Company and the Dutch equivelant the VOC with their taking of Batavia (present day Jakarta). They were quick to exploit the network nurtured by the Portugese, encouraged by revelations of the trade gleaned through espionage. There ensued sea battles and blockades to severe trade links, the Straits of Singapore being a crucial yet narrow link in the network, easily disrupted. Crucially, trade winds ie. the monsoons tended to make Singapore a predisposed focal point for shipping.

In 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford-Raffles arrived, a "mere trade agent". He wanted to secure a crucial (free) trading port to circumvent the prevailing Dutch monopoly. Doing so without crown authority, within a week he had negotiated successfully with the local Sultan, declaring Singapore a British possession and personally hoisting the Union Jack. The Dutch had only just regained their Asian colonies after the Napoleonic Wars however and Britain didnt want to provoke any further antagonism by establishing further settlements. Soon though an Anglo-Dutch treaty agreed to divide South East Asia between them and Singapore was recognised as British accordingly, with Raffles as its founder. London may have finally recognised it but Raffles was billed by the East India Company for their assistance in establishing it! He died deeply in debt aged only 45, only eventually receiving due recognition due to the dogged determination of his wife to set the record straight in his memoirs.

Display cases showed a portrait of Raffles, a letter written by him describing the rapid development of the settlement and a copy of the 1819 treaty of secession. At that time its population was only around 12,000, predominantly Chinese. A Major William Farquhar then arrived here from Melaka, his post now having become defunct with the ceding of Melaka back to the Dutch in 1818 after the war in Europe. They were enraged to see its governor promptly take up post in contest to them at Singapore. In 1823 a disagreement between him and Raffles however saw him leave, Raffles therefore subsequently receiving all the credit for the emergence of the settlement, even though it was Farquhar who had local knowledge, trust and experience. He had brought with him many watercolours of native flora and fauna painted by Chinese artists, now on display here.

The Opium Wars soon followed, with the British and the French opposing China's policy of isolationism, which ended up opening many new ports to British influence, most notably Hong Kong. Ruled somewhat inappropriately from Calcutta, unrest at this arrangement saw Singapore finally become a Crown Colony in 1867 as part of the Straits Settlements, the 2 others being Penang and Melaka. It became a linchpin away from Dutch interference in the great trade which subsequently evolved between Britain and China and also the expansive Bugis civilisation in southern Sulawesi. The Brits were popular because they brought highly sought after commodities such as opium, guns and cloth from India in exchange for tea and porcelain. French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies tried to crush the trade with heavy tariffs, but cloth from the industrial revolution remained popular. Singapore also became a centre for the Coolie labour network, whereby cheap Chinese labour was dispersed from Hong Kong for example to South East Asian plantations. The advent of steamships soon negated the need to depend on the monsoons and so year round trade secured Singapore's future. The predominant culture at the time was of Chinese secret societies which controlled the vice trade and were a threat to civil order. There was an attempt to rein them in through co-operation with the headmen but finally they were suppressed by force and pushed underground. More unrest occurred in 1915 when local Britsh Indian troops revolted, provoked by rising Indian nationalism and fears that they would soon be sent to Turkey to face fellow muslims in battle. Left wing Chinese activists were also dealt with harshly in the 1927 Kreta Ayer incident.

In December 1941 the Japanese arrived on the scene, bombing the city and invading down through Malaya. With air superiority it took them only 2 months to conquer the peninsula, even though they had only 30,000 troops pitted against 85,000 Allied. The Brits blew up the causeway to the mainland but Japanese boats landed against too thinly spread defences and steadily advanced across the island. They finally took the city almost exhausted of ammo and Lt. General Percival, the OC Malaya at the time has long been blamed, but the Japanese were battle experienced with air and naval support. Singapore remained under Japanese occupation until 1945 with much execution of subversives, a black market, profiteering and corruption which wrecked the economy. There was rationing and severe shortages had to be endured. History now tells how after sending 2 battleships to its defence and promptly losing them, Churchill gave up on Singapore as being undefendable.

Discontent with this failure upon liberation brought public opinion to realise the populace was no longer wiling to live under colonial rule. Communist insurgents attracted support and in 1948 a state of emergency was declared, fighting continued until 1954 when they rejoined mainstream politics under a newly renegotiated constitution. Strikes and riots continued however in a period of volatility until elections were held in 1955, producing a Labour Party victory under David Marshall, Singapore's first home bred Chief Minister. His successor Lim Yee Hok sealed a deal in 1957 for self governance and in 1959 it was realised with election of its first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yu, scuppering doubts as to whether tiny Singapore was actually viable as a nation. Yusof Ishak subsequently became the first president of an independent Singapore. In 1963 the Federation of Malaysia was formed, bringing together Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore into a newly merged union, an act which provoked a policy of confrontion from Indonesia. On 9th August 1965 Singapore broke away however to become an independent republic once again, uncomfortable with favouratism towards Malay culture. Good infrastructure left over from the legacy as the British regional HQ assisted development of the economy, and the country continues to thrive as a world trade centre. Quite an achievemnt considering its size and ethnic diversity, summed up by the National Oath:

"We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation".

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Singapore

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