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Historiography of Singapore

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Chae, Seung Hoon
Research Paper, Fall 2010

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
I.1 Timeline
I.2 Research Method
II. Prehistory
II.1 Outside Sources
II.2 Singaporean Textbooks
III. British Colonial Rule
III.1 Outside Sources
III.2 Singaporean Textbooks
IV. World War II
IV.1 Outside Sources
IV.2 Singaporean Textbooks
V. Road to Independence
V.1 Outside Sources
V.2 Singaporean Textbooks
VI. Independence
VI.1 Outside Sources
VI.2 Singaporean Textbooks
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            The history of Singapore is of neither one people nor one perspective. It is complete only when the diverse views of diverse people are integrated without bias. Historiography, therefore, must be dealt with standards that take Singapore's characteristic miscellany into account. This paper will compare various modern accounts of Singapore's history and compare each of their perspective. Among those are encyclopedias such as Britannica and Wikipedia, and textbooks endorsed by the Singapore Ministry of Education.

I.1 Timeline (1)

before-1819 Native population history and legends exist but are not recorded well.
1819 Sir Stamford Raffles, heading an E.I.C. expedition, occupied the island of Singapore, where Tengku Hussein, contender to the throne of Johore, permitted the establishment of an E.I.C. trading factory
1823 Sir Stamford Raffles left Singapore; he died in 1826
1824 Anglo-Dutrch Treaty of 1824 defined British, Dutch spheres of interest in the region
1825 The population of Singapore passed 10,000
1826 Straits Settlements established as an E.I.C. administrative unit, comprising of Penang, Malacca, Singapore
1832 Singapore became seat of administration of Straits Settlements (hitherto Penang)
1858 E.I.C. bankrupt; Straits Settlements part of British India
1860 Population of Singaore exceeded 80,000
1867 Straits Settlements became separate Crown Colony
1869 Opening of the Suez Canal; Singapore saw an increase in traffic
1871 Currency reform; introduction of the Straits Dollar
1887 Raffles Library and Museum established
1901 Population of Singapore 228,000
1915 Mutiny of Sepoy regiments in Singapore
1923 Completion of Johor Causeway connected Singapore to mainland railroad network
1928 Raffles College established (predecessor of National University of Singapore
1930 British naval base in Singapore constructed
1942 Singapore surrendered to the Japanese
1945 Japanese surrender; Singapore again under British administration
1946 Singapore separated from Straits Settlements
1946 Christmas Island administratively placed under Singapore
1947 Executive, Legislative Councils established
1947 Year of the Strikes
1948-1960 Adjacent Malaya under martial law, because of communist subversive activity
1948 First elections held
1958 Christmas Island separated from Singapore, administratively placed under Australia
1959 Self-government granted
1963 Singapore was integrated into Malaysia
1965 Singapore ousted by Malaysia, pushed into independence
1965 Singapore joined U.N., Commonwealth
1967 Singapore co-founder of ASEAN

I.2 Research Method
            In order to effectively compare the views of different texts, the history of Singapore can be broken into five periods: prehistory, British colonial rule, World War II, road to independence, post-independence. "Prehistory" covers the time before Sir Stamford Raffles of Great Britain occupied the island of Singapore in 1819. "British colonial rule" refers to the time between 1819 and 1942. "World War II," addresses the period of Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. "Road for independence" ranges from 1945 to 1965, and "post-independence" reaches from 1965 to present time.
            This division is mostly agreed upon this paper's four primary sources, which are "Understanding Our Past," "Singapore: from settlement to nation," "Encyclopaedia Britannica," and "Wikipedia." Among those, "Understanding Our Past," and "Singapore: from settlement to nation" are Singaporean secondary school textbooks endorsed by the nations Ministry of Education. Britannica and Wikipedia are outside references that will be used to compare and contrast the views of the two official textbooks.
            There are four criteria of comparison: perspective, focus of events, evaluation of events, and source of information. Comparing perspectives mainly considers the identification of the speaker. The focus of events refers to whether the historian gives attention to incidents of a specific people. Evaluation regards the message implied by a historical event. And source of information considers the range of different sources each text derives its information from.

II. Prehistory

II.1 Outside References
            First of all, both Wikipedia and Britannica heavily rely on foreign travelogues and poems like, for example, the Sejarah Melayu (a Malaysian chronicle), and Nagarake tagama (a Javanese epic poem)
            1) The Mongol sent a mission to obtain elephants from a place called Long Ya Men ( or Dragon's Tooth Strait), which is believed to be Keppel Harbour. [Wikipedia]
            2) The Greek astronomer, Claudius Ptolemaeus, located a place called Sabana in the area where Singapore is ... [Wikipedia]
            3) In Javanese inscriptions and Chinese records dating to the end of the 14th century, the more common name of the island is Tumasik, or Temasek, from the Javanese word tasek ("sea") ... [Britannica]
            Both texts are also more interested about Singapore's function as a central trade port than it is about the origin and culture of the inhabitants.
            1) Yet in 1552 it was still a port of call from which St. Francis Xavier dispatched letters to Goa, and Joao de Barros described its busy shipping activity in his history Decadas da Asia (1552-1615) [Britannica]
            2) Most importantly, it was unoccupied by the Dutch. [Wikipedia]
            Lastly, they are written in an outsider's perspective and generally recognize Sir Stamford Raffles - an Englishman - as the founder of Singapore (at least modern Singapore).
            1) Rajendra may have named the city Singapura ("Lion City"), later corrupted to Singapore, or the name may have been bestowed in the 14th century by Buddhist monks, to whom the lion was a symbolic character. [Wikipedia]
            2) On 29 January 1819, Thomas Stamford Raffles landed on the main island in Singapore. Spotting its potential as a strategic trading post for Southeast Asia, Raffles signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein. [Wikipedia]

II.2 Singaporean Textbooks
            Although the textbooks are mostly based on foreign travelogues and legends, they do mention the "Singapore Stone" which is a potential source of information for future studies.
            1) Besides the written sources there are also aretefacts that help throw some light on Singapore's early history. One example is the Singapore Stone. [Understanding Our Past]
            2) Sejarah Melayu or the Malay Annals is a written source that helps us to see what Singapore was like in the past. [Understanding Our Past]
            3) Ancient gold ornaments such as an armlet and golden rings of the Majapahit style were discovered at Fort Canning. [From Settlement to Nation]
            Unlike their outside counterparts, textbooks are more interested about what sort of people occupied the island before Raffles' colony and their lifestyle.
            1) The Malays lived in a village on the north bank of the Singapore River under the charge of the Temenggong. The Orang Laut ... [Understanding Our Past]
            2) When Raffles landed on its shores he found that the only settlers were a small group of farmers and fishermen. There was also an uninhabited hill known as Bukid Larangan (the Forbidden Hill). Why was it called the Forbidden Hill ? [From Settlement to Nation]
            Also, the stories are written in an insider's perspective. For instance, it is not Raffles who gained the Temenggong's support; it is the Temenggong who was "willing" to give him "permission."
            1) The Temenggong was willing to give him permission. [From Settlement to Nation]
            2) The issue is open to debate as there are different interpretations of what constitutes a 'founder.' [From Settlement to Nation]

III British Colonial Rule

III.1 Outside References
            Both Wikipedia and Britannica discuss extensively the costs and benefits of a new port for the British Empire and the E.I.C.
            1) The demand of the industrial West for tin and rubber was what made Singapore one of the greatest ports in the world. [Britannica]
            2) When the East India Company lost its monopoly of the China trade (1833), it also lost its interest in Malaya. [Britannica]
            Thus both again view the country¡¯s history in the context of trade in South East Asia which connected the Western world with China.
            3) Meanwhile, Singapore's trade had suffered after 1842 from British development of a rival port, Hong Kong [Britannica]
            4) During the first year of operation, $400,000 (Spanish Dollars) worth of trade passed through Singapore. [Wikipedia]
            5) it was to suffer from the French occupation of the Indochinese Peninsula and their development of Saigon and Haiphong in Vietnam and from the establishment of Dutch ports and shipping lines in the Dutch East Indies [Britannica]
            Lastly, the text again places "Raffles" and the Western nations as the main actor of the events in early Singapore and deals with his business in England as well as in Singapore.
            1) In 1824 an Anglo-Dutch treaty left Malaya and Singapore in the British sphere [Britannica]
            2) Raffles was critical of many of the decisions he had made [Wikipedia]
            3) Raffles, ... then arranged to organise Singapore into functional and ethnic subdivisions. [Wikipedia]

III.2 Singaporean Textbooks
            The textbooks explain the circumstances which led outsiders - for example, the Malay, Indian, and Chinese immigrants - to come and live in Singapore.
            1) Some immigrants were 'pushed' or forced out of their homeland. On the other hand, there were attractions in Singapore that 'pulled' or attracted them towards it [Understanding Our Past]
            2) Many people came to Singapore because of unfavorable conditions in their homeland¡¦many came to Singapore because jobs were available and there were better opportunities here. [From Settlement to Nation]
            Moreover, the texts focus on events within Singapore rather than the external influence of for example the Dutch, the Chinese, and the British
            1) The British did not treat all schools the same¡¦Diseases like smallpox and cholera broke out on a large scale in Singapore ... discrimination continue. [Understanding Our Past]
            2) A small number of Malay, Indian and Chinese immigrants who became rich and successful¡¦most of the Indian and Chinese immigrants were men who came alone without their families [Understanding Our Past]
            3) The immigrants who came were poor and suffered from diseases like malaria, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and tuberculosis [From Settlement to Nation]
            They also give details about the colony¡¯s political tension among the different peoples in the perspective of the ruled.
            1) Chinese Protectorates [were created] to deal with the problems of coolie trade and secret societies [Understanding Our Past]
            2) Some of them were nominated to be non-official members in the Legislative Council¡¦Asian influence was still limited as the Governor had the right to veto [Understanding Our Past]
            3) Some Asian doctors educated in British universities were as well-qualified as the British doctors, but the government would not allow them to hold senior posts in the hospitals [From Settlement to Nation]
            Lastly, the textbooks portray immigrants in a positive light that while people of different backgrounds came and suffered together, Singapore could become a prosperous nation only because of these peoples' combined efforts.
            1) Many Sikhs worked as policemen [Understanding Our Past]
            2) The immigrants played a part in making Singapore prosper. [From Settlement to Nation]

IV. World War II

IV.1 Outside References
            The Britannica has very little and superficial information about Singapore during this period. It writes about the military operations and invasion process - and no more.
            In early December 1941 the Japanese landed in northern Malaya and southern Thailand on the Malay Peninsula. They quickly gained air and naval superiority in the region, and by the end of January 1942 they had overrun the peninsula and were opposite Singapore Island. The Japanese crossed the Johor Strait on Feb. 8, 1942, and the British command surrendered the island and city one week later. Singapore remained in Japanese hands until September 1945. [Britannica]
            Although the Wikipedia does describe the period of occupation in better detail than Britannica, it still has not much to compare with the Singaporean textbooks. It hardly takes any specific perspective but does view the period as a gloomy and unfortunate historical moment for the Singaporeans.
            1) During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Malaya, culminating in the Battle of Singapore. The British were defeated [Wikipedia]
            2) The Kempeitai (Japanese military secret police) committed numerous atrocities against the common people. [Wikipedia]
            3) The prices of basic necessities increased drastically [Wikipedia]
            4) When British troops finally arrived they met with cheering and fanfare. [Wikipedia]

IV.2 Singaporean Textbooks
            Most importantly, the textbooks reflect the perspective of the abused. It writes critically about the Japanese colonial rulers' misguided policies.
            1) They were asked to pledge loyalty to Japan¡¦those who refused were tortured, imprisoned or killed¡¦it was called the Sook Ching [Understanding Our Past]
            2) Many people also grew their own food¡¦The situation was made worse by the Japanese issued money. The money was called 'banana notes.' [Understanding Our Past]
            3) Following the British surrender, the Japanese military police, Kempeitai, were sent to restore order in Singapore¡¦European civilians were marched to Katong first before going to Changi Prison. [From Settlement to Nation]
            4) The Eurasians were treated harshly because the Japanese felt they were a threat to them [From Settlement to Nation]
            Life under Japanese rule is portrayed in detail, with information derived from testimonies of persecuted individuals.
            1) Local informers wearing hoods or masks would simply point out certain people as enemies of the Japanese. [Understanding Our Past]
            2) "Some of the people were dead, some others who were not dead yet were just living skeletons¡¦The Public Works Department lorries would come along and workers would examine bodies. If there was no life in them, two or three men would carry the bodies and throw them for burial.¡± [Understanding Our Past]
            3) Every school, government building, and Japanese company began with a morning assembly¡¦sing the Japanese national anthem¡¦Radio stations were controlled by the Japanese¡¦and propaganda films were shown. [From Settlement to Nation]
            Interestingly, the textbooks evaluate the period as a shameful past, deriving lessons from the invaders' mismanagement. This evaluation also leads to explain the need for Singapore's national unity and defense.
            1) The British considered Europe and North Africa more important¡¦Singaporeans must never depend on a foreign nation to defend our country. [Understanding Our Past]
            2) The people of Singapore hated being ruled by the Japanese. [Understanding Our Past]
            3) The fall of Singapore marked the beginning of a brief but tumultuous chapter of Singapore's history. [From Settlement to Nation]

V Road to Independence

V.1 Outside Reference
            From this time onwards, encyclopedic sources have not much to compare with textbooks. Most of what Britannica has to say are simple summaries of facts without reasons or explanations.
            1) As a separate crown colony (from 1946), Singapore made constitutional progress despite the communist insurrection in Malaya. Elected ministers and a Legislative Assembly with an elected majority assumed government responsibility in 1955, except for matters of defense and foreign policy. [Britannica]
            2) In 1959 the official and nominated elements were eliminated, and Singapore became self-governing, although Britain still retained control of defense and foreign policy. [Britannica]
            There is one part, however, which shows a viewpoint distinct from that of other sources both domestic and international. Britannica explains that Singapore was separated from Malaya due to its largely Chinese population.
            Postwar British political plans for Malaya excluded Singapore from a proposed Malayan Union and later from the Federation of Malaya, mainly because it was thought that Singapore's predominantly Chinese population would be an ethnic obstacle to common citizenship. [Britannica]
            Wikipedia explains the merger and separation in terms of both racial and economic reasons. Nevertheless, the information here is also insufficient to compare with that provided in Singaporean textbooks.
            1) The merger was thought to benefit the economy by creating a common, free market, and to improve Singapore's internal security. [Wikipedia]
            2) Racial tensions between Chinese and Malays increased dramatically resulting in numerous racial riots. [Wikipedia]
            3) The state and federal governments also had conflicts on the economic front. The state and federal governments also had conflicts on the economic front. [Wikipedia]

V.2 Singaporean Textbooks
            Again, one of the most significant features of textbooks is their standpoint. They reflect this period of history as a shared experience among all of Singapore¡¯s diverse races and hails heroes regardless of race
            1) The [Chinese school] students were unhappy that they could not get well-paid jobs or study at the University [Understanding Our Past]
            2) David Marshall was a very eloquent and gifted speaker ... he lashed out at the unfair treatment of Asians under the British government [Understanding Our Past]
            3) Lee Kuan Yew was ... a great public speaker who was able to put difficult ideas across in a simple manner so that even ordinary people could understand him [Understanding Our Past]
            4) In 1957, Lim Yew Hock led another group¡¦to London to re-negotiate for internal self-government ... willing to compromise on the issue of internal security¡¦On his return, Lim Yew Hock announced that Singapore would have internal self-government [From Settlement to Nation]
            The most evident difference with encyclopedic sources is the reason behind Singapore's separation from Malaya. Textbooks emphasize the necessity of independence that it was for Singapore¡¯s benefits to part from both the Malays and the British.
            1) They [Singaporeans] felt that since the British ruled Singapore for over a hundred years and yet failed to protect it, they [the British] should, therefore, leave Singapore. [From Settlement to Nation]
            2) The campaign for a Malaysian Malaysia [PAP campaign for equality amongst races] upset the Alliance leaders. Some UMNO leaders were so angered that they even called for Lee Kuan Yew's arrest. [Understanding Our Past]
            3) The Tunku was afraid that if the differences between the Alliance and the PAP were not resolved, racial clashes were likely to happen again. However, he realized that the many disagreements between the two sides could never be settled¡¦On August 1965, the leaders of both sides signed the separation agreement. [Understanding Our Past]
            4) Singapore was also unhappy with new taxes in Singapore and increase Singapore's contribution of its revenue to the Central Government from 40% to 60% ... Singapore and Malaysia also had differences over political matters [From Settlement to Nation]
            5) The Tunku was afraid that racial clashes were likely to happen again if the differences between the Alliance and the PAP were not resolved. [From Settlement to Nation]
            Lastly to explain what happened, textbooks largely draw sources from domestic records and testimonials.
            1) "We begin a new chapter. The good things of life do not fall from the skies. They can only come by hard work and over a long time. The government cannot produce results unless the people support and sustain the work of the government," said Lee Kuan Yew [Understanding Our Past]
            2) "We are happy that the vast majority of people support what we have done. The verdict is decisive. It is the seal of public and popular approval of merger and Malaysia." The Straits Times [Understanding Our Past]
            3) "The introduction of automatic registration of voters, compulsory voting, and the 1957 citizenship ordinance included a large proportion of Chinese-educated and lower-income voters. This meant that the party that was most effective in mass mobilization and could appeal to the Chinese-educated and lower-income voters would win the election." From A History of Singapore by Ernest Chew and Edwin Lee [From Settlement to Nation]

VI Independence

VI.1 Outside Reference
            Again, encyclopedic sources have not much to compare with textbooks. Most of what Britannica and Wikipedia have to say are simple summaries of facts without reasons or explanations, though the latter has more information than the former.
            Since the 1970s Singapore has pursued an aggressive policy of economic growth based primarily on export manufacturing and trade. Gradually, it also has taken a more active role in regional diplomacy. Singapore was a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in ... The PAP has continued to dominate Singaporean politics, although Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 ... the government¡¯s policies of developmental paternalism have bred some discontent among those who have come to expect greater openness to new ideas and a freer flow of information. [Britannica]

VI.2 Singaporean Textbooks
            The government¡¯s efforts to improve Singapore are described in greater detail than in encyclopedic sources. To some degree, the achievements are glorified in an effort to evoke national pride from students studying the text.
            1) The government needs to continue to promote and strengthen the sense of belonging and community spirit among Singaporeans. [Understanding Our Past]
            2) Both government and people of Singapore have reasons to be proud of our achievements [Understanding Our Past]
            3) The belief that better educated and trained manpower is crucial to economic success is illustrated by the tremendous increase in enrolment at the secondary level¡¦To this figure must be added the more skills-oriented training that was made available in the vocational institutes. [From Settlement to Nation]
            Changes made after independence are mostly derived from the mistakes made by previous rulers. Policies such as the housing system and education were created in order to fix what the British and Japanese messed up.
            1) As the population grew, more housing was needed for the people. However, the British government did not do much to provide proper housing for them. [Understanding Our Past]
            2) The British government planned different residential areas for people of different races. However, the new government¡¦recognized that this would not help to bring the people together. [Understanding Our Past]
            3) During the colonial period, education was largely left to the different ethnic and religious organizations to run on their own. [From Settlement to Nation]
            4) The government aimed to increase the level of literacy of Singaporeans by providing educational opportunities beyond the primary level. [From Settlement to Nation]
            Again, textbooks largely draw sources from domestic records and testimonials, books written by Lee Kuan Yew and Singaporean historians.
            1) "The government had carried the burden of unemployment from the time we first took office in 1959 ... But by 1971, American electronics companies had generated so many jobs that unemployment was no longer an issue." Lee Kuan Yew [From Settlement to Nation]
            2) "Every man becomes a soldier or sailor for two years. Then he goes back to earn a living in the factory of in an office¡¦he is part of a reservoir of people who understand the discipline, who know the skills of self-defense, and who, in an emergency, help to defend their own country" Lee Kuan Yew¡¯s speech published in The Sunday Times [From Settlement to Nation]
            3) "Everything was in complete disorder. When I left my house, I saw fire victims everywhere. They were clutching their belongings and running away. People were crying and crying, saying how their savings had been lost in the fire." [Understanding Our Past]

VII Conclusion
            Singapore is an interesting country. The history is comparatively short; Singapore has many diverse people of different ethnic origin; it has been influenced by external forces throughout its history. Therefore, perspective, national identity, sources, and focus are very important in this country¡¯s historiography. Various historians have diverse position on the history of Singapore, and each of their viewpoints is represented by what he or she has written. Textbooks, written (or endorsed) by the government, therefore, reflect the government's stance on the country's history
            The textbooks, made to educate students at Singapore middle-high schools, include the perspective of locals living in the area. Naturally they have a much profound explanation and analysis of the many extreme changes Singapore went through, especially on its history after the Japanese Occupation. The underlying messages, interpretations, and implications nevertheless demonstrate the government¡¯s wish to bring national pride and unity through the power of education.




Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2010.
Primary Sources
1.      Article : Singapore, Britannica Online, <>
2.      Article : Singapore, Wikipedia <>
3.      Article : Early History of Singapore, Wikipedia <>
4.      Times Media Private Limited, Understanding Our Past, Curriculum Planning & Development Division Ministry of Education, Singapore, 1999
5.      Panpac Education Private Limited, Singapore: from settlement to nation, Curriculum Planning & Development Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2007
6.      Article : Founding of Modern Singapore, Wikipedia <>
7.      Article : Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Wikipedia <>
8.      Article : History of the Republic of Singapore, Wikipedia <>
Secondary Sources
9.      World History at KMLA : Timelines : Singapore < >

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