Raffles’ Port City


In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. In 2 years, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port providing ready access to population from other centers. By 1860 however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. This wasn’t purely luck or a matter of economic policy. Several things the British did was particularly important for encouraging the trade flows through Singapore and pushing the growth of Singapore into an important center for trade in the region.

Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.

With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories – Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch Navy was given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. Stepping up security in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.

By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port. The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.

The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore. The strength of governance has always been an important quality our growth has been attributed to – and it seems to have dated back way before the country’s independence.

Singapore Economic History


During my days doing my Masters, I had always wanted to start working on studying Singapore’s Economic history, primarily because we should be learning from the way we developed and not blindly attributing it to some brilliance on the part of individuals or organisation. To break down the black box and understand the practice of growth is something I endeavour as an Economist while the reluctance to attribute our development to specific individuals but rather to consider it down to naturalistic observations about policy, culture, and zeitgeist is my responsibility as an informed voter.

For one, the idea of Singapore as a location suited for trade really started way earlier than we initially had thought; and it has gone by various names: Sabana (2nd Century), Pulau Ujong (3rd Century), Simha-pura (transliterated somehow to ‘Singapura’ – 11th-13th Century and used later on as well), Tamasek (around 1330s), Temasek (circa 1689) and finally Singapore. It gained some importance as a port in 14th Century with trading by merchants as far as China, gaining some immigrants along the way; subsequently as a regional port under the Sultanate of Johor in 16-17th Century. In 1613 however, some Portuguese supposedly destroyed a settlement around the main river, killing most commercial activities on the island until Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819, reviving the port status of the territory.

It was indeed, no special original brilliance of Sir Stamford Raffles that helped Singapore become positioned as a entre-port; rather, his effort was the recognition of the need for British navy protection, garnering the resources required to build up this port and rallying support to keep this port a tax-free one that would help enjoy endless flow of ships and traders. The status of a free port was definitely innovation within the British Empire at that time. This particular innovation we inherited much later and became an important economic policy.