Looking Back, Moving Forward

Singapore’s strategic location gave it its start as a successful port, and with trade came prosperity. As Singapore celebrates its 50th year of independence in 2015, join us as we look back at how Singapore’s has grown and developed since its time as the Kingdom of Singapura, resulting in the bustling city you see today.

Early History: Myth and Legend

As much of Singapore's early history is shrouded in myth and legend, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions on the state of the island's development then. However, archeological evidence shows that there was an urbanised settlement by the 14th Century, although allusions by traveller accounts indicate that there may have been a city or town present as early as the 2nd Century. By the 14th Century, Temasek was an important port doing trade with even the Mongol Empire.

Singapore was known as Temasek, meaning “Sea Town” in Old Javanese, until a Srivijayan prince named Sang Nila Utama landed on the island in 1324. Legend has it that Sang Nila Utama saw a mysterious creature that they decided was a lion, which led to him naming the island Singapura or Lion City, thus establishing the Kingdom of Singapura.

The Next Stage: Colonial Rule

Much of what we know of Singapore's urban development can easily be traced to the start of Singapore's modern history: colonisation.

The Malay Archipelago was taken over by European colonial powers between the 16th and 19th Century. Sir Stamford Raffles, a British statesman, landed in Singapore in 1819, and established modern Singapore as a free port. The lack of port duties made Singapore a success, with mass immigration taking place. Bugis, Peranakan Chinese and Arab traders flocked to Singapore and the population had doubled from 5,000 in 1821 to 10,000 by 1825. This increase in population led to urban problems of course – gambling and opium dens sprung up, as did squatter settlements.

As a result, Raffles drew up the Raffles Plan of Singapore, which segregated Singapore into functional and ethnic enclaves. You can still see the remnants of the Raffles Plan today in the form of Little India and Chinatown, as well as the civil district.

The architectural impact of colonial rule is especially evident in the civil district. Just a few of the prominent buildings here include the Fullerton Hotel, which used to be the General Post Office Building; the Arts House which used to be the Parliament House; and the new National Gallery, which makes use of two historical buildings, the City Hall and the former Supreme Court.

It is not only colonial buildings that still remain from the era. Places of worship such as the Sri Mariamman Temple and the Thian Hock Keng temple were built during the 19th Century and are still standing today. Shophouses which have been restored and repurposed can be found in Chinatown, the Katong area, Geylang and even at the Emerald Hill area along Orchard Road.

Public Concerns: Housing Issues

By the 1930s, the lack of housing was a massive problem in Singapore. Most of the population was living in squatter settlements and villages known as kampongs, a situation that could easily turn deadly if a fire broke out. The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was set up and functioning by 1920, attempting to solve the housing crisis, but it was not empowered to build housing for people until 1932. However, efforts could not keep up with needs, especially after World War II and its devastating effects on the country.

The SIT was replaced by the Housing Development Board (HDB) in 1960, five years before Singapore gained independence. One of the last kampongs in Singapore, Kampong Bukit Ho Swee, was razed by one of Singapore's biggest fires in May 1961. This proved to be a pivotal event in the development of public housing in Singapore as it paved the way for further development and acceptance of public housing. A combination of wind conditions and oil and petrol from nearby godowns made the fire devastating – an estimated 16,000 people out of over 19,000 were left homeless, and the destruction of property and livestock meant many were destitute. This spurred organisations such as the Social Welfare Department, the police force, the HDB, the Health Department and other organisations such as the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade into action. In nine months, all the displaced kampong dwellers were successfully rehoused in public flats.

Another fire in the Bukit Ho Swee area in 1968 spelt the death keel of the kampong, and the area was successfully transformed into a public housing estate.

Public housing in Singapore grew from strength to strength. Apart from providing one-room flats as emergency housing as in the case of the Kampong Bukit Ho Swee fire, public housing also provided luxuries unavailable in cramped shophouses and squatter settlements such as electricity, flush toilets and piped water. By 1976, more than 50 per cent of Singapore's population was living in HDB flats, compared to 8.8 per cent living in SIT flats in 1959.

As the Singapore economy grew and the population became wealthier, further choices in the type of flats were made available. Today, HDB flats run the gamut from smaller flats that cater to lower income families to 5-room flats meant to accommodate three generations and even Executive Condominiums which are designed with all the fittings and facilities of private condominiums such as swimming pools, clubhouses and more.

Singapore Today

Today, Singapore is a glittering metropolis with iconic architecture dotting the city. The development of the Marina Bay area, including the multi-award winning Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands, amongst other additions.

And it is not just a glittering, pretty façade – the importance of features such as low carbon emissions and universal design are incorporated in Singapore's architecture. Many historical buildings are preserved and restored to retain a tangible link to Singapore’s rich history. To find out more, view the Industry Awards section, starting on page A19, which celebrates international as well as local awards given out to noteworthy architectural achievements in Singapore.

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