After everything that happened during the 19th century in Singapore, which you can discover in The History of Singapore: the Foundation and the Colonial Period, today we are going to enter the first part of the 20th century. During this period, from the beginning of the century until 1965, Singapore will go from being a British colony to being a new independent nation.
The British colony
At the beginning of the 20th century, Singapore was already one of the most important ports of the British Empire. In fact, the port was the seventh busiest in the world. More than 80 years had passed since Raffles set foot on the island. The country’s elites, typically made up of great Chinese, Indian and Malaysian traders, had been settled on the island for several generations. However, they accepted British authority and collaborated with each other.
But the transit of new people who were going to live in Singapore for the first time was increasing. The advantages offered by the island and the conditions of war in China, made many decide to bet on this land. Another thing was that these newcomers had a feeling of attachment to the island.
Usually, they brought ideas from their own country and considered Singapore as a place of work. At this time, many Chinese traders settled in the Chinatown area of the city. Singapore reached its current ethnic proportion in its population, with three quarters of people of Chinese origin.
During this period, two totally different styles began to be perceived in Singapore. In both education and culture, there was a more British style, followed by the population that had been on the island for several generations, and a Chinese style. The latter came from people who had recently arrived from China. This last community was increasingly politicized and questioning the British Empire’s mandate over the island.
World War II
In the 1930s, nationalism was on the rise. Since Japan invaded part of China in 1937, the anti-Japanese movement had been born in Singapore. Many of the Japanese products were denied on the island and others were destroyed. In February 1942, after crossing the entire Malaysian peninsula, the Japanese crossed the Strait of Johor.
The inhabitants of Singapore could not defend themselves too much and Singapore fell into the hands of the Japanese in only one week. The battle of Singapore was the biggest defeat of the British Empire against the Japanese. For many historians, this was the biggest defeat of the British Empire in its history. The British colony of Singapore would disappear momentarily.
During the period of Japanese occupation of the island, they exercised brutal violence. All people with anti-Japanese feelings, Chinese and British above all, were executed. Many other people were isolated throughout the island and locked up in prison. Some others, mainly Indians, were recruited for the army or sent to other countries as laborers. Singapore changed its name to Syonan-To (Southern Light).
The fall of the Hiroshima bomb in August 1945 brought the war to an abrupt end and in less than a month, the British regained control of Singapore.
Again, British colony
Although Singapore was once again in the hands of the British, the war had caused the mentality of the people of Singapore to change. They began to believe that it was possible to govern without their help.
In the 1950s, with the establishment of the communist system in China and the democratic capitalist system in Britain, tensions began between these two sides on the island. To situate ourselves, there were three active fronts. On the one hand, there were those who were in favor of the British colony. On the other, there were the anti-colonialists who were in favor of the Chinese communist system. And on the third side, there were those who were in favor of the British system but were against the colony.
The first elections
With the establishment of democracy in Great Britain, the first elections for governor of the island took place in 1955. In 1954, Harry Lee, who had spent four years in London studying law, founded the PAP, or People’s Action Party. However, Harry was not very popular in Singapore, following the British system, although against the colony. For this reason, he incorporated into his party Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, two of the main leaders of the communist system on the island. The idea was that the party, formed by British moderates and Chinese reformers, would achieve self-government for Singapore.
In the first elections, there were already fractures between these two forces within the party. On the left was Lim, who began to gain popularity with his great charisma. On the right, there was Harry, who had changed his name to Lee Kuan Yew to gain popularity among the Chinese community. In the 1955 election, the winner was the Worker’s Party (WP), a party led by David Marshall.
However, during this term of office, a series of workers’ strikes took place. Police violence and the more radical wing of the WP began to gain supporters. So much so that communism was declared illegal on the island. Lim, Fong and more than 200 communists were arrested. By this time, Lee Kuan Yew had remained as the sole leader of the PAP for the next elections, which were to take place in June 1959.