Singapore was a trading center in the Srivijaya empire before it was destroyed in the 14th cent. by the Majapahit empire. It later became part of Johore (see Johor) in the Malacca Sultanate. The sparsely populated island was ceded (1819) to the British East India Company through the efforts of Sir T. Stamford Raffles; he founded the modern city of Singapore there that same year. In 1824, Singapore came under the complete control of the British and, although containing only a small fishing and trading village, quickly attracted Chinese and Malay merchants. The port grew rapidly, soon overshadowing Penang (see Pinang) and Malacca (see Melaka) in importance. With them Singapore became part of the Straits Settlements in 1826.
The development of Malaya under British rule in the late 19th and early 20th cent. made Singapore one of the leading ports of the world for the export of tin and rubber. The construction of a railroad through the Malay Peninsula to Bangkok swelled Singapore's trade, and the building of airports made it more than ever a communication center. A naval base at Sembawang, begun in 1924, was completed in 1938; the island, sometimes called the Malta of the East, was reinforced in the early days of World War II. After the swift Japanese campaign in Malaya, however, Singapore was successfully attacked across the Johore Strait, and on Feb. 15, 1942, the British garrison surrendered; Singapore was reoccupied by the British in Sept., 1945. In 1946, Singapore, no longer a part of the Straits Settlements, was constituted a crown colony, with Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Following a decade of Communist terrorism, Singapore, separated from Christmas Island and the Cocos-Keeling islands, became (June, 1959) a self-governing state.
In the 1959 general elections the People's Action party (PAP) won control of the government and continued in power after winning the 1963 elections. Under the policies of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's economic base was strengthened and a greater degree of social and cultural homogeneity was achieved. With the establishment in the 1960s of the Economic Development Board, the Development Bank of Singapore, and the International Trading Company and the subsequent influx of foreign investment, Singapore's industrial base was diversified, expanded, and modernized. Following a referendum (1962), Singapore merged (Aug., 1963) with Malaya, Sarawak, and Sabah to form the Federation of Malaysia. Frictions soon arose, however, and Singapore was, by mutual agreement, separated from the federation in Aug., 1965, becoming an independent republic. The exclusion of Singapore was largely due to Malay fears of Singapore's Chinese majority and its potential economic domination in the federation.
Singapore has remained in the Commonwealth of Nations, and it joined the United Nations in 1965; it was one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Close strategic ties to the United States are reflected in an agreement that provides access to Singapore's naval base by American warships. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was the dominant figure in Singapore's authoritarian political environment until his resignation in 1990 after 31 years in office. Singapore experienced steady economic growth and diversification during his tenure, but the country was criticized internationally during the 1980s and 1990s for severe treatment of political dissidents and a harsh system of justice.
In 1990, Goh Chok Tong became prime minister, but Lee retained considerable governmental influence, staying on as senior minister. In 1993, Ong Teng Cheong, former chairman of the PAP, became Singapore's first directly elected president. Despite the government party's overwhelming victory at the polls during the 1997 legislative elections, there were indications of growing popular opposition. Following an economic downturn in 1998, Singapore cut wages and allowed its currency to adjust downward, but it solidified its position as a world financial center. Sellapan Ramanathan (S. R. Nathan), running unopposed as the PAP's endorsed candidate, was elected president in 1999.
In legislative elections in 2001, the PAP again was swept into office, as a fragmented opposition failed to field candidates in 65% of the constituencies. Goh stepped down as prime minister in 2004 and was succeeded by Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew. The elder Lee remained in the government as minister mentor, and Goh succeeded him as senior minister. President Nathan was reelected in 2005. In the 2006 legislative elections more than 50% of the constituencies were contested, but the PAP again swept nearly all the seats.
By early 2009, Singapore's economy was severely affected by the global recession, which led to significant drop in exports, but the economy recovered as the year progressed. The 2011 elections saw nearly all the constiuencies contested, and the opposition garnered 40% of the vote, but PAP won more than 90% of the seats. The elder Lee and Goh stepped down after the elections. Later in the year Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister, was elected president in a closely contested election.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.