Singapura, a Sanskrit name for Singapore meaning Lion City, was in use in the late fourteenth century. My cozying up to Singapore wasn’t based solely on hearsay or friends’ eyewitness accounts but on textbook intimacy of the place. I was introduced to Singapore at a young, impressionable age in my geography and history classes. Hard-earned money spent on textbooks wasn’t wasted after all. Love at first chapter would be too strong a word. It was more like watching a silent black-and-white movie. Nothing particularly riveting or alluring. Just the bare minimum. Nothing airbrushed.
Not to the foreigner who first saw Singapore…through visionary lenses. Make that entrepreneurial. When Stamford Raffles arrived on the island January 28, 1819, he saw something remarkably unremarkable: swampland, jungle, a swampy fishing village. It wasn’t exactly a replica of London or Shanghai. But he, on behalf of the British East Indian Company, negotiated cordially with a Malay prince and established there a British settlement and a trading station. What was he up to?
“Our objective,” he said, “is not territory but trade, a great commercial emporium.”
In the swampland? Was he misguided? Or, more appropriately, did he have the resources to turn it into something it was not?
Located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, diamond-shaped Singapore’s strategic and commercial significance caught his attention. And because of its location, location, location, at the confluence of major trade routes linking the lands of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Singapore became not only a valuable port but a valuable cornerstone and outpost of the British Empire. Little did he know that with his discovery of this island he would usher in a hundred-plus years of British rule and dominance in Southeast Asia.
By 1867, Singapore had become a British colony. And thanks to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 (take a critical look at the map and figure out for yourself why the Suez Canal had such a direct impact on the port of Singapore), it benefited hugely from the profitable trade between Europe and Asia, eventually transforming it into one of the busiest port cities in the world. Under the British, blessed with its natural deepwater harbor, Singapore prospered with increased trade and improved infrastructure.
It soon became an irresistible magnet for emigrants from China, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Many came for work. Many came for a better life, changing Singapore—with its indigenous Malays—into a multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-religious society. What a rich mosaic of colors (national costumes), taste (intermingling of Malay, Indian, and Chinese cuisines), languages (Mandarin, Malay, English, and Tamil), and religions (Islam, Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism). Everyone was encouraged to carve a niche in this new, multifarious, cultural landscape. Diversity became the norm. Inclusiveness ruled the day—and many, many more days, years, and decades to come.
And all this with no natural resources to boot.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the British colonial government immediately north of the island was planning to establish an agricultural “colony” to deal with a severe rice shortage in Malaya. A prudent way also, they calculated, to reduce the importation of rice from its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
Initial experiments at growing rice using the Malays and the Indians ended in overt failure. Not for lack of financial incentives or land. Now the British were looking north to China for economic salvation. They had experiences in China. The Chinese, they knew, had indomitable spirit, industry, and sterling qualities. But not just any Chinese this time. They were trying to recruit the poorest of the poor, especially those with no known ties to those now residing in Malaya. Many Chinese had come from China since the 1870s and were drawn to urban areas, to lucrative tin mining operations and urban businesses. They had abandoned their agricultural roots, so to speak. Now the British needed urgently hands to grow rice, especially those who spoke a different dialect.
So they sent a Methodist missionary, a linguist who could speak the Foochow dialects, to remote poor areas—crawling through rugged terrains—in the Fujian Province in southeast China (facing the South China Sea) to recruit those in bondage to poverty and lure them to the Promised Land with guarantee of free transportation and, later, a piece of land to call their own. Grandpa was one of the poorest of the poor who heard the good news and the clarion call and was ready to follow this Moses to the Promised Land.
Grandpa was going through living hell in China. I wouldn’t want to be his contemporary because China in 1903 was not a good place for any human being to live in. Grandpa was one of the downtrodden peasants, trapped in poverty like a starving dog in the kampong. Internal uprisings ravaged the countryside, which was already saddled with heavy taxation because the imperial court (the last dynasty to rule China) was required to pay huge indemnities to foreign governments for the devastations caused by the recent Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion.
(Ironically, these two major historical events had to do with the Chinese trying to get rid of foreigners who insisted on their rights to live and do business in China. You remember the Perry guy who threatened the Japanese with gun power if they refused to open up Japan for commerce? Can you believe that the British reasoned and persisted, despite Chinese opposition, that opium was good for China? Bloody ridiculous, I think. And now the Chinese were forced to pay them for the damages to the foreign properties in China because of the violent conflicts and fighting? You should wonder why the Chinese were weary of foreigners for decades until President Richard Nixon initiated the ping-pong diplomacy in the 1970s and opened China once again to the rest of the world. Especially to the United States of America.)
Grandpa and other peasants, relying on subsistence farming, were crippled further by the onslaught of natural calamities (typhoons and floods) and famines (droughts and crop failures because of blights).
Those able-bodied young men with strong wills and stamina, as well as money and connections, were able to escape to distant lands. One could opt for contract labor or become an indentured servant. Grandpa stayed because he had started a family. He had neither connections nor money, only healthy dreams and a childlike faith in his Methodist God.
Out of the blue came a Moses one day preaching and spreading the good news of a Promised Land. Luckily this Moses was no stranger to Grandpa. He had learned to speak their Foochow dialects when he first came to them as a Methodist missionary years before. And so they trusted and followed him, like children the Pied Piper of Hamelin. After a few false starts and delays, out of a thousand or so who heard the clarion call, only four hundred eighty-four “colonists” left China for the Promised Land to the south. And because of the turbulent seas, five never reached St. John’s Island, Singapore, where the rest were quarantined. Men were forced to work like coolies without pay during the seventeen days of detention on the island. Sadly, twelve died under quarantine and over a hundred disappeared. The hustle and bustle of Singapore was too tempting for them.
Only three hundred sixty-three men, women, and children eventually arrived in Sitiawan, the Promised Land, by boat. Miles northwest of Singapore, Sitiawan was an untamed and pristine chunk of fertile land, waiting for an agricultural miracle. And why Sitiawan? The colonial government had chosen this remote piece of virgin territory to keep the new colonists away from the more established Chinese settlers in Malaya. Smart strategy, I agree. After all, they were chosen for a specific task: to grow rice for a mushrooming population. Any physical contact with the outside world—the prosperous Chinese—would undermine their cause.
Grandpa and the other colonists started with nothing. They cleared the jungle and built something like a temporary longhouse for all the families.
Eventually it wasn’t rice but rubber from rubber trees that helped Sitiawan prosper and multiply because of the Americans’ insatiable demand for natural rubber for their new toys—the cars.
I am a descendant of the Chinese diaspora, collectively known as the overseas Chinese.