The Influence and Legacy of Western Civilization in the Development of Modern Singapore

In the Discovery Channel documentary The History of Singapore, it has been said that the city-state has for many years intrigued Western imagination, being both a “modern and Westernized society on the outside, yet undeniably Asian on the other. ” Once known as the “crown jewel” of the British Empire in Asia, the Republic of Singapore has not only embraced Western economic thought, but has improved on it, currently boasting one of the highest standards of living not just in Asia, but in the world.

The fascination by Western thinkers on the city-state is quite notable: as shall be seen in this paper, modern Singapore today is the offspring of the traditional and resource-rich East, and the progressive and enterprising West. Thanks to its strategic location at the straits of Malacca, the English-speaking country is also a bustling global hub for tourism, industry, manufacturing, logistics, financial services, and many others; Its modern array of skyscrapers and tower blocks are home to almost 5 million people from different races.

It comes as no surprise that for many years; foreign influence has played a pivotal role in the affairs and historical development of the island. Mr. Goh Keng Swee, former Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, once said “It was the Western trader and the Western administrator who introduced modern ideas, modern systems of government, modern education and modern techniques of communications and production into traditional Asia. ” Historical evidence helps us understand the truth behind Mr.

Goh’s remarks. 1. 1 Asian Civilizations and Ancient Singapore Even with the image of European civilization as modern and enlightened one, Asian civilizations back in the 14th and 15th centuries were by no means backward. The Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Malays, and others possessed advanced nation states. The existence of these states facilitated the establishment of sea and land trading routes across the Eurasian landmass, connecting Asian traders with European ones over the famed Silk route.

Inter-asian, sea-based trade also flourished, and Straits of Malacca, located between the Malayan peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, became an important route connecting Western Asia with the East Asian nations located in the Pacific coast. (Abshire, 22) Singapore has been a trading port for most of its history. In a time when groups tended to migrate a lot in search of resources, having a large, sedentary settlement on an island with few natural resources seemed counterproductive considering its resource-rich geographical neighborhood. However, its location has undoubtedly played a part in attracting development to the island.

Ancient Singapore traces its roots from early Malay settlement of the island, personified in the legend of Sang Nila Utama and his mythical “founding” of Singapore around 1299. The settlement he founded, called Temasek, or as it would be known later, Singapura (Lion City), was an important trading post. This ancient city of Temasek, destroyed later on, is not the same entity that later evolved into the British colony of Singapore. (Abshire, 23) When the British came, they were basically given a blank slate, with little, if any civic structures in place.

The Western World enters Asia The 16th century. Coupled with a desire to look for resources and a China-bound trade route that does not pass through the Arab-controlled Middle East, Western explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Magellan crossed oceans and heralded the beginning of Western colonialism. Perhaps one testament to the great British influence in Singapore is the fact that its founding father is a British colonial official. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in a diamond-shaped island, roughly 30 miles across.

(Lee, 16-18) Despite legends of an ancient settlement called Temasek, or Singapura, in the island, by the time of Raffles’ arrival all he saw were a few hundred Malay fishermen and some Chinese traders. Raffles, an officer of the British East India Company, is said to have “single-handedly presented Britain with Singapore,” foreseeing how it would be, one day, one of the most valuable possessions of the British Empire. Raffles believes that with the loss of Java after its return to the Dutch, Britain would have to find a new center of trade by which it will control the Malacca strait.

Far from just being an influence in Singapore’s eventual development, it is the British who first established modern Singapore. (Federal Research Division) 2. Western Legacy in Singapore 2. 1 Physical Infrastructure The first years of British colonization were marked by a transformation of the island, thanks to the construction of the island’s first western infrastructure. The Malay villages began to give way to a small, if prosperous European town. Soon after colonizing the island, Raffles began developing Singapore by first building a small fortification and improving the port area.

In 1822, his plan helped transform the southern part of the island into a Western-style town. Raffles’ plan provided for an “orderly and scientifically laid out town”, as roads and bridges were built in the area, together with brick-and-tile commercial buildings, spaces for shipyards, markets, churches, theaters, police stations, and a botanical garden. Raffles himself had a wooden bungalow built on Government Hill. Racial separation also marked the Raffles plan: with each racial group being given its own enclave (e. g. the Chinese in Chinatown, although the rich Asians can live with the Europeans in the “town. ” Raffles’ immediate successor, John Crawford, used revenue from gambling dens to finance “street widening, bridge building, and other civic projects. ” (Federal Research Division) In the years that followed saw the continued modernization of Singapore. In 1871, the John Pender’s China Submarine Company laid out a Hongkong-Singapore telegraph line, connecting the island to the rest of Asia. (Atlantic Cable) Singapore’s status as a port also paved the way for the introduction of electricity in 1878, when the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company installed electric generators to extend the dock’s operation well into the night. (EMA) Just one year later, Mr.

Bennet Pell started a telephone exchange, making Singapore became one of the first cities in Asia to have telephone services — just three years after its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, patented the technology. (SingTel) Because of its growing importance as a port and colony, the British colonizers (in later years) also constructed overland links: a railway system was built in 1903 and a direct link to Johor, the Causeway, was built in 1923. (Federal Research Division) 2. 2 Legal System and Government Having effectively a “blank slate” when getting the island, Singapore at first did not have a legal code.

In 1823, Raffles promulgated a series of administrative regulations that laid the foundations for Singapore’s legal system. While the other promulgations were mostly with regard to land ownership and other basic administrative needs, one of them provided for the adoption of English common law to be the island’s standard. With provision for local legislation, English common law was adopted in the island, and continued to be the main basis of law of the Singapore legal system after independence. Raffles also abolished slavery in the island, although with limited success as immigrants were often exploited in slave-like conditions (i. e. debt bondage. ) Singapore’s parliamentary legislature is also of British origin, although the island’s one-party dominant politics effectively mixed the British model with an Asian tradition of stability. And while Singapore was already effectively independent when the British were establishing a welfare state in the 1950s, this British idea still influenced the Singaporean government with regards to providing social security to the citizens. While “refraining from establishing a welfare state” 1955 saw the creation of a centralized savings system: the Central Provident Fund or CPF.

(CPF) 2. 3 Economics One of the most important Western influences in Singapore is Raffles’ implementation of free-market economics in the island. Indeed, at that historical era, this can be said to have been an anomaly of sorts as most colonial economies of the time were monopolistic, mercantilist, or both. Raffles was an early believer in free-market capitalism, which came out of the ideas of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in 18th century Britain. Upon establishing the island colony, one of his earliest declarations is that Singapore will “long and always remain a free port.

” This policy has undoubtedly encouraged the growth of the port, as traders from across the region flocked to a place where they could trade unabated and untaxed. This early, pioneering experience of free-market capitalism on the island is one of the foundations for the growth it was to experience in many years to come. Razeen Sally of the ECIPE1 said that while “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore differs from Raffles’ in many ways,” the island “still practices free trade, open to the world’s goods, services, investment, and [most importantly] people.

” In the early years of Singapore’s development into an industrialized economy, Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee laid out an economic development and trade plan that echoed Raffles’ early policy, including low taxation rates and tax holidays for many industries. Today, Singapore continues to attract many westerners, bringing their expertise and experience to the island’s economy. (Sally) The development of the island’s early financial infrastructure was also an important British influence, growing primarily to support its large trading activity.

By 1905, British banks were joined by Indian, Australian, American, Chinese, and French-owned banks – a precursor to Singapore’s later development as a major financial hub. 2. 4 Society, Culture, and Education One of the most evident legacies of the British in Singapore is their language. The island’s proficiency in English, which it kept along with linguistic and cultural ties to Asia, has helped Singapore establish itself as a “first and essential Asian base”, an important cultural and economic bridge between East and West. This made marketing the island much easier.

(ESC) It must be noted that in the early days, only the affluent among Singapore’s Chinese community adopted western education, customs, and pastimes. Sons of prominent businessmen were often sent to Britain for higher education, while Western-style theatre, social etiquette, architecture, social clubs, sports, and clothing, was seen as a sign of wealth among the wealthy colonials. (Federal Research Division) A tragic effect of adopting Western-style economics is also adopting its shortfall: a growing gap between rich and poor.

This was also seen in education: while the rich were sending their children to Europe or at the very least English-language schools, the middle-class mostly went to schools of poorer quality, frequently teaching in the races’ mother tongue. It was not until the 20th century that Chinese-language schools were modernized. The British policy of non-forced assimilation (contrast for example with the Spanish or Japanese) has left most elements of local culture, cuisine, and religion intact.

However, later in its history, Singapore has adopted (and in some ways, surpassed) western standards in health, education, and other services. (Lee) 3. 0 Conclusions Raffles’ prediction for the island did come about. Today, Singapore is indeed a place of great economic importance – a first-world country that practically mixes the prosperity of the West with the traditions and values of the East. This balance is a very notable achievement of Singapore.

Despite its adoption, and perhaps even improvement, of Western ideas, its commitment to preserving multiculturalism is a sign that the people of the country have not and will not give up their Asian identity. Western influence on the island has mostly been a force for good, and it can be said that both his British compatriots and the later rulers of the island realized Raffles’ vision for the island. In today’s globalized world, Singapore stands to continue adopting the best of the east with the best of the west – a truly global hub. (ESC)

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