This year, we are commemorating our Bicentennial – it has been 200 years since the founding of modern Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles.
The significance of the Bicentennial can only be understood against the broader backdrop of our history.
Our history did not begin in 1819. It goes back 700 years to the original founding by Sang Nila Utama, which saw the rise of a kingdom and the beginnings of a maritime emporium based on regional trade. Even back then, trade was our lifeblood and people from many places came here to do business. For example, Singapura – as we were called then – was where the Chinese Emperor purchased his war elephants!
Due to its limited size, Singapore was subjected to periods of vassalage and external attacks. In the first 500 years there were two peaks of prosperity, after which Singapore fell into decline.
That changed when Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819. That event set Singapore on a new and upward trajectory. We were first a settlement, and then we grew and prospered into becoming a colony. Eventually, with self-determination, –we progressed from internal self-governance (1959), to merger (1963) and finally, independence (1965).
But the history of Singapore is not just about political developments. It is also the story of our people. This includes the story of the Indian community in Singapore.
When Raffles arrived on the ship “The Indiana” he was accompanied by Naraina Pillai, a Tamil civil servant in the British colonial service. Attracted by Raffles’ vision for Singapore, Pillai decided to put down roots here, first as Chief Clerk in the Colonial Treasury and subsequently moving to the private sector, becoming Singapore’s first Indian brick-business owner and contractor. He was a pioneering community leader who initiated the building of Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road.
Pillai was the first of many Indians to come to Singapore in search of a better life. Initially, there was a small community of troops, traders and merchants. In the late 1800s, more Indians migrated to Singapore for work and trade – Tamils, Parsees, Bengalis, Sindhis and Chettiars, among others. There were over 16,000 Indians by the end of the 19th century; they made up 9% of the population at the time, a figure that is remarkably similar to the current percentage.
Such migrations are not only of the past. The 2000s saw more recent migrations of Indians to Singapore many of whom have become permanent residents and new citizens. Just like our forefathers, they too sought a better life and found in Singapore a safe haven and a home.
Regardless of whether they stayed long or were new to the country, the Indians who have come here have, in one way or another, contributed to the success of Singapore and the rich tapestry of our cultural heritage.
Have a look at the banners around town and you will see one about an exhibition of the Chetti Melakans’ history. Originally traders from Panai in Tamil Nadu, the Chetti Melakans (also known as Peranakan Indians) came to our part of the world during the Malacca Sultanate, intermarried with local Malay and Chinese, settled in the peninsular and eventually developed a distinct identity of their own. After the reign of the Malacca Sultanate, some moved to the new settlement of Singapore where their descendants continue to be today. This is but one example of the uniqueness of the Indian community in Singapore. In addition to those already mentioned, we are further enriched by the Punjabis, Malayalees, Gujaratis and many others.
Indian shopkeepers established their businesses around Serangoon Road, which eventually become Little India – a unique and distinct area beloved by Singaporeans and foreigners alike.
Therefore, while the Bicentennial commemorates an important turning point in our history, it is also the story of our journey as a people – a journey that has made us who and what we are, and which has given us our uniquely Singaporean DNA, which includes openness, multiculturalism and a strong sense of self-determination.
Openness has been the engine of our success and prosperity. When Raffles made Singapore a free port, it was the game-changer of that era; it took Singapore beyond regional trade and introduced us into global trade. It also diverted international trade routes to Singapore. Free trade has been a continuing foundation for our success and this is why we strongly support it, especially now when protectionist winds are blowing across the world.
Multiculturalism has been the bedrock of our social fabric – Singapore was, is and must continue to be a place where people can achieve their dreams, live in peace and harmony, understand each other’s differences and have the freedom to celebrate their ethnicities and cultural practices.
Self-determination and sovereignty are what the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations fought for – the right to determine our own destiny and be the authors of our future. These are hard-won, precious rights.
As history shows, larger countries will always be tempted to assert themselves over small ones. For that reason, defense is the cornerstone of our sovereignty and we advocate and uphold the rule of law, domestically and on the international stage. We will be friends with all who wish to be friends with us. But we will also defend and protect what is ours.
The Bicentennial is therefore also a time for reflection – of the journey that has strengthened Singapore and our identity as Singaporeans.