Singapore and the British Empire


Geographically, Singapore is a small country with a high population density located at the southern end of the Malay peninsular. It consists of 63 islands with the main one having most of the population and economic activity. Located on smaller islands are large petroleum refineries which generate much business but also pollution affecting Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The port facilities are on the south side of the main island where many cargo ships lie at anchor. Cruise ships can dock at a wharf close to shopping areas. Singapore is a growing country with about 20 percent of the land area having been reclaimed and further work ongoing.

1819  Singapore becomes a trading post for the East India Company, negotiated by  Stamford Raffles on behalf of the company

1824  Britain claims sovereignty over the island, a protectorate ruled from India

1942 Occupied by Japanese forces until liberated in 1945

1963 Independence declared with the mainland to form Malaysia

1965 Singapore separates from the mainland to form an independent country

Singapore has a population of about 5 million, 3 million born locally and the remainder permanent residents and foreign workers. The three million are able to vote in elections. The majority are of Chinese extraction followed by Malays and Indians, many of whom originally came to Singapore to work on the rubber plantations and work in the port facilities. One political party, the PAP has ruled the country since independence. In 2011, the PAP received the lowest percentage of the popular vote in any election.
The parliamentary and judicial systems are based on UK practice, although the operation of each system is at variance with the UK. The country is governed by a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. There is no trial by jury and there is a mandatory death penalty for murder, drug trafficking and certain firearms offenses.

Defense issues

In contrast to larger countries geographically and population-wise, Singapore is a city state. However it has three armed services and military conscription. Security concerns relate to Malaysia and China in particular as well as for dealing with maritime piracy, especially in the Malacca Straights. Friction between China and Japan in the South China Sea is currently of concern.

Defense expenditure is 3.6 percent of GDP and has exceeded 4 percent, similar in percentage terms to the US; in Canada it is 1.4 percent. Defense is needed against possible but unlikely attack from neighbours, and in particular to protect the port and refining facilities.


Port facilities

Singapore has one of the world’s largest ports for general cargo, containers and tankers. This appears surprising since the land connections from Singapore are limited. Good roads run up through Malaysia and on to Bangkok, but the rail system is narrow gauge and not modernized to carry much freight. There is some talk of high speed rail service being built. Unlike ports like Rotterdam, Los Angeles and London, Singapore does not act as a shipping point for goods from the land, but as a transshipment port.

It developed as a port site with connections to shipping from India to the west, and China and Indonesia to the east and south. It has maintained these connections and provides valuable shipping related services in the region. Those shipping goods to Singapore use either smaller ships which then transfer the goods to containers and large carriers, or break bulk for transfer to smaller ships. Many goods are not landed but move from one ship to another.


Singapore has developed as a financial centre, an education and research hub , a place for medical tourism, and as a tourist centre with two casinos and associated hotel facilities. It is a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Imperial influence

The present economic and political configuration of Singapore is the result of British influence from the time of the East India Company. Doubtless it would have developed in some other way without the previous British connections, but from the parliamentary and judicial systems to driving on the left hand side of the road, to the sports played (cricket, tennis, rugby and football), and to the operation of private schools, these all reflect British connections. Students prepare for the Cambridge A-level examinations.

Signs of the British military exist in terms of the bases and quarters which were used by the British, especially prior to the defeat by the Japanese and during the postwar emergency, when the Chinese communists attempted to take over the country and were repulsed by British lead troops.

English is one of the four official languages of the country. The others are Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Names like Raffles are used for schools, hotels, streets and buildings. There is little sense of official rejection of the British connection to the history of Singapore as might be found in other ex-colonies like Burma and some African countries.  Singapore today remains a member of the Commonwealth.


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