Singapore is one of the smallest countries in the world: 263 square miles, housing 5.4 million people. That said, it is growing every day. The country buys a continual flow of dirt from Indonesia(as evidenced by the long queue of ships waiting to unload their cargo) in a effort to reclaim more land from the sea and to, ideally, connect 63 surrounding islands to the big island. But while Singapore is small, it is also rich: it is in fact the third richest country in the world with a per capita GDP of almost $61,000.
It is also one of the youngest countries. Although its history as a trading center dates back to the 12th century, it was virtually lost to history until 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, in a somewhat questionable transaction, acquired it from the Sultan of Singapore as a British trading post and established it as a free trade port. It remained under British dominion until 1955 and became a fully independent country in 1965. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rapid growth drew immigrants from all around the region: about 75% from China, with most of the others from Malaysia and India. While many of the British gentry made a fortune from their colonial ventures, not all newcomers fared so well:
- Many of the early Chinese immigrants made the dangerous transit to the island on so-called “coffin ships” on which many died. Many of those who did survived as a “rickshaw coolies”, who were continually in debt to prosperous rickshaw owners, and were often addicted to opium as a way to escape from the pain of their profession.
- Although a few Indian merchants fared well, the vast majority (accounting for about 10% of the early population) were slave prison laborers who the British lured to Singapore with a promise of shorter sentences than if they remained in India, and when they finished their servitude (building Singapore’s infrastructure and colonial buildings and monuments), had an option of returning to India or remaining (which most did).
- Malays and other Muslin Arabs, whom the British generally viewed as third- or fourth-class citizens, were evicted from their original 57-acre central-city neighborhood (Raffles divided the entire island into separate ethnic enclaves) when the land became more valuable, and resettled to the remote western fringes. (Many, however, eventually turned out quite well when even this land became increasingly valuable.)
- Women, who were outnumbered by men 15:1 in the 1870s, were often either kidnapped or bonded into prostitution, often being forced to service 200 or more men per month–and perhaps 20 per day during festivals.
The British, in contrast, did fabulously well in Singapore. They made money not just from trading and shipping and the incredibly low-cost labor, but also from opium, which the British administration controlled through 1911. Singapore was also instrumental in another huge colonial industry in which it played only an indirect role–rubber. Rubber seedlings were initially brought here from Brazil, where they were tested, refined and then used as the foundation for all of Southeast Asia’s rubber plantations.
The party ended, at least temporarily, during the early 1940s when the Japanese captured and cruelly occupied the island, plundered its wealth and killed more than 20,000 people. Things got progressively better after the war. Singapore finally gained its full independence and it finally decided to slay its century-old cash cow by making opium illegal.
Singapore’s economy,meanwhile, diversified beyond trading into:
- High-value financial and business services, eventually becoming one of the largest, most important financial centers in the world;
- Retail, beginning in the late 1970s, for Asians looking for upscale western goods, then westerners looking for exotic eastern goods.
- Then under auspices of the government and in cooperation with education and financial institutions, into a broad range of technology-based knowledge industries, especially bio-tech.
But while Singapore, under the somewhat autocratic rule of its first premier, Lee Kuan Yew, has become one of the wealthiest, most business-friendly nations in the world, it has also become one of the world’s greenest countries. It has, for example, dedicated nine percent of its area to park and is pioneering a number of important sustainability initiatives, imposes strict pollution control requirements,subsidizes mass transit and makes it difficult and expensive to buy and register cars.
The 91% of the country’s land that is not dedicated to parks is incredibly scarce and expensive. As a result, even with all their wealth, few people can afford private homes, much less their own yards.85% of Singaporeans, therefore, live in HDB (Housing and Development Board) estates and towers. HDB will ensure that anyone who needs home has one. It offers deeply discounted leases to those who can’t afford to rent at already subsidized costs and encourages home ownerships by offering 25-year mortgages at interest rates of less than 3% per year.