What made colonial Singapore a thriving port city and what does that mean for you?

Tanjong Pagar Port in Singapore before it was closed. Photo credits: Peter Leong via Unsplash

In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. 2 years later, in 1821, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port, providing ready access to population from other centers.

By 1860, however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. In the 1870s, Singapore became the main hub for sorting and export of rubber, a major commodity for global economic development.

By the close of 19th Century, Singapore was a thriving hub in the region. The economy grew eightfold between 1873 and 1913. Before there was the Singapore we know today, the port city was already a major trading hub. This wasn’t purely luck nor a matter of domestic economic policy. So what happened through these years?

Reducing Piracy

Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.

With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories — Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca.

The Dutch Navy was implicitly given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. In fact, the Dutch greatly expanded their presence in the straits. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. The informal security coordination in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.

Injection of Human Capital

By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port.

The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.

The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore.

Why is this important to us as an individual?

At an individual level, this holds 2 key lessons for us in terms of thinking about jobs and careers:

  1. You want to be very selective in the environment that you subject yourself to if you have enough choice and control. Put yourself in a safe environment where you surround yourself with a friendly support network.
  2. You want to build up your capabilities and be proactive in growing your knowledge and skills relevant to the network you have built up.

Where you find yourself in a hostile or personally unfavourable environment, have no qualms about withdrawing yourself from it. There is no point in spending time and efforts fending off criticisms and attacks with limited resources you have. Better to find a new environment and context where you can be nurtured and grow. Success often begets success as the initial value you develop attracts others to contribute to your development. Just make sure you don’t get so addicted to it that you begin to fear failure.

Keep growing!

Note: A previous version of this article was published in my blog a while back focusing only on the economic history aspects.

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Kevin Low

Kevin Low

Alive, breathing, growing and sipping coffee in Singapore. Thinking | Writing | Career-coaching — kevlow.com