The History of Singapore

Started out the morning with a visit to Fort Canning Park, a hill that sits at the heart of Singapore’s old downtown center.  It has all sorts of historic significance: resting place of the last king of Singapura; home of the British governors; site of Singapore’s first botanic gardens; headquarters of the British Army at the start of WWII.  Now it has a reservoir, a variety of gardens, a defunct arts hall, a sculpture garden, and a WWII museum (called the Battlebox Museum, which I think is a great name).  Here’s the main gate:

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And the British barracks used to be here:

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The park has fairly extensive plantings, and we found several fish kill trees (aka the common putat), so named because you can grind the seeds to a powder and stun fish with them.  Toxins aside, the tree is really cool — the flowers are amazing (and very soft).  Sadly, the tree is endangered.

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Overall, it was a lovely place to spend a little time in the morning — until Pres started getting eaten by mosquitos.  But this was our very favorite spot:

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The next part of our morning’s journey took us to the National Museum of Singapore, a museum that introduces visitors to Singaporean history.  For those of you who can’t get to the museum and aren’t inclined to read the Wikipedia article on the history of Singapore, here’s a quick summary:

  • Singapore is a small but significant trading post.  We only know the history back about a thousand years, relying on pretty limited archaeological remains.  But we know that a lot of Chinese pottery and spices make their way through and past the island.  People live in thatch-roofed huts and are probably most closely related to tribes of Malaya and Indonesia.
  • Trade increases after the European powers (Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal) show up.  The island is very loosely claimed by the Dutch, but since the island itself has no natural resources (it just has a great port), no Europeans really settle here for some time.
  • In 1819, Sir Henry Raffles wanders over from England, says, “I’m going to make a port for free trade and break the Dutch monopoly,” and builds a bunch of stuff.  He makes Singapore’s first laws and established its first school.  He only hangs out here for 9 months, but he has a major impact.
  • The British and Dutch quarrel over Singapore for three years.  The Brits win.
  • Singapore grows as a trading port, taking advantage of increasing demand for Malay rubber and tin.  Immigrants come in from China, Malaya, and India (many of the latter are convicts imported by the British to do all of the heavy lifting).
  • The British stay in charge until 1942, when the Japanese invade and occupy the island.
  • In 1945, control of Singapore reverts to Britain.  There’s a bit of unrest, and Britain cedes control of the island in 1959.
  • Dr. Lee Kuan Yew leads Singapore through a messy period during which Singapore merges with Malaysia — and then unmerges three years later.
  • Singapore becomes independent in 1965.
  • Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister, leads a serious of autocratic and significant reforms — on the advice of a Dutch economist, he builds housing blocks, cleans up the streets, develops infrastructure, creates schools, encourages racial harmony, draws in foreign companies, reduces unemployment, plants trees, makes everyone learn English, throws his political opponents in jail, establishes draconian punishments for lawbreakers, and squashes freedom of the press.  Singapore becomes a perfect country.

Well, that was a little more history than you might have wanted, but I think it’s interesting.  If you prefer photos, here are a few items we saw in the museum:

My mom, and probably no one else, will appreciate that the glass thing is an epergne.  My dad, and probably no one else, might appreciate that the plant — a native called a corkscrew vine — is a natural source of ouabain.  And everyone should appreciate the fact that the metal dragon is a Malaysian cannon.

After our museum morning, we had Peranakan food at True Blue — very pricey and very delicious.  The Peranakan are Singaporeans of Chinese decent who have lived here since the 1500s.  Their food is distinctive because it combines elements of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indonesian cooking.  So we had banana flower-cucumber salad, sweet potato leaves cooked in a coconut milk sauce, and tamarind fried fish.

Our afternoon was spent emailing, hanging out by the pool, and attending a health insurance presentation (not exactly the highlight of our trip thus far — turns out we don’t have dental insurance, so I’m in trouble).  We had dinner with Kristen (the other counselor, and definitely our closet friend thus far) at Food Republic, a giant food center in the basement of one of the endless shopping malls that line Orchard Road.

Tomorrow will be a big day — first day going to see the office, and then we will be getting the keys to our new apartment!

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