15 Aug

3 Things About Singapore’s Past You Never Knew

Since it’s August and everyone is talking about all things Singapore, we thought it is timely to share some really interesting historical facts about our little red dot. 

Before you yawn, sigh or complain about how you don’t really care for history, take a look at these juicy facts that we think deserve a spot in your brain.


Source: https://gph.is/1AV0DhA


1. We were not a sleepy fishing village


You heard us. 

Forget the myth that Singapore was a boring village before Raffles landed on our shores. As early as 1609, the Dutch explored the possibility of making Singapore their principal settlement. And sometime around 1611, Singapore was actually set on fire. 


Source: https://gph.is/1jskbwn

It’s not really clear who did it, but what is clear is that two whole centuries before the British arrived, a settlement existed on our island and it was deemed important enough for enemies to burn it to the ground. 😱

‘We would be greatly deluded to take Raffles at his word, that Singapore was for centuries that neglected and abandoned place that he “found” or “discovered”’.

 – Associate Professor Peter Borschberg


2. The Seedy Reality of Women in Singapore 

Life was difficult for the men who came to Singapore in search of better lives, and it was no different for the women. Many came to toil as samsui woman and ahmahs; there were also those who were forced to pay for their passage by becoming prostitutes and slaves.


Source: https://gph.is/VwIJxd

One organisation got down to rescuing them. The Poh Leung Kok, a home that was set up by the Chinese Protectorate, would inspect the ships to identify girls and women who were held against their will. 

Those rescued would be taught life skills such as sewing and cooking, and the home doubled as a de facto marriage agency, with potential suitors having to pass background checks. 

“[She would] go down the ship and line up the girls. And as they walk out she would know which one was a real friend of a family or a real kinswoman. She could always tell those who were brought in to be sold or brought in to be a slave girl.” 

– Poh Leung Kok committee member May Wong


3. The Living Corpses 

The Japanese Occupation is well-known, but one group we don’t really hear about are the romusha, forced laborers from Java. 

They were sold promises of new prospects in Japanese-occupied Singapore, only to end up in bondage. Food was never enough and many escaped and foraged for themselves. Although they were initially captured and returned back to their camps, the Japanese soon let them go when food shortages worsened.  

The sight of emaciated Javanese begging on the streets for food gave the impression of ‘living corpses’. The Japanese Occupation is estimated to have claimed the lives of 19,000 romusha in Malaya and Singapore alone. 

“There were those who were lying down because they didn’t have enough energy to sit; there were those who squatted; there were also those who seemed like they were waiting for death, because they were severely hungry and none of them looked happy or at ease…”

– Writer Ahmad Luthfi, Bangkai Bernyawa (Living Corpses)


There you have it, three things about our past you never knew. If these facts stirred the history buff in you, we recommend borrowing Singapore: A Biography