Singapore a 'Barren Island’ in the 1950s??? A miscommunication or another untruth?

Singapore a 'Barren Island’ in the 1950s??? A miscommunication or another untruth?

By Jen

I never cease to be amazed when I come across incredulous claims made by the PAP government and their devoted supporters.  One wonders if it is sheer arrogance that makes them say things that are clearly not true and yet they think they can get away with it? Examples abound with the most glaring example being erroneous claims made to enhance the reputation of the MIW. Some of these erroneous claims include assertions that Singapore was an ulu backwater, swamp, slum before the PAP came along and saved the day.

I thought I had heard it all until I read Ex-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew asserting in a speech to an international and local audience that Singapore was “a barren island” when the PAP first took control in the 1960s!

Mr Lee had made these remarks earlier this week while hosting a French oil company to dinner at the Istana. He said: “We were suddenly confronted with the challenge of making a living for two million people on a barren island at the southernmost tip of Asia, which gives us the advantage of servicing all the ships that cross the Atlantic and the Pacific.

EXCUSSSSSSE Moi! I laughed when I read this in the mainstream media reports. Was this another of his “hard truths”?  His claim of “barren island” went beyond stretching and spinning the truth. To those who grew up in the mid 1900s they will know this is completely untrue. While numerous Singaporeans have disputed and mocked his claim online, his defenders said that perhaps LKY meant Singapore had no natural resources? Well, nowhere in his speech, as reported by the MSM, did he justify the description of Singapore as a barren land.

Should we give the Supremo Leader some benefit of the doubt that it was a miscommunication? If it were George Bush I might, but not LKY. Why? Simply because LKY is a master of words, a genius orator and a shrewd politician who is adept at the use of words to paint a picture and very persuasive. He knew very well the implications and image it would paint by describing Singapore as a barren island. Obviously, it would also make his achievements seem even more glorious. And as everyone knows, when LKY speaks with fire in his words and steel in his eyes, he can sound impressively convincing.

But to those who are familiar with the games played by the PAP, I am sure they are sick and tired of such show. Personally, I am appalled by the ignorance displayed by many young Singaporeans who actually believe the tall tales that Singapore was impoverished until PAP came along. Some of this ignorance came about no thanks to the brainwashing National Education and Social Studies taught at schools which paint a skewed history to portray the PAP as saviours and LKY as a legend bigger than life. Yes, there were poverty issues in Singapore back then as with every young developing country struggling to cope during the post-war years. But Singapore barren and a swamp? Not!

Let’s set the record straight once and for all with a quick history recap.

a. With due respect, Lee Kuan Yew may have been our first Prime Minister but he was NOT the Founder of Singapore as he has been so inaccurately referred to by his loyalists.  How is it possible when Singapore’s history dates back to the 11th century and beyond? The founder of Singapore has generally been traced back to a Palembang prince Sang Nila Utama who named our island Singapura or Lion City because he saw a creature that looked like a lion.

Even if detractors disagree with Sang Nila Utama as the founder, there is still Sir Stamford Raffles to contend with. He is historically recognised as the Father of Modern Singapore when the country was under British rule.

b. Singapore was also definitely Not a barren island or swamp back in the mid-1900s. The fact is that this island, by virtue of its excellent geographical location in the midst of popular trade routes, was already a thriving trade centre visited by many foreigners and traders many centuries ago. Historical findings even have records dating back the 2nd century that show evidence of  Singapore as a trading post.

As to the modern history of Singapore, it began in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established a British port on the island. Under colonial rule, it grew in importance as a centre for both the India-China trade and the entrepôt trade in Southeast Asia.

By the early 1900s, Singapore was a prosperous city, one of the most modern in Southeast Asia by that time, and it was one of the word’s busiest ports. There were many shops, cafes and restaurants and fancy country clubs and hotels. Some of our iconic brands Raffles Hotel, Robinsons department store and Cold Storage supermarket are way over 100 years old!

But don’t just believe what I say.  Believe what you see. Nothing beats historical evidence in photos and videos.


Raffles Place in 1920s was already a bustling financial district


The lovely Collyer Quay area which served numerous ships calling at its port for centuries (c 1931)


The above pix shows how modern and developed Singapore was by the early 1900s. These pix are part of a timeline of Singapore’s development compiled by Tim Light.  His timelines show fascinating photos of some key areas like Orchard Road and Raffles Place over the years. It is a lovely journey into the past and makes one feel very proud of our nation’s transformation over the centuries. Tim used to stay in Singapore years ago and set up his webpage out of nostalgia.

For more evidence on how progressive Singapore was in the early days, watch these two  videos (here and here) that provide a rare and nostalgic look back into the 1930s and mid 1900s.

I hope that seeing the photos and watching the videos will help debunk all the lies about our country being barren pre-PAP.

To be clear, this is not a PAP bashing post as we should also accord them due credit for helping to bring even greater prosperity to the country. They also did deal with a lot of social unrest and economic problems post-war after the Japanese surrendered to the British and after Singapore was kicked out of the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. The PAP government back then, which had stalwarts like Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye, did well to introduce a slew of programmes that managed to settle the social unrest and strengthened Singapore.

But a point that must be highlighted is that when the PAP took over the running of Singapore as a Republic in 1965, our country was already blessed with invaluable assets and resources. Singapore had its AAA+ geographic location and was already well established as an important international trading city and port. And it had numerous talented and hardworking citizens including many astute entrepreneurs and tycoons who contributed enormously to the country’s development.

Some of these influential tycoons, to name a few, include Lee Kong Chian who was also known as Rubber King and Pineapple King,  spice trader Syed Abdul Rahman Alsagoff and rubber magnate and activist Tan Lak Sye who founded Nanyang University (which later became NTU).

Since independence, our government together with millions of Singaporeans had worked together and brought the country to greater heights. Our success is also due to the work of many sung and unsung heroes and heroines whose contributions should never be forgotten or downplayed just to make a select elite group look better.

Credit should always be given where it is due while hyperbolic claims and lies should also be debunked accordingly. You can fool some of the people some of the time but history has shown that the truth will out some day, always.

TOC thanks Jen for her contribution, this article first appeared on Jentrified Citizen