Singapore a “Barren Island” in the 1950s? Absolutely False

I never cease to be amazed when I come across incredulous claims made by the PAP 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.

Excuse 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 to manipulate perceptions. 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 charades played by the PAP and with Singapore’s history, I am sure they are sick and tired of such deceptions. Personally, I am  appalled by the ignorance displayed by many young Singaporeans who actually believe the tall tales that Singapore was an impoverished fishing village until the 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 fishing village in the mid 1900s? Absolutely False!

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, 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.

The impressive Raffles Place has long been a bustling financial district (1920s)

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

The above pix  shows how 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 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. There are several lovely video gems documenting Singapore’s history on YouTube so do check them out.

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.

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32 Responses to Singapore a “Barren Island” in the 1950s? Absolutely False

  1. Think one should not read too much into one word “barren”. If you’ve lived in Singapore in the early years (50s, 60s and 70s) I think you’ll agree that the population was generally very poor. The rich (ie towkays, some ang-mohs) had big houses and servants, but the majority of people were very poor, and many lived in kampongs.

    Life was of course simpler then, kids played marbles, caught fighting spiders and fished in longkangs. No one would regard Singapore as well-off.

    I guess we can say that we were no worse than other places like Hong Kong, and perhaps a little better than Jakarta or KL. But certainly we were still very poor.

  2. Thanks for your comments:) I did live thro that era and I disagree that majority of Singaporeans were impoverished. Living in a kampong doesn’t make one destitude as some people actually liked that simple life. One cannot compare to now when we have many instant millionaires thanks partly to property inflation. There were of course poor people then and we still have them. If we look at the situation in those days, life was simpler and the cost of living was very very low and the needs were much fewer.

    I take issue when Singapore’s past is repeatedly descibed in a misleading way as it is an insult to Singaporeans. There have been too many cases of people saying Singapore was a village or swamp and was nothing much before PAP and that is factually wrong. The PAP network is spreading quite a fair bit of misinformation to hype themselves and such errors shld be corrected to avoid a distorted history.

    • I remember, even back in the 70s, few people could afford cars, we lived in small 1 or 2-room flats, there were regular blackouts, going overseas for holiday (other than Malaysia or Indonesia) was a BIG deal, buses had bus conductors, student tickets were 10 cents, we ate at hawker centres most of the time, restaurants were only for very special occasions,

      We were poor, overall, as a country.

      • to say we were poor overall in the 60s and 70s is a sweeping statement. Everything has its context including history. Back then things were cheap where at one time we could buy a bowl of noodles for 20 cents and bus fare cost 10cents in the 60s. Living standards were much lower back then of course and we did not have the modern conveniences that we have now. Life was simple back then, as in all other countries, but many people were also content and had big families, The ancient past can never be truly comparable to the modern age.

    • I was taught from Primary, as I suspect most children were, that Singapore can only depend on its people, because we had no minerals, no oil, ie no natural resources, etc. Thus I was taught that people are Singapore’s most precious resource, because we had nothing else.

      Perhaps this is what Mr Lee meant by ‘barren’– because if you dig underground, you will find no oil, no copper, no gold, nothing.

      • think only LKY knows what he intended when he used the loaded word barren. But fact is we were not barren in the true sense of the word as we had our people as a valuable resource, our excellent location, our reputation as an important global entreport and our fairly developed state by then:)

      • LinCH says:

        We have the same type of people which makes Japan, S Korea, Taiwan and HK and now China prosperous. That is our resource and not the use of English and other bull causes.

  3. Pingback: Daily SG: 24 Sep 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  4. AA says:

    “Barren” means not fertile, not capable of producing vegetation. It was used in the agricultural sense. We had no great natural resources to speak of: we could not export crops, we had no natural resources, thus we were barren.

    If you had really lived during that era (like I did), you would have agreed that our country was transformed, economically. That is why many people born in the post-war years of the 1940s have consistently voted Lee Kuan Yew back into power.

    • Laughingmyassoff@AA~ says:

      So you mean we can export vegetables now? which type? Carrots? Cabbages? or we export Chickens? Ah Gong Lee say we were barren, now we are “not barren?” Oh pls…internet provides u with the ability to think very carefully before saying with Google thrown in for a good measure just in case you can’t get hold of the relevant information.

      It was transformed no doubt, but to cast dubious distorted history facts for self glorification, pls try harder~

  5. @AA – LKY did not explain his use of Barren as specific to vegetation which btw we have an abundance of in tropical Singapore 🙂 The word itself has multiple meanings. Yes the country has progressed economically over the years. But don’t forget Singapore was already doing well with one of the highest GDP and it was one of the most modern cities in Asia when PAP came into power. PAP built on exisiting succcess and infrasturcture to bring Singapore to greater heights. But who is to say other parties or leaders like David Marshall would not have been able to do likewise? By giving All the credit to PAP (and LKY for that matter) unfairly diminishes all the good work done by everyone else including ourpredecessors and ancestors.

    BTW Definitions of BARREN as per Merriam Webster are :
    1: not reproducing: as
    a : incapable of producing offspring —used especially of females or matings
    b : not yet or not recently pregnant
    c : habitually failing to fruit
    : not productive: as
    a : producing little or no vegetation : desolate
    b : producing inferior crops
    c : unproductive of results or gain : fruitless
    : devoid, lacking —used with of
    : lacking interest or charm

    : lacking inspiration or ideas

    — bar·ren·ly adverb
    — bar·ren·ness noun

    • Albert says:

      @Jentrified Citizen, you have already answered your own question, haven’t you?

      Definitions 1(a) is what you perceived LKY to mean, but 1(b), (c), 3, 4, 5 are all valid contexts which LKY could have meant. I doubt he will go as far as to imply that Singapore back then was a barren land, like a desert, as I am sure the receiving ends of his speech are no ignorant fools.

      You mentioned, ‘…By giving All the credit to PAP (and LKY for that matter) unfairly diminishes all the good work done by everyone else..’ There is no where in LKY’s speech that he (or the PAP) is claiming All the credits; He was merely mentioning that the PAP was ‘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.’

      Your post strikes a chord with fellow anti-PAP citizens, but will not impress the majority lot of us who are discerning enough.

  6. jer says:

    LKY’s use of the word barren,whatever the meaning one likes to believe he attached to it, is as misleading and erroneous as his insisting this country was just a swamp when the PAP took over. To debunk two meanings, I’d like to point out: Parents had more than 2 kids then. I passed vegetable farms along Braddell Rd on my way to school. People didn’t judge you or obsess over what you possessed. Does there being a lot of poor people make a place barren? I wonder.

    I also wonder if poverty has really diminished? It seems to be growing now, no matter how many update their smartphones every year and have TVs. The middleclass is certainly feeling the pinch of prices today. That is the financial side of things. However, the slums have sprung up again. More people cramped into smaller spaces. The housing of foreign workers is pathetic. 8 to an hdb room is not unusual these days. Even 4 to such a room is crowded. If you compare this to possibly the best decade here, the 80s, life has gone downhill. We don’t even have winners in sport anymore.

    Today, there is a poverty of spirit. Selfishness, me-first-ness, intolerance abounds. Few know their neighbours on their floor, much more in their block. Neighbours don’t even greet each other. There is poverty of morality and integrity. Everyone’s trying to make a buck out of the next person. Wages are kept low. There is poverty of ideas and innovation. You certainly can’t rise to the top with just O or A levels, no matter how good you are at what you do these days. We seem to be a bunch of robots doing whatever is needed to chase and secure wealth.

    This country is full of itself over things that don’t really matter, like big buildings, posh public gardens and more. To me, this country is poor in too many ways that truly count.

    Whatever it is, Singapore was Not barren in the late 50s when the PAP took over. And it was certainly not a swamp either.

    • @Jer I agree with your points. The meaning of poor is relative isn’t it? Just because one is living in a flat now instead of a kampong doesn’t necessarily make one richer in life nor happier. We have all the trappings of material wealth in this country from the shiny malls to the fancy condos, but much of our spirit and souls are barren.

      • Anonymous says:

        I couldn’t agree with you more, except that you failed to highlight another relevant point.
        Singapore was economically regarded as one of the four “Asian Tigers” even before the MIW took control. Following post LKY era, the other Asian Tigers have performed better than Singapore, as evident from KPIs of these four economies.
        Hong Kong has stood out as a model to follow. It has the best MRT system in the world; the highest longetivty in the world and the 3rd highest airport passenger movements in the world. All these were achieved in a quiet and dignified manner without its leaders boasting and blowing their own trumpets.

    • Copycat Chan says:

      Dear Anonymous poster. Please check your history and also get your facts right. LKY took over the country in the 50s. The Asian Tigers were so name due to the insanely high growth from the 60s – 90s

      As for post LKY era growth we have consistently outperformed all other 3 Asian Tigers in terms of % in GDP growth, GDP per capital growth and median wages. In fact SG wages is the highest of the 4

  7. Ee Er San says:

    Singapore was a barren island is as true as lky was born on a rock.

  8. ChinaJoe says:

    Good point about Raffles being the father of modern Singapore. It is akin to Sun Yat Sen being the father of modern China. In both cases, the founder of the current political entity came along later: respectively, Mao Zedong and LKY. Both of these established one party authoritarian regimes that have achieved significant economic growth in a few decades. Both are (at least officially) revered in the nation states they helped create, but have done things which may be judged very differently in years to come.

  9. Danny Lum says:

    So may i ask, oh mighty and know it all. What contributions have you made to the country that changes the quality of life to the citizens of the country? Are we all able to read and write because of your hard work? Are we all able to have all these nice shopping centres because of your hate messages? Did your all mighty powerful tongue help us to get rid of the secret society that terrorised the streets? What is your agenda in spreading all these?
    I don’t live in that era and neither will i pretend to know anything about it. The only thing i know is to be thankful that i can get educated in a safe place because of the work of LKY and his government. Whether or not i’m having a good life, is now dependent on my own hard work.

    • @Danny Lum – I am surprised by your baseless accusation of spreading hate messages. Please justify and do not twist my post and make blank claims like some people do. No where in my post did I promote or spread hate. To sum it up since you have obviously missed my pt in my commentary – I simply questioned the way Singapore has been derided by some people as barren, swamp, nada before PAP days. And I backed up my defence of our nation’s proud past with historical evidence which you conveniently ignored. I also gave credit to PAP and other pioneers who helped bring Singapore to greater heights. As to what are my contributions to the country, what has that got to do with this commentary? But to answer your question, I have worked very hard over the years and contributed to the economic progress just like every working Singaporean has done. In a democracy, No one and No party is above questioning and reproach. Do learn to read and listen with an open mind and don’t blindly defend.

      • Copycat Chan says:

        As the author of this blog. U seem to know little to nothing about the economic development of the country during the early days of independence. The location of SG is a factor however but it’s secondary as the main driver was manufacturing, more specifically, higher level manufacturing than what we’ve been doing, to some extend, tourism and attracting MNCs to setup shop here. You should also ask your parents back about the times during the racial riots, the massive unemployment, high crime rate as well the the infrastructure of that time. True someone like David Marshall might, emphasis on the word MIGHT have done the same. The fact that he and others had their chance before LKY came to power and didn’t managed to make the difference should be telling enough

      • I am fully aware of the economic drivers of manufacturing and tourism but I think it’s time to put all comments in perspective. My commentary was focused mainly on the pre independence days to correct the erroneous references to Singapore as barren, a swamp and a fishing village before PAP came into power. And that is a historical fact that our country was already fairly developed by the mid 1900s. I wouldn’t have written this post if this was the first time LKY referred to Singapore as barren. I wrote this post because there have been numerous times that PAP leaders and their supporters have put down Singapore’s past just to hype their achievements. It is distorting history and that is wrong. Hence many of my comments were not targeted at LKY’s speech but were made in general reference to the overall issue.

        Credit has also been given to PAP for their role in developing Singapore in my post. But kindly note that this blog post was not an economic thesis on Singapore’s growth post independence. So please get your perspectives right before launching any personal attacks.

        And just to be absolutely clear, I will like to emphasise that the point of this commentary was simply to correct the wrong references that have been used in recent years to infer that Singapore was a fishing village and nada before PAP came into power. And we all know what the real truth is.

  10. Dear Sir, I’ll leave the PAP and politics out of this. I know that the people were poorer and had much lesser material than now. But the place looked beautiful and serene. I had not heard from anyone living in that era that they didn’t miss the kampong spirit and the simplicity of life back then. There are many times I wonder did we sacrifice too much for progress and prosperity.

    • @asingaporeanson i thnk many people including myself wonder if too much has been sacrificed in the overly relentless pursuit of economic progress. Personally i miss some of the simplicity of the past. It was certainly not as stressful and noisy and crowded as it is now.

  11. Actually, considering LKY’s devastation at Singapore being ejected from the federation of Malaysia – I can well believe barren for him was taken in the literal sense. Think of what a field day the PAP would have had given the access to the natural resource wealth in Sabah and Sarawak! Well, pity they didn’t get it, because those resources are being horrendously mismanaged.

    LKY is an intelligent and capable man- I don’t doubt that back in those days, they had truly capable individuals. The post-war period was extremely crucial, and they played a good hand well.

    On top of a good geographical location, Singapore’s population was cosmopolitan (i.e. educated) compared to the population in the surrounding countries. Thanks to a century of the British ‘civilising the natives’, the labour force was ripe and ready to enter the age of manufacturing and services. Port cities throughout history have thrived, and always will thrive – until a new mode of transport is invented (ah the golden days of Samarkand…)

    To be frank – it was hard work for them, but Singapore has simply gone the way of the other Asian Tigers (it was hard work for those guys too, and they didn’t have LKY). And NONE of our economies are sustainable – it’s thrived, but for how long?

  12. thanks for this post, i got finally a short summary to show my friends who still believe he is the “founding father” of singapore.

    actually, there are also proofs that LKY staged the whole malaysia kicked singapore out fiasco and instigated a few racial riots on the documents released by the british after the years they need to be confidential. but i didn’t have the time to consolidate them. just to let you know

  13. I can sum up the propaganda as “the cock taking credit for the sunrise.”

    When Augustus brought Rome to new heights of glory, he declared “I found a city of bricks and left it of marble.” He had the decency to acknowledge the contribution of his predecessors in handing him a city of bricks to build on. Contrast how our spin doctors proclaim they turn Singapore from a fishing village into a metropolis when Singapore was already the premier city of its day.

  14. Pingback: Vote With Your Conscience For Men And Women Of Integrity |

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