PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 28 January 2019

Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial on 28 January 2019.

Friends and fellow Singaporeans. I am very happy to launch the Singapore Bicentennial.

Today, we mark a significant anniversary in Singapore’s history. Stamford Raffles did not “discover” Singapore, any more than Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. By the time Raffles arrived in 1819, Singapore had already had hundreds of years of history. In the 14th century, this area, at the mouth of the Singapore River, was a thriving seaport called Temasek. Around this period, according to the Sejarah Melayu, Sang Nila Utama founded a kingdom here and named it Singapura. When the Europeans came to Southeast Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries, they knew about the island Singapore. Jacques de Coutre was a Flemish gem trader who knew the region well. Around 1630, two centuries before Stamford Raffles, de Coutre proposed to the King of Spain to build a fortress in Singapore, because of its strategic location. Had the King accepted de Coutre’s proposal, Singapore might have become a Spanish colony, instead of a British one. But he did not.

And it took another 200 years before Raffles landed at a spot near here, and persuaded the Sultan of Johor to allow the British East India Company to establish a trading post in Singapore. That was a crucial turning point in our history. It set this island on a trajectory leading to where we are today.

Raffles made Singapore a free port. The new colony prospered, and the population grew rapidly. Immigrants came from Southeast Asia, China, India and beyond. Among the first were Munshi Abdullah, Tan Tock Seng and Naraina Pillai, who all came to Singapore in 1819. Our streets carry evocative names that tell of our ancestors’ diverse origins – Malacca Street, Amoy Street, Kadayanallur Street, Bugis Street, Bussorah Street, plus many others, and thus we became a multicultural and open society. Trade was our life blood. It linked us to the archipelago around us, and to the world beyond. Rubber, tin and spices moved from Southeast Asia through our entrepot to world markets, while manufactured goods flowed in the other direction. We developed close economic and family ties with our neighbours in the region, and especially the Malay peninsula. We identified ourselves as Southeast Asian and especially Malayan.

This history, seeded in 1819, drove us to join Malaysia in 1963. But though we did not realise it then, this history had also made us quite different from our neighbours and friends. Throughout the colonial period, Singapore was never governed as part of Malaya. The island was either a separate crown colony or a part of the Straits Settlements, which included Penang and Malacca, but not the other Malay states. Over nearly 150 years, our political values, our inter-communal relations, and our worldviews had diverged from the society on the other side of the Causeway. So, in retrospect, it was not surprising that less than two years after Merger with Malaysia, we had to part ways, in an emotionally wrenching Separation.

At the same time, this history since 1819 explains why after Separation, Singapore not only survived, but thrived. Our forefathers had not come here with the intention of staying. They had come as sojourners, to earn a living and perhaps a fortune, to support families back home. But over time, as they slogged for a living, to feed themselves and their families, many decided to sink roots here. During the Second World War, they endured the dangers and privations of the Japanese Occupation. After the War, they were swept up in the worldwide wave of nationalism, anti-colonialism, and the struggle for self-determination. When the Communists won the civil war in China, Singapore felt the impact. The population had to decide who they were, and where they should settle and seek citizenship. A few left, but many stayed. They organised themselves and fought to shake off the British colonial yoke. This emporium became their home, and eventually their country. Gradually, they nurtured a national consciousness and sense of identity. They started thinking of themselves as Singaporeans. So when Singapore separated from Malaysia, the Pioneer Generation were no strangers to hardship and struggle. We had the grit and the resolve to show the world, and ourselves, that we were determined to endure, and to be masters of our own fate. And so we did.

Thus 1819 marked the beginning of a modern, outward-looking and multicultural Singapore. Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today. Without 1819, we would not have had 1965, and we would certainly not have celebrated the success of SG50. 1819 made these possible.

This is why the Singapore Bicentennial is worth commemorating. We are not just remembering Stamford Raffles or William Farquhar, though we should. We are tracing and reflecting upon our longer history, one that stretches back way before 1965. We are acknowledging and appreciating the broader context which shaped and created today’s Singapore. This was our journey, from Singapore to Singaporean.

This journey was not a straight and level path, forwards and upwards. Along the way there were many ups and downs, successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies. We fought for independence from our colonial masters. But we also recognise the decisive and indelible imprint that the British left on Singapore – the rule of law, our parliamentary system of government, even the language I am speaking today.

Our forefathers paid with blood, sweat and tears, but they also savoured hard won successes and patient, slow achievements. They cleared the jungles, and planted nutmeg, gambier, and rubber. Indentured coolies slaved at the quayside, here at Boat Quay. Resourceful traders built import and export businesses, creating wealth and prosperity. Many came attracted by the rainbow. Not all found that pot of gold, or made it from rags to riches. But many built better lives for themselves, and all kindled the hope of a brighter future, a brighter tomorrow for their children.

In the process, they formed communities and organised themselves to help one another. Ethnic groups to provide mutual support and community leadership, like the Chinese clans and the Eurasian Association. Welfare bodies to take care of the poor and underprivileged, like the Sree Narayana Mission and the Catholic Welfare Services. Cultural groups to keep alive the heritage of the ancient civilisations, like the Angkatan Sasterawan ‘50, and Nam Hwa Opera. Our forefathers built schools for the young, hospitals for the sick, places of worship for the faithful. These institutions did good work, grew in prestige and standing, and became rallying points and sources of strength for the community.

Over two centuries, all these different strands wove together into a rich tapestry, a shared sense of destiny, and eventually a Singapore identity and nation. Sportsmen and women flew the Singapore flag at international meets. Servicemen took up arms to defend their families and homes. And today, we sing “Majulah Singapura” with one voice, and recite the National Pledge with conviction and pride.

Hence I am glad that for the Bicentennial, over 200 groups and organisations are holding commemorative events. Their stories and journeys are the personal experiences and collective memories that give life and meaning to the Singapore Bicentennial story. I hope these activities will ignite Singaporeans’ interest to discover more about ourselves and our past.

In this Bicentennial year, as we reflect on how this nation came into being, let us also think of how we can move forward together. For we are never done building Singapore. It is every generation’s duty to keep on building, for our children, and for our future. So that in another 50 or 100 years, Singaporeans not yet born will have a richer and greater Singapore Story to tell, and one that we will have helped to write together. Thank you.