Singaporeans are made up of many different races, ethnicities, heritages and cultures. Where did our roots come from? How did we end up here? Why did our forefathers choose to make Singapore their home?
We explore the various countries and regions our forefathers came from, how they came to settle here, and the personalities who have contributed to our rich diversity as a nation.
The Kingdom of Singapura began with Sang Nila Utama in 1299 and ended in 1398 with the last king, Parameswara. Both originally hailed from Palembang in Indonesia. When Parameswara first arrived, a group of sea nomads came with him. These were the Orang Laut, one of the earliest peoples in the area.
Later in 1811, Temenggong Abdul Rahman migrated from Riau and brought with him about one hundred Malays from the Johor-Riau Sultanate. A new settlement was born on the banks of the Singapore River. Shortly after, the British arrived in 1819.
Singapore’s boom attracted ethnicities from Indonesia such as the Baweanese, Javanese and Bugis. The numbers of Javanese here rose between 1886 and 1890, with many hired to work in plantations and mines. The Baweanese arrived in smaller numbers as part of their rite of passage to leave home and venture overseas. The Bugis, a seafaring people from Sulawesi, mostly settled in the Kampong Rochor area where they traded from.Vietnamese
In the 7th century, there was reportedly a monk from Chiao-chih, Northern Vietnam, who could speak fluent Malay. This alluded to the connection between Singapore and Vietnam, and the two countries have maintained diplomatic relations until today.Filipinos
Jose Rizal, the Filipino nationalist and one of the Philippines’ greatest heroes, was a frequent visitor to Singapore, having travelled here four times in the late 1800s. On his last visit in 1896, he was urged by friends to remain in Singapore for his own safety but refused. He was subsequently arrested and sent back on a ship to Manila. Today, there is a memorial dedicated to him outside the Asian Civilisations Museum, in honour of his revolutionary work and his visits here.
Apart from Rizal, the celebrated band leader, music composer and conductor of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now known as MediaCorp), Rufino Soliano, was a local Eurasian with Filipino roots. Similarly, highly esteemed Filipino trumpeter Tony Castillo, better known as Mohammad Nor Abdullah, married a local Malay and converted to Islam. National shooter Martina Veloso, who won gold twice in last year’s Commonwealth Games, is also of Filipino descent.Burmese
After fighting and losing three wars with the British between 1824 and 1885, Burma eventually became a British colony. Singapore and Burma were both administered under the Bengal Presidency in British India. Because of this colonial connection, it is thought that Burmese people travelled between the two countries. Some of Singapore’s roads such as Mandalay Road and Moulmein Road may have also been named by influential Burmese resident U Kyaw Gaung. Having moved to Singapore in the late 1800s, U Kyaw Gaung was one of the founders of the Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple, which housed an 11-foot Buddha statue made from white marble from North Mandalay in Burma.
Contact between India and Southeast Asia was established more than a thousand years ago, giving rise to the succession of early powerful Hindu-Buddhist city-states in the region.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the rise of colonialism in Southeast Asia resulted in a new wave of contact with the region in the form of South Asian labourers, who were in great demand to work under the growing European colonial empires of the period.
From 1825, Singapore began receiving Indian convicts from British India to serve out their sentences and assist with the labour shortage. The convicts were mainly from the Bengal, Madras and Bombay presidencies of British India. They made up the bulk of the labour force for public works in Singapore.
Between 1840 and 1860, convict labour was used to build the Bras Basah Jail, where the convicts themselves eventually moved into upon its completion. Located between Bras Basah Road and Stamford Road, Bras Basah Jail was also a site of industry where the convicts were employed for rattan work, weaving, tailoring and even a printing press, among others. Eventually, many of the Indian convicts who were released at the end of their term married local women and settled in Singapore.
Singapore’s ties with China can be traced all the way back to the Song dynasty. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Singapore exported many goods from around the region to China. In 1320, it was recorded that Chinese trader Wang Dayuan was sent on a mission to Long Ya Men (Dragon’s Teeth Gate), with the aim of procuring elephants for China.
From the 19th century, huge numbers of immigrants from China arrived in Singapore to work as coolies. Comprising the main dialect groups of Cantonese, Hokkiens, Teochews and Hainanese, they left China for a variety of reasons – a chaotic economy, shortage of food and money, and the desire for a better life. Next to arrive were Samsui women from the Fujian province of China who came here to work as construction workers. To curb the rising unemployment, the British government restricted the number of men who could come into Singapore, but not the women. As a result, Samsui women and others from around the region flocked to Singapore.Japanese
During the Edo period (1603-1868) under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan kept its doors closed to foreign influence. Playing an important role in opening Japan’s doors to trade with foreign countries, namely Britain, in 1854, was a little-known figure by the name of Yamamoto Otokichi. In 1862, Otokichi moved to Singapore. He became a well-respected member of the Singapore mercantile community and owed his wealth to his close ties with the British.
As government missions from Japan began travelling out of the country to America and Europe during this period, many would transit in Singapore where Otokichi became their main point of contact. Otokichi was also recognised as the first Japanese resident in Singapore.
Surprisingly, apart from Otokichi, most early Japanese residents in Singapore consisted largely of prostitutes. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), many Japanese girls from poor households were taken to East Asia and Southeast Asia to work as prostitutes, collectively known as karayuki-san. The earliest Japanese prostitutes were believed to have arrived in 1870 or 1871. By 1889, there were 134 of them. Japanese trafficker Muraoka Iheiji claimed to have trafficked 3,222 women from Japan to Singapore from 1890 to 1894.
On 29 January 1819, the British arrived in Singapore. Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with Temenggong Abdul Rahman and Sultan Hussein, who both gave the British the right to establish a trading post on the island, the size of which was calculated as the length of a cannon shot. Years later, with the signing of two other treaties, the whole island was brought under British rule. This firmly established Singapore as a British colony, reinstating its status along the global trading route, which saw many different communities and peoples arriving on its shores.German
In the 1850s, there was already a growing number of Germans in Singapore. A few of them set up the Teutonia Club in 1856, which became the hub for their social activities. After World War I, they were regarded as public enemies, with most of them being deported or put into internment in the surrounding islands.
Then, in 1935, a new club, Deutsches Haus, was established, and later abandoned with the onset of World War II. The German population in Singapore recovered after the war, and the club was re-established in 1955. It still exists along Toh Tuck Road.Irish
One of the first Irishmen to arrive here was George D. Coleman, who became Singapore’s first architect. Coleman came to Singapore in 1822 and was hired by Raffles to help plan the town centre. In 1836, Singapore’s first comprehensive map of the town was drawn up, thanks to Coleman’s land surveys.
He also built Palladian-style houses that were adapted for our tropical climate and was involved in various land reclamation projects.
Later in 1925, a group of Irish expats established the St. Patrick’s Society, a non-sectarian and non-political association for the Irish community in Singapore.French
When Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, he brought along two French naturalists.
In the years since, other Frenchmen have arrived and made contributions to Singapore’s development, including missionaries, merchants and planters. For example, one of the oldest educational institutions in Singapore, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), was established in 1854, by an order of French nuns.
The Portuguese were among the earliest Europeans to arrive in South-east Asia. In 1511, they took Malacca by force. The Sultan of Malacca fled and established the Johor Sultanate, which Singapore was a part of.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, unions between Portuguese men and local women were encouraged due to a policy of miscegenation set out by Alfonso d’Albuquerque in the 1500s. This led to the proliferation of Eurasian descendants in the region. In the mid 1820s, one notable Portuguese who arrived in Singapore was Dr. Jose Carvalho e Silva d’Almeida Carvalho E. Silva. He came to Singapore to set up a dispensary and later became one of Singapore’s leading merchants.Spanish
In 1625, Singapore attracted the attention of the Spanish Crown. Jacques de Coutre, a Flemish gem trader who was loyal to the Spanish court travelled widely throughout South-east Asia. In a letter to the King of Spain, he recommended the construction of two fortresses in Singapore. Although nothing came of it, it showed Spanish presence in the region as early as the 15th century.
Whether a result of trade affiliations, political strife, or simply a desire for a better life, our forefathers arrived in Singapore and made it their home. It is this mix of stories, cultures and ethnicities that make us who we are today. A nation with a rich and complex identity. A nation that embraces and celebrates diversity. A nation of Singaporeans.