The history of Modern Singapore began in the early 19th century with the arrival of the British East Indies and Sir Stamford Raffles. While Singapore had long existed in the centuries prior to the British arrival – as a settlement under various names such as Singapura and Temasek – it was the signing of the 1819 treaty that signalled the founding of Modern Singapore.
Three figureheads from the East India Company played crucial roles in the founding and early establishment of Modern Singapore. They were namely Sir Stamford Raffles, the recognised founder of Modern Singapore, William Farquhar and John Crawfurd, the first two Residents of Singapore.
Raffles, then Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, was searching for a new British base for the British East India Company in the region in 1818. He subsequently found the island of Singapore, which was located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and near the Straits of Malacca. Several factors contributed to his earmarking of the island as the site of the British base. Singapore possessed a natural harbour, fresh water supplies and a timber supply for ship repair. Most importantly, unlike other islands in the region, Singapore was not occupied by the Dutch.
Raffles’ expedition officially landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819, although he landed at the southern outskirts on St John’s Island a day before. The symbolic landing site today by the Singapore River behind Parliament House has been marked with a status of Raffles, although there is alternative version of his first landing via Rochor River.
Raffles found a Malay settlement at the mouth of the river, which was then headed by a Temenggong (governor) for the Sultan of Johor, Tengku Abdul Rahman. The settlement was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor. The area was under the charge of the Dutch and Bugis, who would never agree to a British base in Singapore. The British and the Temenggong came to a draft agreement on 30 January 1819. With the Temenggong’s help, the exiled Tengku Hussein, Tengku Abdul Rahman’s older brother, was brought to Singapore from the Riau Islands on 1 February 1819.
The British offered to recognise Tengku Hussein as the rightful Sultan of Johor with a yearly payment, in return for the right for the British East India Company to establish a trading post in Singapore. This agreement was put to pen with a formal treaty on 6 February 1819. The signing of the treaty was attended by British representatives, Malay dignitaries and members from the local settlements. On this day, the British flag was formally hoisted on the island, and Modern Singapore was born.
It was however the 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance that sought to transfer the power from the Sultan to the British. Negotiated and drafted by the second Resident of Singapore, John Crawfurd, who replaced Farquhar, the treaty ensured that the EIC would have full authority over the administration of Singapore. In return, the Sultan and Temenggong would receive allowances and were allowed to live on land (notably Kampong Glam) set aside for them in Singapore. The 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance was signed on 2 August 1824 and replaced the 1819 Singapore Treaty.
The Arabs, Bugis, Indians and Peranakan Chinese and other traders across the archipelago made Singapore their trading port of choice, because of its ideal port location and that they were seeking to circumvent Dutch trading restrictions on other ports. Trade and commerce would transform Modern Singapore dramatically and turn the island into the centre of commercial activity in the archipelago. Raffles and the British East India Company’s vision to make Singapore a free trading port brought spectacular success to the settlement.