Once Upon a Time in Singapore

Before Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore was still a city emerging from the ashes of war and the shadow of colonialism. A look back at the Lion City.

Start Slideshow View as a List

The city-state of Singapore has long been known as a bastion of prosperity -- an experiment in free market capitalism and technocratic government engineered by its long-serving leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew. That experiment has created a society of some 5.4 million people -- largely a mix of ethnic Chinese, Malay, and Indians -- accustomed to some of the highest standards of living in the world: Today, Singapore’s per capita GDP is more than $55,000 (USD).

All of this has been made possible by a booming financial services sector and thriving technology and pharmaceuticals manufacturing industries. It’s also been led by a government that has earned a reputation for restraining free speech and fair elections. Lee’s critics blast him as an iron-fisted authoritarian, a leader who systemically stamped out political opposition and voices of dissent in the media over the course of his four-plus decades in power. "Singapore remains the textbook example of a politically repressive state," according to Human Rights Watch. But Lee’s admirers often opt to focus on the city-state’s staggering rise instead.

Sixty years ago, Singapore was a much different place. It was still shaking off the ruins of war: World War II had ushered in a traumatic Japanese invasion in 1942, which included a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the island’s Chinese that killed as many as 100,000 people. The British ultimately took Singapore back from the Japanese at the end of the war, but only after a relentless Allied bombing campaign had decimated the island’s shipping and manufacturing industries. The city-state was still not self-governing: Singapore remained under various forms of colonial rule until it joined Malaysia in 1963.

Lee Kuan Yew -- the man who would define the country and its politics -- came to power in 1959. During his three decades in office he would oversee staggering economic growth and the consolidation of political power in his People’s Action Party. The proof of his impact is, at least in part, in the numbers: When Lee became the leader of Singapore, its per capita income was roughly $400. By 2010, it had increased one hundred-fold to $40,000.

In the 1950s, however, Singapore was still a city emerging from the ashes of war and the shadow of colonialism. Here, we take a look back at the Lion City, poised on the brink of total transformation.

In 1950, Singapore was a city of just over 1 million people. Many of them would have lived in the sort of buildings in the street scene from January 1950 pictured above, known colloquially as “shophouses.” Built between the 1840s and 1960s, these terraced, multistory buildings commonly had storefronts on their first levels, with residential units on the subsequent floors. Shophouses were pervasive in Southeast Asia at the time, and still crowd the centers of many of its cities. In 1950, some were home to as many as 100 people.

Lionel Green / Staff

A family sits together in Singapore, in July 1950. During World War II, the city-state remained a major exporter of raw materials to its Japanese occupiers. But Singaporeans saw little economic profit. “All Europeans were interned, and the Chinese were faced with a range of extortionist schemes to provide ‘donations’ for the Japanese war effort,” which kneecapped Singapore's business community, writes historian Carl A. Trocki. As a result, the postwar years in Singapore were marred by unemployment, food shortages, and economic malaise after the war obliterated the economy.

Haywood Magee / Stringer

In 1948, communists in Malaya began an armed insurgency against British rule, leading the colonial power to declare a state of emergency. That unrest soon spilled over into Singapore, where government forces clashed regularly with communist-infiltrated trade unions. These unions would pick up steam through the 1950s, resulting in near-daily strikes and work stoppages. Their discontent -- inflected with a revolutionary fervor -- would combine with a growing unease among Chinese students, who protested for an improved education system. The photo shows a team of riot police in the early 1950s.

Central Press / Stringer

Starting the late 1880s, Singapore saw a massive wave of immigration from China. Many took jobs in the growing tin, rubber, oil palm, and tobacco industries. Many also worked on the wharfs or as rickshaw coolies. Here, a child sleeps in the backseat of a rickshaw.

Three Lions / Stringer

Labor strife would continue to escalate through the 1950s; the Hock Lee bus strike and riot in the spring of 1955 resulted in several deaths and over two dozen injuries. Here, riot police line up for an inspection, brandishing their basket shields in January of that year.

Central Press / Stringer

Men sit at an outdoor food stall in Singapore, January 1955.

Horace Bristol / Stringer

To this day, some 75 percent of Singapore’s population is Chinese. At this beauty pageant in 1955, contestants wear traditional Chinese dresses.

Keystone / Stringer

Here we see Singapore’s marine police offices and its city hall offices circa 1950. Designed by an architect named F.D. Meadows and built between 1926 and 1929, it is the building where Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese on behalf of the Allied forces at the end of World War II on Sept. 12, 1945. Lee Kuan Yew and his cabinet also took their oaths of office on June 5, 1959, in the City Hall Chamber. The building underwent major renovations from 1987 to 1991.

Richard Harrington / Stringer

People eat at a food stall on the Singapore waterfront in early 1957.

Keystone Features / Stringer

Since the late 19th century, rubber had been one of Singapore’s top exports. At the start of the 1950s, the Korean War sent global demand for the product skyrocketing, helping stanch the city-state’s economic bleeding. Here, dockworkers unload rubber in Singapore harbor in early 1957.

Keystone Features / Stringer
Previous Next Close