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