Professor Tan Tai Yong, President and Professor of Humanities (History) at Yale-NUS College, delivered his third lecture as the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) 6th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore on 30 January titled "Singapore’s Story: A Port City in Search of Hinterlands”. Prof Tan contended that understanding Singapore’s history and development as a port city alongside the traditional narratives of colonisation and nationhood helps us understand how the character and personality of the island state might have roots in regional identities and dynamics that predate even the arrival of the East India Company in 1819.
Defined as a nexus of sea-based trading networks where goods and people were exchanged between land and sea, port cities naturally became cosmopolitan, playing host to a multitude of cultures and languages. As such, Prof Tan said, “…they also served as nodal points for the reception and transmission of culture, knowledge and information.”
Port cities also need a hinterland, and by focusing on the evolution of how Singapore identified its hinterland and how the hinterland in turn influenced the city’s development, a narrative emerges to explain Singapore’s history.
“For long periods in its history, as a port engaged in entrepôt trade, Singapore lacked a clearly defined hinterland. It then found a land-based hinterland in the Malayan Peninsula in the late 19th century, only to lose it in 1965. Throughout, Singapore has continued to define and redefine its hinterland,” explained Prof Tan.
Singapore’s strategic position between the Indian and Pacific oceans saw vessels from the Celebes, eastern Java, Gulf of Siam, Indo-China and the Malay Peninsula arriving regularly for transhipment trade.These intangible maritime-based trading networks served as Singapore’s commercial hinterland from the 14th century to the late 19th century.
The establishment of a colonial port in Singapore saw trade grow in volume, and the influx of migrants from China, India and the Malay Archipelago created a multilingual port city connecting the Arab lands and India to the west and China to the east. This growth revitalised much older and indigenous transnational connections. The bulk of Singapore’s hinterland constituted of the Dutch East Indies — now Indonesia — and to some extent, South China, both main players facilitating Singapore’s entrepôt trade.
After 1874, when the British began extending political control over the Malay States, Singapore’s hinterland became more clearly defined, and it served as a staple port to the Malay Peninsula.
“During this period, the traditional idea of the hinterland supplying its cities was turned on its head as Singapore — the port city — played the role of supplier through its exports to the Malayan hinterland and the Dutch East Indies. Singapore became the conduit through which food supplies from Siam, Burma and Indo-China were redirected to workers in the Malayan and Netherlands export industries,” said Prof Tan.
However, during World War II, the British began drawing up strategies for the post-war development of Malaya and Singapore that resulted in the Federation of Malaya — an amalgamation of the Malay Sates that did not include Singapore.
“The staple port had become so used to its hinterland that it had become inconceivable that Singapore could actually survive without it. This was an interesting case of historical amnesia, as Singapore had earlier thrived without relying primarily on that overland hinterland,” Prof Tan reiterated.
As entrepôt trade declined in the 1950s, Singapore saw the need for a clearly defined and functioning hinterland that would continue to support the port economy, and campaigned to merge with Malaya. However, the merger was short-lived and Singapore gained independence in 1965. Since then, Singapore has continued to define and redefine its hinterland.
“In Singapore’s current manifestation, a global city in a globalised world, the idea of a fixed economic hinterland has lost its meaning. Singapore…depends more on its role as a hub port in global shipping networks,” concluded Prof Tan.
The IPS-Nathan Lecture Series seeks to explain how Singapore has evolved over a period of 700 years, as the country commemorates the bicentennial of the establishment of a British trading settlement in Singapore in 1819. Prof Tan’s earlier lectures focused on the phases of Singapore’s history, starting with its early globalisation and the making of its cosmopolitan culture.
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