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Evolution of a Global City State

Name : S.Vignesh

Matric. Number : U076796X

Tutor’s name : Tay Wei Leong

Tutorial Group : D5
Singapore witnessed a remarkable change during the period of 19th – 20th century when
Raffles discovered Singapore’s potential as a British port for trade. It changed from being a
small patch of green land to being an entrepôt port playing a vital role in the commercial part
of the world.

Singapore River: 19th century impressions

The Singapore River was the commercial heart of the city and played a crucial role in
Singapore’s economic development. Various historical sources provide testimony to this. The
importance of trade along the river and the colonial administration is highlighted in the
artworks, which depicts the Government Hill, buildings along the river and boats along the
river banks1.

In the early 19th Century, Raffles did not fully recognize the central place of the river
as a port and merely used it as a natural way to divide ethnic groups. This can be clearly seen
in the artwork done during 1830, where Chinese occupied ground towards the mouth of the
river2 and the north bank was reserved for government purposes.

Lightermen, the men who crewed the vessels which plied the Singapore River, loaded
an array of bulky and low value produce onto the vessels of Indian and Chinese Design,
tongkang and twakows, which were collectively known as lighters. These goods could be
easily handled in “the sheltered waters of the river than along the exposed foreshore”3.
Malays formed their kampungs or settlements above the present day Elgin Bridge, in the
direction of river’s source. A group of Malay prahu or boats, which was the home for Orang
Laut became an obstruction to river traffic and would have been moved around 1842-434.
The artists’ intention would have been to highlight to the viewers, the importance of the river
and lightermen in the development of Singapore.

Himely, Paris. View of Singapore River, Presentment Bridge and Government Hill, 1830. Engraved by
Sigismond Himely.
Himely, Paris. View from the mouth of the Singapore River, 1830. Engraved by Sigismond Himely.
Stephen Dobbs, “Introduction: The Old And The New”, in The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819 – 2002,
Singapore University Press, 2003, p. 5.
The Singapore River, view of Boat Quay from Monkey Bridge (where Elgin Bridge stands today), 1842-43. Ink
Painting by Charles Dyce.
Singapore River: early 20th century images

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was a breakthrough in the history of the Singapore
River. Reduction of the travel time from Europe to Asia by 60% and the introduction of
improved steam-powered marine engines brought in ₤90 million of trade compared to ₤58
million in the 19th century. The use of Singapore River was pushed to its maximum in the late
19th and early 20th century5.

The faster and the larger ships started replacing small sailing clipper ships in the trade
scenario. However, ocean-going vessels anchored at Keppel harbour due to better facilities
while other crafts like large prows and junks anchored near the river6. The demand for
regional produce generated by port’s expanding role in trading world increased the number of
regional crafts calling in Singapore by four-fold and the tonnage of goods by seven-fold. The
increasing number of regional crafts is showed in the 20th century post-cards7.

As Singapore’s economy expanded, an increasing number of migrants driven by

poverty from their homeland were attracted to it. The river played an important role in
people’s social lives, as it served as a bridge for people of different ethnicity in the face of
similar hardships. The increase in trade along the Singapore River caused severe congestion and
the town which spread along its banks, spewed waste causing pollution in the river. In this period
rice could have been one of the major goods for hawkers among various others as shown in
the post-cards8. Migrants from Indian and China settled down along the banks of the river in
view of making money and worked, mainly in the lighterage industry.

A severe depression in the world economy in 1929 – 1939 caused a “reduction in

volume of goods carried on regional vessels”9, which is also highlighted in the 20th century
post-cards. Another important thing to note is the transport of goods between the river and the
harbour by bullock carts and phasing out of the same due to improvement in transport
technology, as shown in the post-cards.

Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, p. 10.
Ibid., p. 11.
Cheah Jin Seng, Singapore: 500 Early Postcards (2006), p.43-44
Ibid., p. 44
Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, p. 11.
Singapore river: 1970s-80s photographs

In 1970s, the role played by the Singapore River was changed with considerable intervention
from the state. The congested, polluted waters and hawker-lined banks of the river10 were
considered by the government as an impediment to a modern developing Singapore. With
the advent of containerised shipping, the river started to lose its importance as a commercial
artery and a port. However, due to inflationary price hikes on the European ships by Far
Eastern Freight Conference, Chinese vessels or twakows were encouraged to bring in local
goods. This kept the lighterage industry running with the twakowmen working with goods
from these vessels11. It is notable that rubber was one of the important goods handled by
lighters apart from pig feed and rice. This trading boom on the river was however short-lived
with the government’s intention on resiting of the lighter industry to Pasir Panjang and
cleaning up of the river.

Appeals and resistance from the lightermen through Lighter Owner’s Association
were of no avail. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s ordered in 1977 to clean the river within a
decade. Lightermen like hawkers, charcoal burners, boat builders and numerous other
tradesmen were forced to vacate and the buildings and structures along the river were
demolished. This deeply affected the lives of people who made their living on the banks of
the river, as also shown in the pictures from 1970s-80s. The river’s role reversed and trading
activity on her posed to an end with the urbanization campaign by the Ministry of the
Environment. From the 1980s Boat Quay picture, we can see that the Singapore River and its
surrounding areas didn’t gel in with the modern buildings coming up in Singapore. With the
movement of lighter industry and advancement in shipping technologies, congestion and
pollution reduced greatly12. The images show the last few lighters and vessels trading on the
Singapore River before 1983, when the river was zoned off limits for any craft without
special permit. In the following years to come, the river’s landscape was modified to serve
the nation’s objective of a “world-class site for entertainment, recreation and culture”13.

Oral History Department, Singapore Lifeline: The River and its People (1986), p. 95.
Ibid., p. 85.
Linda Berry, Singapore’s River: A Living Legacy (1982), p.55.
T.C. Chang and Shirlena Huang, “Recreating Place, Replacing Memory: Creative Destruction at the
Singapore River” in Asia Pacific Viewpoint 46, no. 3 (2005), pp. 267-278.
Singapore River: 1970s watercolours

1970s to 1980s was one of key periods in the history of Singapore River. It was the final
phase before the end of trading-on-river-waters era. Most of the painters like Gog Sing Hooi,
Lim Cheng Hoe and T. Y. Choy were part of the Singapore watercolour society14. All the
artists seem to highlight the importance of this decade through their paintings. The busy
tongkang traffic, the terrace houses along the river banks and the activity of lighter industry
seem to have been the favourite subject for the painters. Through their picturesque
landscapes, the artists depict the realism with the local flavour in it.

The paintings highlight the trade activity which was going on the river during 1970s.
Ong Kim Seng and Gog Sing Hooi have particularly focused on the tongkangs and twakows
pointing to the viewers their importance in Singapore history, whereas Lim Cheng Hoe has
given a watery feel to the whole picture with clear demarcation between the boats and the
buildings. T. Y. Choy on the other hand seems to point out the settlement of labourers on the
river banks and also the congestion and pollution caused due to the same. The artists found it
important to paint these scenes, in order to place a significant importance to Singapore River
and the lightermen in the history of Singapore. These also serve as credible primary sources
for historians at present and in the years to come.

The Changing Significance of the Singapore River

Today’s Singapore River carries a whole new look to it. A walk along the river opens us to a
whole new modern world of pubs, restaurants, offices housed in towering skyscrapers and
condominiums. Towering Marina Bay Sands, Fullerton hotel, Esplanade - Theatres on the
bay, Merlion Park, Clarke Quay and G-Max reverse bungee provide a picturesque view and
attracts visitors old and young alike. It adheres to the nation’s goal of making the River a
centre for world-class recreation, entertainment and culture. In addition, parts of the
preserved heritage such as the artefacts in Asian Civilizations Museum, sculpture of Sir
Stamford Raffles at his landing site, boys jumping into the river, merchants, money lenders,
labourers having meals, memorial for civilians who fought in the resistance movement
against Japanese, the Cenotaph and former supreme court and city hall form an interesting
part of the view along the river.

Retrieved on 24th September, 2010 from
Boat Quay, 2010. Author’s photograph.

The significance of today’s Singapore River is, however completely different from
what it once held for the merchants of the developing city. Economically, it is a centre for
tourist attraction. The role it had once played in people’s lives is entirely different from its
contemporary role. It was the lifeline of traders who settled along the banks of the river,
while nowadays it’s viewed more as a tourist attraction welcoming people from all over the
world and from all walks of life. Thus, the radical transformation of the river’s landscape has
also changed its significance in the society.

The modified landscape of the river today arouses mixed emotions from people. The
older generation particularly feel that the river has “lost its character”. The river evokes a
feeling of nostalgia in the older and poorer community as they view it as a memory of a
bygone past. To them it is not merely the lost memory of an individual, but it is the social
memory of their generation lost forever. Some of these feelings are reflected in the works of
art of Teo Eng Sen15 which express concern over the growing trend of “selective forgetting”
of the past. The memory of the Singapore River is thus overcome with nostalgia among the
older generations of the society.

On the other hand, the youth and business generations observe these changes in the
landscape as a part of modernisation of the nation. Even the mass communication media like
the press, project the river only as a centre of entertainment while little is said about its
history. A comparative study of the pictures of Singapore River as a trade centre and
recreation centre reveals the outcome of clouding of the views of old and poor by the younger
generations. This analysis of the changing significance of Singapore River provides us an
insight into the impact of the changing landscapes on people and society. Their social
memory of the landscape changes with time, and in each era it carries a wholly new and
different significance to them.

Kwok Kian Chow, ‘Ink Painting Societies, Singapore Watercolour Society and the Singapore River’,
<>, May 2000.

1. Cheah Jin Seng, Singapore: 500 Early Postcards (2006).

2. Gretchen Liu, A Pictorial History of Singapore (1999).

3. Irene Lim, Sketches in the Straits: Nineteenth Century Watercolours and Manuscript
of Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Batavia by Charles Dyce (2003).

4. Kwok Kian Chow, ‘Ink Painting Societies, Singapore Watercolour Society and the
Singapore River’,, May 2000.

5. Linda Berry, Singapore’s River: A Living Legacy (1982).

6. Oral History Department, Singapore Lifeline: The River and its People (1986).

7. Stephen Dobbs, “Introduction: The Old And The New”, in The Singapore River: A
Social History, 1819 – 2002, Singapore University Press (2003).

8. T.C. Chang and Shirlena Huang, “Recreating Place, Replacing Memory: Creative
Destruction at the Singapore River” in Asia Pacific Viewpoint 46, no. 3 (2005).