The history of Singapore’s urban landscape dates far beyond our generation. Over the years, countless buildings and structures have been erected. Some have lived to tell their stories, while others have disappeared forever. They may be lost, but their memories will stay, together with their photographs.

Pre-Colonial Era

The early history of Singapore can be traced back to the 3rd century. Ancient Chinese records from that period mentioned the island of Pu Luo Zhong (蒲罗中), which could be a translation of Pulau Ujong, or “island at the end” (of the Malay Peninsular), referring to the main island of Singapore. Since then, it has come under the rule of various kingdoms, such as the Srivijaya Empire and the Majapahit Empire. It was also known as various names, such as Betumah (by the Arabs in the 900s), Temasek (“sea port”; by the Javanese in an epic poem written in 1365), Dan Ma Xi (淡马锡 – translated from Temasek; 锡 might refer to the tin market as well) and Banzu (translated from Pancur, which means “fresh water spring). The last two names were recorded by Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan in the 1330s.

By the 12th century, Singapore was mainly populated at the southern region, at present-day Fort Canning and Padang areas, and also along the 3 main rivers (Singapore River, Rochore River and Kallang River), and it continued to be the case even until the early colonial period. Most of the wooden structures have perished, and only the stone and brick foundations remained to be excavated centuries later.

Its importance as a trading port came to an abrupt end when it was destroyed by the Portuguese in the early 1600s. It was not until Raffles’ arrival in 1819 when it rose in importance again.

Colonial Era

The establishment of a trading post in Singapore in 1819 saw the large influx of immigrants from all around the world. As mentioned, the southern regions (where the rivers are) continued to be the most important and vibrant part of the island. Facilities such as markets and piers were set up along the rivers for trading purposes.

The foreign immigrants settled according to the town plan drawn up by Lieutenant Philip Jackson, the colony’s engineer, and numerous clan houses and places of worship emerged within the various enclaves formed. Beyond the city centre, places of worship could also be found in almost every village or residential area, to serve the religious needs of the people.

At the same time, the colonial rulers and rich European settlers built a lot of neo-classical buildings for both private and public purposes, partly as a display of the western power to the locals. Mock Tudor bungalows were also built to house the government officials. Key players behind the design of these European houses in Singapore include George Dromgold Coleman (first Government Superintendent of Public Works), the Public Works Department (PWD; established in 1946 from the Public Works and Convicts; now privatised as CPG Corporation), Regent Alfred John Bidwell and other architects from Swan and Maclaren, and Keys and Dowdeswell.

Many of the grandest buildings at that time were built by the wealthy businessmen and philanthropists. The Arabs, in particular, were prominent in the real estate at that time, as they bought lots of land to build mansions and other public amenities. The 3 wealthiest Arab families at that time were the Alkaffs, the Alsagoffs and the Aljunieds. Wealthy Chinese families include Tan Tock Seng and his descendents. The royal family of Singapore (the Sultans and their families) also lived in mansions known as Istanas (“palaces”).

By the 1900s, new architectural styles were adopted. The Indo-Saracenic style, an Islamic style originated in the Arabic regions and adopted in India by the Mughal Empire, was introduced by the British to replace the vernacular Islamic architecture of tajug roof structures. The Chinese National style was also adopted by the Chinese under the influence of the Republican China as a form that unifies the various dialect and clan groups into one modern Chinese identity.

Shophouses were also built for both residential and commercial purposes, and they have since become representative of the region.

Most Singaporeans, however, settled in kampongs (villages). Public utilities and amenities were provided by private companies or individuals, such as cinemas and provision shops.

The earliest educational institutions were set up by the various clan associations and religious groups. Many of these started out within the clan houses or places of worship, but most of them eventually moved on to their own buildings. Schools were also set up by the colonial government and philanthropists.

The Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) was set up in 1927 by the colonial government, initially for town planning but subsequently provided public housing as well. A number of housing estates were set up under the SIT.

Other buildings, sites and facilities from this period include:

Self-Governance / Post-Independence Era

Singapore gained independence at a time when countries in the region were searching for a national identity that can unify all races and religious groups. Singapore was no exception, and local architects had searched for (and some are still searching for) an architectural style that is representative of Singaporeans. This, together with the government’s redevelopment schemes, led to the emergence of iconic buildings that embodied the aspirations of Singaporeans at that time.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) was established in 1960, and took over the SIT in public housing provision. Since then, housing estates emerged one after another, and by now, almost 90% of our populations live in public housing. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) started off as a department in HDB in 1964, known as the Urban Redevelopment Department (URD), before becoming a statutory board of its own in 1974.

During the period of self-governance and the early years of independence, hawking was a popular means of livelihood due to its low startup capital required and almost guaranteed source of revenue. However, poor hygiene and sanitation created lots of problems. Hence, in 1968 to 1969, the 24,000 hawkers were registered, and from 1971 onwards, markets and hawker centres were constructed to house these hawkers. By 1986, there were no more hawkers on the streets, and the government stopped building new hawker centres. Wet markets were also slowly being phased out by supermarket chains. In 2011, however, it was announced that more hawker centres will be built in newer estates to provide affordable food to the residents.

Other than hawker centres, various other amenities can be found in the housing estates. Back in the days when sources of entertainment were limited, the neighbourhood sports facility or the cinema down the road would be the best getaway for the weekend. Libraries and polyclinics were also set up for the convenience of the residents.

As development spread further and further away from the city centre, it was inevitable to establish a reliable transport system. Before the MRT was introduced in the 1980s, the public transport network was a bus-only system. Many bus interchanges and terminals were set up all over Singapore, indicating the extent of the bus network. Today, the older bus interchanges are gradually phased out and replaced with transport hubs, which typically integrate a bus interchange, an MRT or LRT Station, a shopping mall and a residential tower block.

As the importance of education increased, more schools were set up beyond the central district, either by the local villagers or by the government. The medium of education was also gradually standardised, first by phasing out dialects, and eventually all surviving schools converted to the English medium, except for “Mother Tongue” lessons.

With rising affluence, the demand for places of entertainment increased. Attractions were built for both locals and tourists. The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) was established in 1964, and was renamed the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 1997.

Shopping has also become an integral part of life in Singapore. While the major shopping districts are located in the city centre, neighbourhood shopping malls have been built in various housing estates, providing convenient shopping locations for residents.

Other buildings, sites and facilities from this period include:

New Millennium

We have entered a period whereby regional identity and global recognition take priority. International style skyscrapers have replaced the local places that we were familiar with. While some were conserved as a reminder of our past, many more were lost.

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