It’s Sunday evening and Singapore’s Our Lady Lourdes Church is bustling with parishioners. Constructed in 1888, the spotless whitewashed steeple is adorned with a golden cross that shines in dusk’s fading light. At first glance it appears like any classical Catholic church; however, during service its uniqueness becomes much more apparent. The congregation, entirely Indian, remove their shoes before entering sanctuary and reverberating out from the cavernous chapel comes not organ music and hymns, but deep repetitive chants of “hallelujah”. Outside, the Virgin Mary, not Shiva, stands in the center of a fragrant haze of burning incense. She is draped in colorful strings of flowers and devotees prostrate themselves in front of her.
This is but one example of the rich variety of culture and belief that coalesces within Singapore’s multifaceted population. Walk a few blocks in one direction and you will find the golden domes and crescent moons of Arab Street’s mosques. Travel a short distance in the other direction and you’ll awe upon the massive new Buddha Tooth Temple in the heart of Chinatown. While there are countless great reasons to visit Singapore its eclectic mix cultures may be the most compelling. To properly understand Singapore’s diverse cosmopolitanism it is necessary to chart the country’s long path from a relatively unpopulated swampy island to what has become known as the jewel of Asia.
Singapore’s first outside influences came from the more powerful neighboring kingdoms of Sumatra and Melaka. Legend has it that many centuries ago a visiting Sumatran prince spotted a lion on the island now known as Singapore. This was very good omen indeed and he immediately began work on a settlement which he would name Singapura or Lion City. Strategically located between Asia’s two great civilizations, Singapore and the Malay Peninsula are thought to have seen the arrival of traders from India and China as early as the third century CE.
As centuries passed and populations grew, Indian and Chinese cultures took very different approaches to settlement on Singapore. The Sino-centric view of the traders from the east held that mainland China was the capital of the world. The now Malay peninsula was looked upon as a peripheral fiefdom of litlle importance other than extraction of wealth. The Chinese traders established lives quite separate from local society, creating their own distinctly Chinese section of the city which is still apparent in the Chinatown section of Singapore and other regional cities.
The Chinese’s purpose in the now Malay peninsula was twofold. They were there to procure regional goods demanded in China, but most importantly to trade with their Indian counterparts for exports from South Asia, Africa and beyond. In addition to trade goods, the Indians brought their own culture and approach to settlement. The Indians placed a greater emphasis on incorporating the local people into the Hindu realm. Indigenous rulers across the region began converting their people to Hinduism. They took on the titles of Indian heads, concocted ancestral lineages which traced them back to Hindu gods, and hired learned men from India to advise them on temple construction and ceremonial procedure.
Meanwhile, far off to the west two forces were at work that would forever alter the course of the region’s history. The first of which was spreading outward from the desert hamlet of Mecca. Islam not only introduced an entirely new monotheistic religion, it exported the period’s most advanced innovations in math, science, language, and commerce. This highly advanced culture would grow to dominate the Malaysian peninsula and into Indonesia.
Local leaders once again converted and shed their Hindu names for the Arab title of Sultan (the first in 1297 CE). New lineages were adopted and elaborate conversion stories were created. Such stories typically involved the arrival of an Arab traveler capable of divine powers such as the ability to move mountains, fly, or cure illness. This Arab stranger would marry into the king’s family thereby converting the royal court.
As went the leaders so did their subjects. Mosques soon stood on the sites of former Hindu shrines and Arabic replaced Sanskrit. The societal value of mobility increased dramatically with the arrival of the central Islamic tenet of pilgrimage and regional elites began returning from Mecca with new ideas and experiences from around the globe. In what was once a localized society, the world had suddenly became a much bigger place.
Around the time Islam first reached the Melaka Strait, advancements in sea navigation were being developed which would once again irrevocably transform the peninsula. With the invention of the compass, quadrant and astrolabe, Europeans were able to journey out into the open seas and eventually round Cape Horn and cross the Indian Ocean. Coincidentally, none of these technologies would have been possible without the Arab developments in geometry.
In 1505, at approximately the same time that the Muslim circle had expanded throughout modern day Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in the Melaka Strait. As the primary shipping lane between India and China, European nations would spend the next several centuries vying for control over these coveted waters. As the balance of power in Europe shifted, so did their periphery colonies. The Portuguese would eventually cede control to the Dutch whose Southeast Asian colonies would extend from the Malay Peninsula throughout modern day Indonesia with colonial capitals in Melaka and Jakarta. Later, as British naval might grew they looked for a way to circumvent the Dutch monopoly on the Melaka Strait. In 1819 after weeks of scouring the Strait for a suitable place to port, Sir Stamford Raffles, a British Navel Lieutenant, recommended that the English establish a free trade settlement in Singapore. Arabs, Chinese, and communities from throughout the Archipelago who were also shut out by the Dutch from trading in the region flocked to the new center of commerce at the tip of the peninsula.
The Europeans with their vastly superior ships and weaponry spread influence through government supported companies such as the Dutch VOC and the British East India Company. Europeans supported the monarchies which agreed to trade on their terms while those who resisted were overthrown. While this colonialism inarguably imported a new form of servitude to the region, the Europeans also imported many other aspects of their culture. Christianity spread throughout the region (though on a much smaller scale than Islam), western medicine, Bureaucracy, city planning, literacy, and technology all reached an entirely new section of the world.
With the exception of the Japanese occupation during WWII, the British would retain control of Singapore until 1954. Today their influence is visible in numerous churches, it is audible in the country’s national language of English, and geographically in street and other landmark names. Riding the subway, trains swiftly depart from Yishum and Sembaweang and stop on their way at Admiralty and Woodlands.
Since the British relinquished control of the island, Singapore has been left to define its own identity. It has since fostered a society that is diverse and dynamic; a peaceful whole which is so much more than the sum of its parts.