Singapore History Gallery

  • Level 1, Singapore History Gallery
  • Daily from 10am – 7pm; Last admission at 6.30pm
  • Free admission for Singaporeans and PRs.

The Singapore History Gallery’s updated narrative charts the development of the island as it was known through the years as Singapura, a Crown Colony, Syonan-To, and finally, Singapore. In celebration of 50 years of independence, this gallery is refreshed with updated stories and content on Singapore's history, capturing the nation’s defining moments, challenges and achievements from its earliest beginnings 700 years ago to the independent, modern city-state it is today.

Family Time @ The National Museum of Singapore

Take a trip through 700 years of Singapore’s history with your little ones to find out how life has changed over the centuries. On your journey, you will meet various historical figures and people from different communities in the past and explore how they used to live. Spend quality time with your family through engaging activities and meaningful dialogues about the exhibition. 

Download this Family Time Guide and start on a family learning journey together! 

Singapura (1299–1818)

Where does Singapore’s history begin? Geology tells us that the oldest rock formations on Singapore date from the Paleozoic Era. From prehistoric tools found in western Singapore and Pulau Ubin, there may have been a settlement here several thousand years ago.

The earliest written records to mention Singapore describe it as a thriving port in the 14th century. It was known by different names then: Chinese trader Wang Dayuan called it Danmaxi (Temasik or Temasek), while in the Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), it was called Singapura.

From archaeological finds, we know that Singapura was a place where Chinese porcelain wares and stoneware were traded, along with locally-made pottery or natural products such as hornbill casques and laka wood. The settlement was probably ruled by an elite class who lived on what is now Fort Canning Hill, and Singapura, though small, was connected by trade and politics to not only the Malay Archipelago, but also Siam (Thailand), China and India.

The Sejarah Melayu and other histories say that Singapura was attacked by foreign invaders in the late 14th century. After that, it was inhabited primarily by the Orang Laut (“sea people” in Malay). They knew the regional waters well and, at different times, were allied with the Melaka or Johor sultanate.

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Crown Colony (1819–1941)

In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles and Major William Farquhar arrived in Singapore. They struck a deal with the local Malay rulers to set up a British trading port, which Raffles declared would be “open to ships and vessels of every nation free of duty”. This brought in traders and ships from as far away as Arabia and Africa. By the 1850s, Singapore was the centre of trade in Southeast Asia.

Singapore became a Crown colony in 1867, together with the other Straits Settlements of Melaka and Penang. As the British empire flourished, so did Singapore. The population swelled with migrants from the Malay Archipelago, China and South Asia. Some came to trade, as before, but many more came to work in the port city and in the plantations and mines of Malaya.

Indeed, Malayan rubber and tin powered Singapore’s growth into an export and international financial centre – on a smaller scale, but not too different in character from what it is now. By the time Singapore celebrated its Centenary Day in 1919, it was a modern city, boasting the second largest dry dock in the world and modern conveniences such as electricity, motorcars and international telegraph and telephone connections.

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Syonan-To (1942–1945)

Well before World War Two began, the British had developed the “Singapore strategy” to defend the British empire in Asia. In Singapore, they built a naval base at Sembawang, strengthened the air force and installed large 15-inch coastal guns. Singapore became known as the “Gibraltar of the East” or “Fortress Singapore”.

At the same time, the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 stirred up the Chinese community in Singapore. They formed “patriotic” organisations, which raised funds for China’s war effort and organised boycotts of Japanese goods and businesses.

On 8 December 1941, Singapore experienced war for the first time when the Japanese bombed the city. On the same day, Japanese troops landed on the northeast coast of Malaya and began their invasion. After a swift 70-day campaign, the Japanese – to almost everyone’s surprise – defeated the British and occupied the Malay Peninsula and Singapore.

The British surrendered on 15 February 1942. Singapore was placed under military occupation and renamed Syonan-To (“Light of the South” in Japanese). While the war continued elsewhere, the Singapore population struggled with food and fuel shortages, disease and, at its worst, violence and harassment from the Japanese. The occupation ended only when Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

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Singapore (1945 to present)

After World War Two, a wave of decolonisation began to sweep through Asia and Africa. Singapore was no exception. The British defeat in 1942 had destroyed the image of Western superiority and invincibility, and a growing national consciousness emerged among the people in Singapore.

Different political parties and groups contended for influence, while the British introduced constitutional reforms to prepare for democratic elections. In 1959, Singapore was granted self-government and the first general election for a fully-elected government was held. The People’s Action Party (PAP) won and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore’s first prime minister. Mr Lee and his cabinet ministers continued to seek Singapore’s independence. Through merger and later separation from Malaysia, Singapore became a fully independent nation in 1965.

Over the next two decades, the PAP-dominated government tackled the problems it had inherited, such as high unemployment and insufficient housing. It took bold steps to introduce industrialisation, encourage foreign investment and tourism, provide modern public housing and education, and clean up the environment. By the 1980s, Singapore was an economically successful, thriving city-state with the makings of the global city that Singaporeans today call home.

There are seven sub-section sections within Singapore (1945 to present); Rallies and Riots, Merger and Separation, A Nation in the Making, Building an Economy, Building a Home, Transforming the Landscape and Becoming a Global City.

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Guided tours of the Singapore History Gallery are available daily.

Download the museum guide and plan your day at the National Museum! Click on your preferred language to download. English | Chinese | Bahasa Melayu | Tamil

Image: © National Museum of Singapore.

Exhibition Programmes
Author: National Museum of Singapore
Last Modified: 20 Dec 2016