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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

Singapore has won the annual Commonwealth Essay Competition nine times since 1983 when it was launched; no other country has won more than three times. Singapore is by far the most densely populated country in the Commonwealth. Scholarships for postgraduate study in integrative sciences and engineering are awarded by Singapore to citizens of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1965
Population: 5,412,000 (2013)
GDP: 3.5% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 9
Official language: English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, Tamil
Timezone: GMT plus 8hr
Currency: Singapore dollar (S$)


Area: Land area 699 sq km, including 63 small islands.
Coastline: 193km
Capital city: Singapore
Population density (per sq. km): 7,742

The name ‘Singapore’ derives from the Sanskrit Singa Pura (‘City of the Lion’). Situated in South-East Asia and lying just north of the equator, the Republic of Singapore is separated from Peninsular Malaysia by the narrow Johor Straits (1km wide), crossed by a causeway. A number of smaller islands are included within its boundaries and a few kilometres to the south are islands belonging to Indonesia.

Main towns:

Singapore City, Jurong, Bukit Panjang, Serangoon, Katong and Changi.


There are 3,260km of roads, all paved, with 118 flyovers, the longest of which is the 2.1km Keppel Viaduct. The 42km Pan-Island Expressway is the longest road. Traffic congestion became a major problem and private traffic is rationed. A limited number of permits to put a vehicle on the public roads is auctioned every month, greatly increasing the cost of running a car. Traffic in the central business district is further discouraged by a system of tolls, policed electronically.

The Mass Rapid Transit System (MRT) connects the city with all residential areas and the international airport, serving more than 40 stations. A railway across the Straits of Johor causeway connects the island with the Peninsular Malaysian railway system and beyond to Thailand.

Singapore has an excellent harbour and is one of the world’s busiest ports. It comprises six terminals, a container port and several deep-water wharves.

Changi International Airport, 20km east of Singapore City, has three terminals; the third terminal was opened in January 2008.

International relations:

Singapore is a member of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations and World Trade Organization. Singapore hosts the headquarters of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation.


The land is flat apart from low hills (highest point is Bukit Timah at 163m). In the north-east large areas of swamp have been reclaimed. The island is drained by a number of small streams.


A hot and humid tropical climate, without defined seasons. Heavy showers November to January.


The most significant environmental issues are industrial pollution and seasonal smoke/haze resulting from forest fires in Indonesia; and the finite land and freshwater resources to support a very high population density.


Outside conservation areas, much of the natural dense forest and swamp flora have been cleared, although there is extensive planting on any spare ground in urban areas, and Singapore aims to be a ‘garden city state’. To control the impact of industry and urban development, environmental regulations are strict. Forest covers three per cent of the land area and there was no significant loss of forest cover during 1990–2012. Arable land comprises one per cent of the total land area.


The last tiger was shot in 1932. Most of the animals found in Singapore are confined to the rainforest area of the nature reserves and include flying lemurs, squirrels and long-tailed macaques. Despite the urbanisation of the country, there are over 300 species of bird. Some ten mammal species and 14 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).


Singapore was known to the Javanese as Temasek(‘Sea Town’) in the late 1300s, when Siam (Thailand) and the Majapahit Empire of Java were contending for control of the Malay Peninsula. In 1390 Prince Parameswara, in flight from Majapahit, briefly set himself up as prince of Temasek, but was driven out and fled to Malacca. In the early 1400s Temasek was ruled by Siam, but the Malacca sultanate soon took control of the island. The Portuguese took Malacca in 1511, and the Malaccan admiral established himself in Temasek, or Singapura, building a capital which he called Johor Lama.

In 1587 the Portuguese took and destroyed Johor Lama. They made another punitive expedition to Singapore in 1613, destroying a town at the river-mouth. The island, henceforth sparsely populated, remained partly the property of the Sultan of Johor, partly that of the Temenggong (the Malay ruler of the island). In 1819 these two rulers, for a financial inducement, permitted Sir Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen, to establish a British trading post on the island.

Raffles was impressed by the magnificent harbour, and the island’s suitable position for both Far East and local trade. By 1824 Raffles’s move was paying off so well that Britain bought the island from its two rulers. In 1826 it was united with Malacca and Penang as the Straits Settlements, which were made a Crown colony in 1867. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, increasing the amount of shipping calling at Singapore. Its prosperity increased further after the 1870s, when Malaysian rubber became one of its important exports.

From the mid-19th century, there was considerable immigration from all over the region. In the early 1920s Britain began constructing a great naval base, suitable for the biggest ships, in the Johor Straits. The base was finished in 1938. From February 1942 until August 1945 Singapore was occupied by the Japanese army. In 1946, separated from the Straits Settlements, Singapore became a colony with a provisional advisory council. In 1955 Singapore became partially internally self-governing, with a legislative assembly with 25 elected members out of a total membership of 32, and a council of ministers. A speaker presided in the assembly. In 1959 it became a state with its own citizenship and complete internal self-government. The first prime minister was Lee Kuan Yew. In September 1963 Singapore was incorporated into the Federation of Malaysia. But in August 1965 it left the Federation, by mutual agreement, after months of dispute between it and the federal government, over a variety of issues, including ethnic affairs. On 9 August 1965, Singapore became a separate independent state and joined the Commonwealth. In December 1965, it became a republic with a non-executive president. The People’s Action Party (PAP) was first elected in 1959 and was continuously in power for the rest of the century, in many elections winning every seat. In 1981 the Workers’ Party (WP) won one seat in a by-election. Two opposition members were returned in the 1984 elections, one in 1988, and four in 1991.

During this period, Singapore developed a highly sophisticated economy with extensive social services and one of the world’s highest rates of GNI per capita. In 1990 Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of the PAP was succeeded by his former deputy Goh Chok Tong, who called elections in August 1991 and was returned to power, though with a reduced majority. In 1991 the presidency was made elective. Ong Teng Cheong won the first presidential election, held in 1993, and S R Nathan was the only candidate in the second presidential poll in August 1999.

The PAP won the general election of January 1997 taking 65% of the total vote, winning 81 seats (including all nine single member constituencies). The prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, the senior minister (former Prime Minister Lee) and many other ministers were returned unopposed. The Singapore Democratic Party took no seats, while the Singapore People’s Party held its one seat with a decreased majority. The WP held its one seat with an increased majority, and its leader was offered a non-constituency seat.

The History of Singapore The Miracle of Asia Full Documentary

Singapore a Success Story

One Nation Under Lee

Learn more about Singapore on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

On Hundred Years of Signapore
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore
By Charles Burton Buckley in two volumes
Volume 1 | Volume 2

Singapore Tourism Video

Singapore Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

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