Old Photos Of Singapore Before It Became A Gleaming Metropolis

old singapore

Photo: Yan Biao Boey/flickr

Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world.The city-state’s 5 million people, crammed into an area barely larger than Chicago, generate the 6th-highest GDP in the world.

It has the highest percentage of millionaire households in the world, according to BCG, and is known for its sophisticated investing environment (though some allege it is also a tax haven).

It wasn’t always so.

Click here to see old images of Singapore >

For years, Singapore was a sleepy colonial backwater of the British Empire. Even after it became independent, many believed it literally would cease to exist as a functioning community.

Lee Kuan Yew, regarded today as the founder of modern Singapore, had this to say about growing up there:

The population was less than a million and most of Singapore was covered by mangrove swamps, rubber plantations, and secondary forest because rubber had failed, and forests around Mandai/Bukit Timah took its place.

When he took control of the country in the ’60s, not very much had changed.

He had to launch a campaign to help Singapore “survive and prosper.”

Thanks to images taken by Flickr user Yin Biao Boey, annotated by us with contemporary New York Times reports, we take you back to this uncertain era in the country’s history. 

This is Singapore today. It has six of the world's tallest buildings.

And the 30th tallest thing in the world, the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel.

They host their own auto races.

And golf tournaments.

And fashion shows.

But it wasn't always this way.

Raffles Place, 1950

In 1967, Britain announced its decision to close its massive naval base.

Waterfront, 1960

Source: New York Times

America was also contemplating withdrawing from Vietnam, raising fears of a Communist takeover.

Boat Quay, 1970

Source: New York Times

But there were indicators that things were already heading in the right direction.

Van Kleef Aquarium, undated

Source: New York Times

Aerial view, 1969

Source: New York Times

Collyer Quai, 1970

Source: New York Times

Singapore River, undated

Source: New York Times

In 1961, there were 116 strikes. By 1967, there were just 10.

Skyline 1960

Source: New York Times

Merdeka Bridge, undated

Source: New York Times

Victoria Memorial Hall, 1970

Source: New York Times

Singapore River, 1950

Source: New York Times

Geylang Serai neighbourhood, 1970

Source: New York Times

So what was their secrets to success? The main one was probably that the country spoke English. Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, had studied at Cambridge.

Police Officer, undated

Source: New York Times

But they also chose to double down on banking. They scrapped lots of taxes and created an Asian dollar market.

Bank of China, 1960

Source: New York Times

Between 1969 and 1973, their deposit base grew by about $2.4 billion.

Toa Payoh, 1967

Source: New York Times

Clarke Quay, undated

Source: New York Times

The rest is history.

Collyer Quai 1970, colour

Source: New York Times

More photos of pre-boom megalopolises.

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