Down at the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula lies the formidable city-state of Singapore, home to four and a half million people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, primarily ethnic Chinese, Indian and Malayan, though with remnants of the British Empire lingering conspicuously.
Singapore has managed to re-invent itself several times over the course of the last thousand years, but the transformation it has undergone in the last fifty years is nothing short of amazing. Under the firm guiding hand of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has been transformed from a languid backwater island rife with malarial swamps to one of the most vital economic centres in the region, if not the globe. It is a place of order, discipline and measured control, while other cities in Southeast Asia seem to be teeming with anarchy, earning it the sobriquet “Asia for beginners”.
But hidden away beneath the success story of an economic and political powerhouse is the history of Singapore as a centre of piracy in the region, going back to well before Europeans first arrived here five hundred years ago. Because of its location, the island was a natural base for pirates to prey on nearby islands, coastal villages and any boats that happened by. Like many places in Southeast Asia where piracy flourished, the pirates were tolerated by the ruling class – so long as tributes were paid.
When the famous Chinese admiral, Zheng He, visited what was then called Temasek in 1405, he soon found his fleet involved in running battles with Sumatran pirates. Four hundred years later, the islands and coves around here were still known for piracy. When the first British Resident, William Farquhar, stepped ashore onto Singapore in 1819, it’s recorded that he encountered a row of skulls – pirate trophies left for all to see.
As the British set about turning Singapore into a colonial trading outpost, they were forced to do something about all the marauders who threatened their ability to exploit the region. The Royal Navy began attacking pirates wherever they could find them, culminating in the Battle of Batang Marau in July 1849. HM Brig Albatross is said to have engaged a fleet of a hundred perahus (canoes) and some 3500 natives, dealing a crushing blow to the pirates.
But piracy never really disappeared in the waters around Singapore, or elsewhere, for that matter. By the 1990s it had resurfaced to become a serious threat to shipping in both the Strait of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore, and armed vessels again sailed forth from the harbour to deal with the problem, continuing a tradition that goes back a thousand years.