Singapore River : historical overview


Singapore River, river/waterway, is located within the Central Region. The 3.2 km long river has been the lifeline of Singapore for more than 150 years. Proof of its ancient beginnings may be monumented on the Singapore Stone with undecipherable inscriptions found in 1819, at the river mouth. With Singapore's strategic location and establishment as a free-port, trade and commerce developed rapidly. The economic activity filled the river-port's waterways and quays with flotilla of boats, with workmen loading and unloading goods for import or re-export in bumboats or lighters. The river's inadequate and unsuitable berthing facilities, plus the dramatic increase of shipping led to the development and growth of the New (later Keppel) Harbour. Through the years, the river became polluted, and an environmental cleanup from 1983 cleared the waters, upgraded its banks, and gave the river "a new lease of life".

The mouth of the Singapore River saw the beginnings of an ancient fishing village, Temasek, later renamed Singapura (in Malay means "Lion City") by Sang Nila Utama, and in modern times founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819. The Orang Laut ("Sea-Gypsies") were the earliest known inhabitants in the area around the river mouth. In 1818 Temenggong Abdul Rahman arrived from Rhio with his followers and set up a village by the left bank of the river mouth. On that same bank one year later in 1819, he signed the historic treaty with Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

The most famous river in Singapore, aslo fondly known as "The River", the Singapore River spans 3.2 km from the sea to it's upper reaches in Kim Seng Road. The Boat Quay banks in 1823 were first to have offices, wharehouses, godowns and jetties; then subsequent developments continued up-river, along the banks of Clarke Quay, Robertson Quay, and later even further upstream, near the upper reaches and theSource of the Singapore River.

Immigrant Arrivals
Economic activity and opportunity centred here attracted thousands of immigrants. Many of our early settlers first set foot in Singapore on the banks of this river, and many of them returned to work along the quay. Most of these people were Chinese, but there were also Indians and Malays. Some set up businesses here and or lived by or around this vibrant waterway and became Singapore River Communities.

Economic Activity
Singapore's free port status and strategic location attracted all types of sailing craft, especially those bound on the trade routes between India and China. The river's calm waters, ideal for trading activities, served as the harbour for the growing British Settlement. The first quay was built in 1823 on today's Boat Quay, where major companies first set-up in Singapore, including the first European trading house founded by Alexander Laurie Johnston in 1820; and other offices and wharehouses owned by Edward Boustead, Yeo Kim Swee and Tan Kim Seng. Trade growth in the 1860s, gradually extended upstream, and by the late 1890s, there were godowns, ricemills, sawmills, Chinese-owned boat-yards, and an assortment of other trades and home industries. In the 1930s, the areas nearer the upper reaches of the river were heavily industrialised, with godowns and shophouses everywhere.

River Transport
The river divided Singapore into the 'commercial' and 'government' sectors, and before the construction of bridges, the two sides were linked by dhonies (English spelling of Tamil word Thonee), a river-crossing Sampan (row-boat) operated by Indians. Propelled by oars, these small wooden boats were also outboard-motor driven and carried goods or passengers, or hawked snacks and sundry items. The much larger bumboats or lighters ferried goods for import and re-export. The "River Clean-up Campaign", which began in September 1983, saw the last of a few hundred lighters and small boats on their final journey out of the river. Today, converted bumboats operate as river-taxis which carry sightseeing passengers, with pickup and disembarkation points along Boat Quay and Clake Quay.

After the "Clean-up Rivers Campaign" in the 1980s, the stone-walled banks were repaired, some new buildings including hotels have sprung up, and the old-time riverine and quayside businesses have given way to exciting recreational activities such as al fresco dining, "live music" entertainment, disco-dancing and more. The river is now venue to many public events, and activities staged here include the Lunar New Year "River Hong Bao '92", Annual Duck Race, fishing competitions, and many more.

The Singapore River is a story about change, of how a river contributed to the success of Singapore. In modern times, this legendary river will still be remembered for its old charm and its great importance in the history of Singapore.

Key Features
Nine bridges cross the river, namely Esplanade Bridge, Anderson Bridge, Cavenagh Bridge, Elgin Bridge,Coleman Bridge, Read Bridge, Ord Bridge, Clemenceau Bridge, and Kim Seng Bridge.
Merlion Park -  Singapore's Tourism symbol, The Merlion,  is situated here.
Monument commemorating the landing site of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.
Dahousie Obelisk - monument commemorating Lord Marquis Dalhousie's 1850 visit to Singapore.
Boat Quay - today a vibrant dining and entertainment venue.
Clarke Quay - a stretch of godowns and wharehouses converted for recreation and entertainment.
Robertson Quay - further up-river also lined with godowns and wharehouses.
Parliament House, with the original Court House built in 1827.
Riverside Point & Riverside Village - the river's latest recreation location.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819-1867 (pp. 29, 30, 74, 145, 427, 452, 504). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC)

Hon, J. (1990). Tidal fortunes: a story of change: the Singapore River and Kallang Basin (pp. 9-13, 18, 21, 26, 77, 89, 103, 106, 119, 123, 129, 134, 135, 140, 141, 144, 150, 151). Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 HON)

Miksic, J. N. (1984). Archaeological research on the "Forbidden Hill" of Singapore: excavations at Fort Canning (pp. 13, 34). Singapore: National Museum.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 MIK)

Oral History Department. (1986). Singapore lifeline: The river and its people (pp. 18-20, 25, 34-35, 42-44, 50, 81). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 779.995957 SIN)

Port of Singapore Authority. (1984). Singapore: portrait of a port: A pictorial history of the port and harbour of Singapore 1819-1984 (pp. 9, 11). Singapore: MPH Magazines.
(Call no.: RSING 779.93871095957 SIN)

Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years' history of the Chinese in Singapore (p. 8). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)

Tan Sri Dato Mubin Sheppard. (Ed.). (1982). Singapore 150 years (pp. 38-40, 98, 118-123, 145, 146). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN)

Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore: 1819-1988 (pp. 1, 2, 5, 8, 20, 37, 45, 47, 58, 59, 302, 304, 324). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)

Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (1994). Singapore River planning area: Planning report (p. 7). Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority.
(Call no.: RSING 711.4095957 SIN)

Further Readings
Berry, L. (1982). Singapore River: A living legacy (pp. 43, 49, 50, 75, 77-81). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
(Call no.: SING 959.57 BER) 

Jayapal, M. (1992). Old Singapore (pp. 31). Singapore: Oxford.
(Call no.: SING 959.57 JAY)

On a bum-boat trip in Singapore. (1978). Goodwood Journal, 3rd Quarter, 11, 13.

The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Streets and Places
Singapore River (Singapore)
Law and government>>Safety administration>>Marine transportation
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
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