Knowledge Net

Social History of Singapore

Yusuf Ishak (1910 -1970)

First President of Singapore

Born in 1910, Padang Gajah, Perak, to civil servant Ishak bin Ahmad, Yusuf Ishak rose from humble beginnings to become the first Malayan-born Yang Di-Pertuan Negara on 3rd December 1959 and subsequently, as President of the Republic of Singapore on 9th August 1965. In his 11 years as Head of State and President, Yusuf Ishak dedicated his life and efforts to the service of his nation and people and provided the moral courage and leadership during the difficult early years of nation-building.

The eldest of nine children, Yusuf Ishak in his youth displayed sterling qualities that marked him for high office in later life. At school, Yusuf Ishak was an exceptional student, excelling in both his studies and sports. At Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School), Yusuf topped the 1927 Cambridge School Certificate with Distinction. At Raffles Institution, Yusuf again scored Distinctions for the Senior Cambridge exams. On the basis of his results, he was admitted into the Queen’s scholarship class – one of the 13 and the only Malay.

In sports, Yusuf Ishak proved himself above others. He represented RI in several events: hockey, cricket, swimming, waterpolo, basketball, boxing and weightlifting. He won the Aw Boon Par cup for boxing in 1932 and in 1933, became the national Lightweight weight-lifting champion. He was in the Scouts and a school prefect too. Yusuf Ishak went on to become the first student in the history of the National Cadet Corps to be made (junior) 2nd Lieutenant. Yusuf was an outstanding individual. As historian Melanie Chew writes in her biography on President Yusuf Ishak, “(he) was already showing a sense of mission, which was to become his life’s greatest achievement. For he was gradually breaking free of a racial stereotype, and proving to his fellow students, and the world around him, that a Malay of common birth was just as intelligent, industrious, and capable as a person of any other race.”

It was in RI that the seeds of his mission were first planted. He was the co-editor of the Rafflesian magazine and co-authored an excellent article on the history of RI. Upon graduation, Yusuf stepped into the world of journalism. He first joined a sports magazine, The Sportsman, started by a few of his former schoolmates. Later, he joined Warta Melayu, a leading Malay newspaper in those days and quickly rose to become its Assistant Manager. But the yearning to start a newspaper, “owned by Malays, run by Malays and dedicated to Malay issues” led to the birth of Utusan Melayu in 1939. Yusuf personally galvanised the Malay community in raising funds for Utusan Melayu – going round the kampungs and speaking to every individual, persuading each to take a share of $10. In all, he raised $13,000. Between 1939 and 1959, the Utusan Melayu became his clarion call for freedom:

“He sought freedom in all its respects. He freed the Malay rakyat from a feudal tradition, which held them in bondage and ignorance. He fought against colonial rule, which made the white man superior and the native inferior. He fought to uplift the Malays, to bring them out of poverty and backwardness, and into the modern world. And he fought against racial prejudice, stereotype and suspicion, seeing them as the greatest threats to the survival of a multiracial society.”

As President of a fledging nation, Yusuf Ishak was a class of his own, setting the benchmark for future presidents of Singapore. As before, his life mission became the nation’s mission. He was committed to bring honour and prestige to Singapore on an international arena, to uplift and inspire his people and more significantly, to instil in Singaporeans that ” survival of (the) nation rests on the ability of all races and religions to live in mutual respect and tolerance.” He was the embodiment of everything that was Singaporean.

During his last term in office, President Yusuf Ishak was often ill. Yet it did not deter him from reaching out to his people – against medical advice, he continued making his presence felt at functions and weekly constituency walk-abouts. On Monday 23rd November 1970, President Yusuf Ishak died of heart failure. He was accorded a state funeral and buried with full state honours at the Kranji National Cemetery, where masses came to his funeral service to pay their last respects to the man who had become loved and respected by all communities. President Ishak had spent his life in the fight for freedom.

Adapted from Melanie Chew’s, “A Biography of President Yusuf bin Ishak” (SNP Publishing Pte ltd, © 1999 Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore)

Munshi Abdullah (1795 – 1852)

Scholar, Teacher 

Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir was born in Melaka in 1795. Although he had Arabic and Indian blood, he deemed himself a Malay. His father was strict and Abdullah was brought up as a scholar, studying Arabic, Tamil, Hindustani, English and, of course, Malay.

He started his career with his father, copying documents and writing petitions. He later taught Malay to Indian soldiers and British and American missionaries. Abdullah was also interpreter and scribe to Sir Stamford Raffles, for whom he had high regard. His proficiency in languages and reputation as a teacher earned him the nickname Munshi, meaning Malay tutor.

Abdullah assisted the Christian missionaries in translating and printing the gospels in Malay. He also translated Hindu folktales. However, he is best known for his autobiographical work, Hikayat Abdullah (Abdullah’s Story). It was written between 1840 and 1843 and published in 1849. It is an important source of the early history of Singapore soon after it was founded by Raffles. His other book, Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah (The Tale of Abdullah’s Voyage), describes his experiences on a trip from Singapore to Kelantan in 1838.

Abdullah was the first Malay writer to depart from traditional Malay literary style by writing in colloquial language. Unlike courtly writing, it was realistic and lively, incorporating many Malay idioms and proverbs. In the words of A. E. Cooper, who translated Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah, “his direct ‘reporting’ acts as a pleasant cool douche after the lushness of Malay romances.

Abdullah died suddenly in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1852 during his pilgrimage to Mecca. His diary of this last journey was published posthumously. The writings of Munshi Abdullah remain an inspiration for modern Malay literature.

The Death of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781 – 1826)

By J C M Khoo, C G Kwa, L Y Khoo

(Reproduced with kind permission of the authors and the Singapore Medical Journal)


The authors reviewed a rare autopsy report of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and offer a fresh interpretation of the cause of his death, with illustrations on the implied findings.


The history of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and the founding of Singapore are well documented. Less well known is the history regarding the later part of his life and the circumstances surrounding his death. We reviewed his last evening and a little known autopsy report by an English physician, Sir Everard Home, and based on his report, feel confident that Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles died of cerebral haemorrhage arising from an arterio-venous malformation affecting the dura and right frontal lobe of the brain.

The report from the Gentleman’s Magazine – July 1826:

“He had passed the preceding day in the bosom of his family, and, excepting a bilious attack under which he had laboured for some days, there was nothing in his appearance to create the least apprehension that the fatal hour was so near.

Sir Stamford had retired to rest on the Tuesday evening between ten and eleven o’clock, his usual hour when in the country. On the following morning at five o’clock, it being discovered that he had left his room before the time at which he generally rose, six o’clock, Lady R immediately rose, and found him lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs, in a state of complete insensibility. Medical aid was promptly procured, and every means resorted to, to restore animation, but the vital spark had fled. The body was opened, under the direction of Sir Everard Home, the same day, who pronounced his death to have been caused by an apoplectic attack beyond the control of all human power.”


Only 4 conditions cause a thickening of a portion of the skull. Paget’s Disease, fibrous dysplasia, meningioma and dural arterior-venous fistula or arterior-venous malformation.

The first two conditions are not associated with abnormal vascularity of the dura or brain and are discounted. Likewise, no evidence of meningioma or brain tumour was discovered.

The last, arterio-venous malformation, fits the diagnosis well. The Hypervascularity of the dura was noted as “exceeding anything I have ever seen.” Also, an organised haematoma of about 4 oz was found in the right lateral ventricle indicating the arterio-venous malformation had bleed internally into the ventricle.

The haemorrhage probably led to the fall and final demise of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. A Seizure could have well occurred prior to the fall.

Sir Raffles was well known to have frequent severe headaches. He described his health in some detail in his correspondence. Writing to the Duchess of Somerset in December 1821, Raffles stated that his “own health still continues most seriously affected, [he was] seldom well for twelve hours, and always laid up for several days in the month.” In another letter to the Duchess written in February 1822, Raffles informed of the death of another two of his children, the depression of his wife, and as for himself, “had two of the most severe attacks [he] ever suffered. The last, a fever which fell on the brain, and [he] was almost mad. [He was] still an invalid, and confined to [his] room.”

Raffles’ health continued to deteriorate. A year later he wrote that he spent two thirds of his time in “pain and annoyance, from the dreadful headaches [he was] doomed to suffer in this country, but the remaining third has been actively employed.” On his last visit to Singapore from October 1822 to June 1823, Raffles wrote to the Duchess of Somerset that he “had another attack in the head, which nearly proved fatal, and the doctors were for hurrying [him] on board ship for Europe without much ceremony.

However, as [he] could not reconcile myself to become food for fishes, I preferred ascending the Hill [Fort Canning], where, if my bones must remain in the East, they would have the honour of mixing with the ashes of Malayan Kings; and the result has been that instead of dying, [he] almost recovered. [He had] build a very comfortable house [on Fort Canning] which is sufficient to accommodate his sister’s family as well as [his] own.” Raffles’ health, as expected, did not improve following his return to England (3-5).

These symptoms were likely to be due to the arterio-venous malformation, causing minor haemorrages or an ischaemic steal effect, causing headaches and irritability.

Fig 1 & 2 show the official bust and portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles with hair usually covering the right frontal brow. The prominence is quite suggestive. Fig 3 shows an illustration of the arterio-venous malformation of the brain as described, by Sir Everard Home.


This report gives a neurosurgical and neuropathological interpretation to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ last days and the cause of his death, based on his biography and autopsy report.

That the founder of Singapore could have suffered such a condition and yet do all that he did makes him even more remarkable. 


  • Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: Book of days, Singapore Publishers Antique of the Orient 1993.
  • J Hume-Adam, Leo W Duchen (eds): Greenfields’ Neuropathology 5th edition. Edward Arnold, 1992: 269-302Raffles – Minto Collection (ISEAS – Singapore).
  • GR Kayne & EH Johnson, India Office Library.Raffles Collection vol. 1-15, 1785-1825, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
  • Bastin, John, Sturgus 1927. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles – Singapore National Museum 1994. Publ. National Museum, Singapore in conjunction with “Raffles Reviewed” exhibition from 29.1.1994 – 1.5.1994.

Note: Interesting read on some rare facts about Raffles that students might not learn even from textbooks in history. Upon his death, his country estate in Highwood, a north London property was sold for ten thousand pounds sterling, which was paid to the East India Company to settle his outstanding debts and his wish to be buried at St. Mary’s Church, was denied by the vicar, who objected to Raffles’ anti-slavery stance.

Japanese Occupation (1941-1945)

Adapted from Syonan: Singapore Under the Japanese 1942-1945, Singapore Heritage Society, 1992

Following the Marco Polo Bridge incident and the start of open hostilities between China and Japan, the Chinese in Singapore led by millionaire philanthropist Tan Kah Kee who heads the China Relief Fund begin fund-raising for China’s war effort as well as a trade boycott of Japanese goods.


6 November
The Asama Maru evacuates about 450 Japanese men and women from Singapore. The Japanese Consul-General is at the harbour to wave them good-bye.

19 November
The Straits Times reports Japanese troops movements southwards in Indochina and the arrival of more troops in Indochina.

1 December
A state of emergency is declared. The army and volunteer defence troops are mobilised.

7-8 December
The first Japanese bombs fall on Singapore in the early hours of the morning.

Japanese troops of the 25th Army led by Tomoyuki Yamashita land at Kota Bahru, Kelantan, and Singora and Patani, south Thailand. Governor Shenton Thomas makes his most infamous statement when awakened at 1 a.m. in the morning to be informed on the Japanese landing: “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to shove these little men off (sic)…” Across the Pacific, Pearl Harbour is bombed in a surprise raid, bringing the United States into the Second World War. Japanese bombing raids continue throughout December and January.

10 December
The Prince of Wales and the Repulse are sunk off the coast of Kuantan.

15 December
The Japanese take Penang.

25 December
Dalforce, a special group made up of mostly communist Chinese volunteers, is formed led by J.D. Dalley. Some of the survivors go on to join the British-led resistance group, Force 136, and the communist-led Malayan Anti-Japanese Army.

30 December
Governor Shenton Thomas invites Chinese leader Tan Kah Kee to form the Chinese Mobilisation Council to supply labour to help build defences.

11 January
The Japanese take Kuala Lumpur.

28 January
The British Navy evacuates the Naval Base unexpectedly.

31 January
The Causeway is partially destroyed to keep out the Japanese troops. The Japanese enter Johore Bahru.

1 February
The Japanese begin shelling Singapore from their newly set-up batteries in Johore Bahru.

7 February
The crack Konoe Imperial Guards occupies Pulau Ubin.

Sunday 8 February
Some 20,000 troops of the 5th and 18th Divisions land on the northwest coast of Singapore.

9 February
The breached Causeway is repaired and Japanese troops begin crossing into Singapore. By evening, they have taken Tengah airfield.

10 February
The Jurong Line and Bukit Panjang Village fall.

11 February
Yamashita drops Percival a letter asking Percival to surrender, and detailing the steps to take. The surrender party should carry a large white flag and the Union Jack. The reservoirs fall behind Japanese lines.

13 February
Remnants of 1st Malay Regiment battle it out with Japanese troops at Opium Hill, Pasir Panjang. In an heroic 48 hours fight, Lt. Adnan Saidi and his 42 men contingent frustrate the Japanese advance. The British generals of Malaya Command hold a war council on Fort Canning. The water pipes are reported to be badly damaged and the available supply is not likely to last 24 hours.

14 February
Opium Hill falls. Lt. Adnan Saidi is captured and killed brutally. The Japanese enter Alexandra Hospital and massacre the patients, doctors and nurses.

Sunday 15 February
The first day of the Lunar New Year of the Horse.

8.00 am
The British commander, Percival starts the day attending a service. It is his daughter’s 12th birthday.

11.15 am
The decision to surrender is taken at the Battle Box, Fort Canning.

11.30 am
The surrender party without Percival sets out from Fort Canning.

1.30 pm
Fraser and Newbigging meet their Japanese counterparts.

2 pm
They meet the senior officer and Yamashita demands that Percival surrenders immediately. The surrender party heads back to convey the message to Percival.

Late 4 pm
The second surrender party, this time with Percival, sets out for the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah where the surrender is to take place.

Late 5 pm
Percival and Yamashita meet across a white-covered table. Yamashita demands an immediate surrender by 10 pm Nippon time
(8.30 pm Singapore time then, now 9.30 pm) or fighting will resume immediately.

Through an interpreter, Percival reluctantly agrees. He signs the surrender document. (One account says the time was 6.10 pm, another that it was 7 pm.
And a third that it was 7.50 pm.)

8.30 pm
The guns fall silent throughout the island.

16 February
Left picture shows victorious Japanese soldiers. Later the Japanese hold a victory parade at the Padang.

17 February
The British assemble at the Padang for the march to internment at Changi Prison and Selarang Barracks.

18 February
The Japanese order all Chinese to assemble at various centres for screening – the start of Sook Ching, the notorious purging of anti-Japanese elements in the Chinese population in which an estimated 50,000 died at the hands of the Japanese.


Japanese Military Administration or Gunseikanbu set up. Its offices are at Fullerton Building. Rationing begins. Japanese banana money replaces the Straits dollar. The early Japanese notes are numbered but by September, they are no longer serialised. The tram-line resumes service. The water pipes are repaired by local waterproofing contractor. Overseas Chinese Association formed to collect a “donation” of $50 million from the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore towards the Japanese war effort.


Police register all occupants and issue them a “Peace Living Certificate” or “Ankyosho”. A “Census Taking List” is later introduced in 1943. Police stations kept copies of this list and all changes in households had to be reported and recorded. Primary schools are re-opened. Indian Independence League formed.

15 April
Syonan Broadcasting Station begins Nippon-go classes.

The first POW groups begin heading for the Siamese Death Railway work camps.

The Overseas Chinese Association presents the Japanese with a cheque for $50 million raised through compulsory donations topped with $22 million loaned from Yokohama Specie Bank.

30 August
Selarang Barracks Square Incident. The POWs are ordered to sign a pledge not to try and escape. When they refuse, the Japanese execute the four POWs who had been caught trying to escape.

Formation of the Indian National Army. An auxiliary police system or neighbourhood police watch is introduced.

10 September
The Bukit Batok War memorial built by POWs to commemorate the fallen Japanese soldiers. Behind it was the memorial to the British dead.

The Eurasian Welfare Association under Dr C.J. Paglar formed.

Formation of the Indian National Army under Captain Mohan Singh to support India’s independence struggle.

The General Headquarters of the Southern Expeditionary Force moves from Saigon to Singapore and is located at the Governor’s Residence (now the Istana).

The Heiho also known as the Gunpo or auxiliary servicemen is introduced. Teenagers were recruited and given basic training in return for food and lodging. They serve under the military doing various duties.

To ease the food shortages, the Japanese encourage people to move out to farming settlements. The Eurasian Welfare Association begin organising Bahau for the Eurasians and Catholics. The Overseas Chinese Association organise Endau. In mid-1945, a small settlement is set up in Pulau Bintan in the Riau Archipelago for the Indians. There is a general campaign throughout Singapore to grow more food on every available bit of land.

Lim Bo Seng and other recruits arrive by submarine off the coast of Perak to join Force 136 led by John Davis and Richard Broome.

The Giyu-gun or Voluntary Army and the Giyu-tai or Voluntary Corps introduced.

28 December
The first settlers begin to move out of Singapore to Bahau, known as Fuji Village.

Lim Bo Seng and four other members of Force 136 are captured and tortured by the Kempeitai.

1 May
All civilian POWs interned in Changi are moved to Sime Road Camp

29 June
Lim Bo Seng dies in Batu Gajah prison.

Allied bombing raids begin on Japanese-occupied Singapore.

6 August
The Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

15 August
Emperor Hirohito speaks to the Japanese nation in a taped broadcast about the coming peace without using the word “surrender”.

20 August
A report of the Japanese Emperor’s speech appears in Syonan Times and other papers in Singapore.

2 September
The Japanese surrender formally to General Douglas MacArthur on board the USS Missouri in a ceremony witnessed by representatives of the Allied Powers, among them Lieut-Gen. A.E. Percival.

5 September
British troops return to Singapore.

7 September
British Military Administration is declared and among its first actions is to demonetize Japanese banana money, making it worthless.

12 September
The Japanese led by General Itagaki Seishiro surrender to Supreme Allied Commander in South-east Asia Lord Louis Mountbatten at City Hall.

Repatriation of Japanese troops to Japan begins. A long slow process because of shipping problems. A special court is announced to try Japanese collaborators — civilians who were alleged to have helped the Japanese during the Occupation.

22 January
Japanese war crimes trials begin.

British Military Administration ends. Singapore returns to civilian rule as Crown Colony.