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History & Culture / Southeast Asia

What was Singapore like 100 years ago?

Curious, we gathered answers from official colonial records. The British, in their administrative precision, kept tedious records of almost every aspect of their jurisdiction over the Straits Settlements, including public education, civic organisations, and public health. An investigation into these seemingly mundane colonial records yields an interesting picture about the daily lives of the communities living in Singapore 100 years ago.

In this series, we cover different segments of life and society in 1920s Singapore. The 1920s were among the most prosperous periods of the century. Singapore benefited greatly from the global recovery then as soldiers rejoined the economy after the First World War. The “Roaring Twenties”, as the period was known in the USA, reflected the economic dynamism and social exuberance of the time. Throughout these boom years, Singapore’s social services expanded, largely funded by the colonial government.

Let’s first look at Singapore’s population, immigration, births, and deaths.

The population of Singapore grew steadily over the 1920s, almost doubling the end of the decade.

Likely reasons given for the spike were the political conditions in South China, cheaper steamship fares, lower price of rice, and a steady exchange rate between the Straits dollar and Chinese currency, which meant that remittances back to China did not lose their original value.

The local population also grew. Even so, these numbers do not take into account unregistered births.

Concurrently, the number of deaths was fairly consistent throughout the decade despite the constant presence of deadly infectious diseases.

Reduced rainfall in 1926 and 1927 led to more incidents of malaria. Overcrowding in Chinatown (thanks to a rise in immigration) which saw more incidences of tuberculosis and pneumonia likely contributed to a higher death rate in 1927.

The difference in deaths between men and women reflects the uneven sex ratio at the time. Most Chinese immigrants to Singapore were male labourers. It was uncommon for men to bring their wives and family to the port city, and only at the end of the decade did the colonial government make more efforts to improve female migration.

Over the decade, the number of Chinese immigrants that came through Singapore each year more than doubled.

The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The newly established Republic of China was torn by local warfare as regional warlords fought for control. In order to escape unrest and poverty, many Chinese fled to Southeast Asia.

The population was unsurprisingly diverse for a commercial port city.

The colonial government divided it into different ethnic groups for ease of administration – Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese, Malays, Indians, and other nationalities. It is remarkable that this classification, and relative proportions of ethnic groups, has survived into the present day.

Population growth in Singapore

In the next chapter of this series, we will be looking into education in colonial Singapore, “What was Singapore like 100 years ago? (Education)”.

Story by Loh Pei Ying and James Lui
James Lui is a passionate and experienced historical researcher who has more than a decade of experience in the publishing industry. An established editor, his greatest wish is to marry his passion for history with his experience in publishing, and he is currently researching the British founding of Singapore in 1819.
Research by Gwyneth Cheng
Code by Siti Aishah
Design by Joceline Kuswanto and Griselda Gabriele


Data used in this article was taken and compiled from the Annual Departmental Reports, Colonial Office: Straits Settlements Sessional Papers (CO275/103-126), and the Blue Books, Colonial Office: Straits Settlements Miscellanea (CO277/72-82). It is important to note that data collection methods were not specified in the colonial records, and the numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt and room for error or bias in collection.

  • References (click to expand)


  • archives,
  • colonialism,
  • history,
  • singapore

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at


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