The Singapore (Economy) Sling
The sluggish state of trade in Europe had a knock-on effect on Singapore, leading to a slowed economy all through the 1860s. While there was an increase in the total value of imports and exports from 1860 to 1869, it was at a snail’s pace. The recession’s tight hold on Singapore was evident in the state of the harbour. During this period, few new British firms were established, even as many important ones failed.
Saved by the Suez Canal
The opening of the Suez Canal on 17 November 1869 led to a boom in trade, continuing all through the 1870s. By cutting across the Suez Canal, steamships from Europe greatly reduced the time needed to sail to Asia. The long journey around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope became a thing of the past.
However, the Suez Canal was not ideal for sailing ships, which heralded a quicker transition to steamships. To be profitable, steamships needed to refuel often, leaving more space for cargo. Hence, there was a need for a secure coaling network. Singapore became part of the British Empire’s coal refuelling network with imported coal. Major international steamship companies established offices in Singapore by the 1880s as the port city was the only regional port with extensive facilities. In Singapore’s new harbour, coolies would lug large baskets of coal suspended from a thick bamboo pole, loading ships at an average load rate of about 200 tonnes an hour.
Business is Booming
Both the Suez Canal and the rise of steamships led to increased trade between Europe and Asia. Between 1870 and 1879, imports increased from 39 to 56.25 million dollars, and exports from 31.5 to over 49 million dollars.
Different sectors of businesses boomed; steadily, diverse groups of people began to settle in Singapore. The Arabs
The Arab population in Singapore grew with the onset of steam travel in the 1870s. By the 1880s, as many as 800 Arabs lived in Singapore, concentrated in the area bounded by Arab, Baghdad, Bussorah, Jeddah and Muscat streets. In the late 19th century, Singapore was home to the most flourishing, albeit not the largest, Arab colony in all the Indian Archipelago, with its numbers increasing year by year. The community in Singapore continued to grow until the 1940s, when the number of Arabs in Singapore had risen to 2,500.
, Indian Chettiars and Dawoodi Bohra
The Chettiars established themselves as major sources of finance for agriculturists in Burma, Ceylon and Malaya (who traded in commodities such as rice, tea and tin). This made the Chettiars the main mercantile intermediary between the British and local populations.
For the Dawoodi Bohra merchants from Gujarat, Singapore was originally a convenient stopover for an established trading network between Gujarat and Indochina, where they traded or bartered Indian cotton goods, soap, ghee, and oil for Chinese silk and porcelain, spices and gold. They also became involved in the import and export of spices and timber in Singapore.
merchants, and Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews
Jewish merchants arrived from India, joining family members in the colony. Others came to open new firms or branches of Calcutta-based companies.
While the earlier group, the Ashkenazi Jews, came from Europe, the new wave of Jews were Sephardi Jews from India, Baghdad or Arabia. Sephardi Jews were typically small traders, peddlers, rabbis and shochets (certified to slaughter cattle and poultry).
They settled in the residential area of Middle Road, a six-block area that included Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Selegie Road, Prinsep Street and Short Street.
, were among the nationalities that came to Singapore to live and work.
The Business of the Haj
The main business of steamships was to move consignments of trade goods and produce in and out of Singapore, but they also provided transport for pilgrims going to Mecca. Each steamship carried about a thousand Haj pilgrims at a time. Some remained in Singapore for many years to pay off the cost of their passage.
By the 1890s, the port was the main departure point for pilgrims from across Southeast Asia. Kampong Glam was bursting with businesses that catered especially to their various needs such as clothing, accommodation and currency. During this time, the Jawi Peranakans dominated the print businesses that had links to different parts of the Middle East, with two of the most prolific Malay printers being Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Arsyad of Semarang and Haji Muhammad Siraj bin Haji Salih of Rembang.
With each new connection, Singapore became increasingly embedded within the world economy.