Seventeenth-century Siam was known to be a great entrepot centre but for more than a hundred years after that, it had been closed to foreign trade. The setting up of a British trading post in Singapore in 1819 put pressure on the reclusive kingdom to open up to foreign traders. The British merchants in Singapore was the source of this pressure. The chief proponent of free trade was Stamford Raffles, the founder of the free port of Singapore. He had said: “When it is considered that Siam extends its influence over the whole of the Malay peninsula, with the exception of Johore, and that our settlement of Penang is but an islet recently subordinate to one of its dependencies, and that this influence prevails over states with which our unrestricted intercourse is indispensable, the advantage of a good understanding with that court is obvious.” Some of the British principals involved in colonial Singapore would also be involved with Siam.
By 1826, Singapore had become the entrepot centre for Siamese trade but it was controlled by merchants and shippers in Bangkok. It was impossible for Singapore merchants, Chinese and British, to break into the trade because there was no treaty providing for such trade.
||Before the 19th century, trade was a Siamese royal prerogative. It was the source of its power. Trade profits paid for government and military campaigns. It was in the reign of King Mongkut whose reign title was Rama IV (1851-1868) that Siam began opening up again to foreigners although the pressure to do so had started earlier. King Mongkut was the first Asian monarch to read, write and speak English, and the first Siamese king to learn foreign languages. He learnt Latin, Pali and English. The ability to speak and read English gave King Mongkut, and later King Chulalongkorn (Rama V 1868-1910), access to western colonial thinking and developments via books, Singapore and Hong Kong newspapers, conversations and correspondence with foreigners and heads of state in western countries.
Singapore was founded in 1819 as a British trading station by the English East India Company in India for the China trade. British merchants in Singapore saw Siam as an important link in the China trade. In 1821, there were two unsuccessful attempts to secure a commercial treaty with Siam. One mission was led by John Morgan, the other by John Crawfurd who later became the second Resident of Singapore between 1824 and 1826.
British occupation of Lower Burma in 1826 made the Siamese consider the British missions more favourably. When Henry Burney arrived in Bangkok, he came on the heels of British success in Burma. The Burney Treaty was concluded soon after. However, this treaty was still restrictive and the merchants in Singapore continued pressing for more favourable trading rights. Another British envoy, Sir James Brooke, was sent to Siam in 1850 where he had an audience with Rama III. When he failed to secure the desired commercial treaty, he suggested imposing British will through force, as had previous negotiators before him.
| John Crawfurd
Sir John Bowring succeeded with King Mongkut where others had failed. The Bowring Treaty was signed in 1855 and in essence allowed foreigners to trade freely in Bangkok without the heavy royal taxes imposed on trade that was the practice of the past. The constructive treaty put Siam’s foreign relations on a positive note at a time when resistance was met with force. It was King Mongkut’s favourable response to British pressure that helped keep Siam out of Western imperialist hands. Siam was the only South-east Asian to remain a sovereign country at a time when the Western colonial powers were seizing territories left and right of it.
The result of the Bowring Treaty was more treaties with other foreign powers and the economic development of Bangkok. The Bowring Treaty also resulted in an increasing volume of trade between Singapore and Siam. The British merchants were not the only beneficiaries of this treaty. The Chinese merchants in Singapore benefited too. They could link up with the Chinese network in Siam. The Chinese communities in both Siam and colonial Singapore had come about because both places had encouraged Chinese migration as part of economic development.
Rice export formed the biggest part of this trade, and the bulk of this was in Chinese hands both in Singapore and Siam. In the 1870s, the Siamese Consul in Singapore was Tan Kim Ching, one of Singapore’s leading Chinese merchants who had sizeable business interests in Siam. He owned rice mills in Bangkok and Saigon, had mining concessions in Patani, and he was in the shipping business. One of his vessels was named Siam.
With the signing of more treaties with western countries, trade grew by leaps and bounds. For example, ships visiting Bangkok from Singapore more than doubled, from 146 in 1850 to 302 in 1862. The total annual value of trade also went up from about 5.6 million baht in 1850 to about 10 million baht by 1868.
Post-war linkages between Singapore and Thailand have focused first on containing communism, then on economic co-operation and development. Thailand was one of only two South-east Asian countries to join the South-east Asia Treaty Organisation that banded together the Philippines, United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in a military alliance to fight the spread of communism. At that time Singapore was a British colony and a British military base. In 1961, together with the Federation of Malaya and the Philippines, Thailand formed the Association of South-east Asia (ASA). This grouping was the predecessor of what would become the economic grouping of Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprising Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and a newly-independent Singapore in 1967.
In this grouping, present-day Singapore and Thailand are the twin engines that fuel the economic development of South-east Asia. Links have strengthened not only through economic ties but also through cultural and social ties. Singaporeans go in droves to Thailand to enjoy Thai hospitality, food and shopping. Some even retire to Thailand. There is a community of Singaporeans in Thailand and even two Singapore schools in Bangkok. Singapore culture, arts and social life have Thai elements.
With the explosive growth of modern communications and budget airlines, most of which link Thai cities to Singapore, ties cannot help but become stronger in the 21st century.