At one time, Singapore River was the very lifeblood of the colony, the trade artery, the centre of commercial activity, the heart of entrepot trade and the place which was frequented by the secret societies, the swaylos (Cantonese for coolies who worked on a boat) and the coolies who worked for the philanthropist Tan Tock Seng at Ellenborough Market and the towkay (Hokkien for business owner) Tan Kim Seng who was busy filling his godown with the riches of the East.
Singapore River is where the colourful and romantic history of the river and the myths and legends can still conjure up memories of the lighters, bumboats, tongkangs with their painted eyes to see the danger ahead and sampans of yesteryear. This is where the Malayan princes once sailed and this is where the bullock carts plodded their way up and down each bank as the river found its way to the former rocky river mouth. This is also where an early civilisation was conquered by the Javanese Majapahit Empire, in the year 1376.
Some of the temples, shrines and other places of worship still stand in the vicinity of the river. So too are the godowns, the bridges such as Anderson Bridge, Elgin Bridge and Cavenagh Bridge, the Merlion, the shophouses, and the large trees such as Banyan and Madras Thorn. Some parts of this area include quays such as Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, which generated trade and extensive demand for services with the boats that landed at the quays. Boat Quay itself was handling three quarters of the shipping service in the 1860s. Shophouses and warehouses flourished around the quays due to their proximity to trade during the colonial era, but presently house various bars, pubs and restaurants, as well as antique shops.
The river still borders places where seamen and others, for example, near Raffles Landing Place, made offerings and burned their joss sticks. Poles with streamers flying were once used to tie up the barges as the water lapped against the old stone steps and walls.
Sir Stamford Raffles lost no time after January 1819, when he landed on Singapore River among the orang laut and the human skulls, the victims of river pirates, in bargaining with the Temenggong, the Johor chief who then ruled the place, having settled in 1811. At the very moment of landing, Raffles must have realised the importance of the river for, in the same year of 1819, the north bank was drained for government buildings and, in 1822, the south bank was reclaimed and a retaining wall and steps were built.
With the expansion of trade came congestion and pollution. Through lack of knowledge or foresight, the bridges were constructed too low and the river was too shallow for the demands that were to be made on its use. This historic river, which Raffles had fashioned from salt marshes, sand bars and mangrove swamps, has witnessed the British rule and the Japanese occupation, and has supported years of economic activity by the Chinese, Malays, Indians and others.
In 1977, Lee Kuan Yew, then the Prime Minister put forth an ambitious goal for the government to clean up the Singapore River and Kallang Basin: "and in ten years let us have fishing in the Singapore River and Kallang River. It can be done."
By October 1977, an action plan on "The Clean-up of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin" was submitted to the Prime Minister. By late 1977, the government was starting to take action to clean up the river. The plan involved the development of infrastructure such as housing, industrial workshops and sewage; massive resettlement of squatters, backyard trades and industries and farmers; re-siting of street hawkers to food centres; and phasing out of pollutive activities. Industries located by the river were removed and squatters were resettled into flats. Refuse was collected daily for incineration, while hawkers were issued licenses and provided specified areas with proper sewerage amenities. The dredging of the river bed and the removal of hundreds of tons of debris which had been piled up over the years helped marine life to return to the tidal river.
Ten years later in 1987, the clean-up of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin was completed. In September 1987, the Ministry of the Environment together with other government ministries and statutory boards celebrated the success of the clean-up with an event called the "Clean Rivers Commemoration". After the massive clean-up, people can now engage in activities such as wayang performances on a bumboat, variety shows staged on pontoons anchored in the river, and boat races. Today, speedboats, dragon boats, pedal-boats and sampans can be seen plying on the clean waterways of the Singapore River.
Whereas the original mouth of the Singapore River emptied into Singapore Straits and its southern islands before major land reclamation took place, the Singapore River now empties into Marina Bay - an area of water partially enclosed by the reclamation work. The Port of Singapore is now located to the west of the island, using most of the south-west coast, and passenger ships to Singapore now typically berth at the Singapore Cruise Centre at HarbourFront. Thus the Singapore River's economic role has shifted away from one that of trade, towards more a role accommodated for tourism and aesthetics for the commercial zone which encloses it.