Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Travelling for leisure was once the preserve of an elite minority. However, technological advances of in the 19th century, particularly the advent of steamships and railways, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which halved the duration of ship passage between Europe and Asia, marked the beginning of world tourism. For the first time in history, it was possible for many to travel around the world, traversing oceans and continents.

Singapore, a major port of call and coaling station from the late 19th century until the Second World War, was on the itinerary of round-the-world tours. Ships from Europe and India sailing to East Asia, or vice versa, had to pass through Singapore. Travellers typically made a brief stopover here or in Penang before embarking to other destinations. Advertising was used to promote tourism to British Malaya – the colony was portrayed as a tropical haven, rich in natural resources, scenic beauty and business opportunities. Malaya’s railway operator, the Federated Malay States Railways also actively promoted tourism through its ads that enticed tourists to see the country by train.

As leisure travel became more popular, tourism advertisements increased in print media, which reveal travel options and destinations. Within Southeast Asia, hill stations – hill resorts developed by Europeans – were favoured by colonial residents. With the opening of shipping lines and railways worldwide, countries in Asia and other continents were also advertised as attractive tour destinations. Evident from the ads of cruise liners, tourists with the means travelled in comfort and luxury. When the age of aviation arrived in the 1930s, airline ads attested to the changes that revolutionised travel and tourism.

Read More

Tourists' Malaya

The first-ever organised world tour took place in 1872, when English pioneer world traveller Thomas Cook led a group of tourists on a round trip from England to America, Asia and the Middle East, which included two days in Singapore. As cross-continental voyages became more popular, travellers usually passed through Singapore briefly as they sailed between Europe and Asia or Australia.

Colonial authorities and stakeholders in Malaya also promoted tourism through advertising. In early ads, Malaya was marketed as an exotic destination with great business potential – a land of eternal summer with magnificent scenery; a fascinating multicultural society; a place rich in natural resources. Advertising imagery often featured romanticised scenes – idyllic kampongs, tropical jungles and local people in colourful costumes – perpetuating the stereotype of the ‘exotic Orient’.

The Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR), founded in 1901 to manage railway systems in Malaya, played an important role in promoting tourism in the colony. By the 1910s, most of the Malay Peninsula’s west coast was accessible by rail. Their ads projected a progressive image of Malaya with its modern railways beckoning tourists to travel the country in style and comfort.



Advertisements for holiday destinations in the region or further afield were common in early Singapore publications, suggesting a demand for leisure travel. Before the Second World War, only Europeans and local elites could afford vacations abroad.

Across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, hill stations were established by Westerners beginning in the early 19th century. These upland resorts offered colonial residents cool respite from the tropical heat and were also developed for agriculture. In Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Cameron Highlands and Brastagi (now Berastagi, North Sumatra) were popular hill stations. Their ads drew visitors with imagery of scenic hill countries, cool climate in which to enjoy sports, as well as environments reminiscent of England or Europe.

As land and sea transportation networks developed around the world, more holiday destinations became accessible to travellers. Popular tour destinations were either on major shipping routes or under colonial influence, from Asian port cities to Australia and South Africa. Apart from featuring the top attractions of these destinations, the ads often highlighted pleasant climate and modern amenities, seemingly addressing the concerns of travellers.


From Luxury Liners
to SuperJets

Demand for leisure travel increased at the turn of the 20th century and peaked in the 1920s, during which advertisements for shipping lines proliferated. Numerous shipping companies vied for a share of the new market for tourists. Travelling in luxurious comfort was apparently a major selling point to well-heeled travellers. The ads beckoned potential passengers with enticing images of life on board ocean liners – sumptuous interiors, impeccable services, excellent cuisine, recreation and sports facilities, not to mention the romance of visiting exotic destinations. Literally floating palaces, they embodied the glamour of international travel in the pre-Second World War era.

The invention of aircraft revolutionised travel. The 1930s not only saw the rapid development of aviation worldwide but also marked the beginning of air travel in Singapore, including the opening of its first commercial airport at Kallang. Airline ads captured the milestone of the first commercial flight to Singapore and revealed the speed of early intercontinental flights – a draw to travellers who could afford to fly. The prevalence of airline ads post-war attested to the fact that airplanes had replaced ships to become the default mode of international travel.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.