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This article uses an entitlements approach to analyse the divergent impacts of the 1930s great depression on the diverse population groups of Singapore and its Malay Peninsula hinterland. Contrary to a revisionist argument in the literature that the depression had comparatively little effect on South-east Asia, Singapore was considerably affected. This arose more from the externality of migration of unemployed hinterland workers to the city than from a shift in the terms of trade against Singapore producers. Only the ‘safety valve’ of mass emigration, promoted by colonial policy, enabled Singapore to escape the depression with a sharp, if relatively brief, drop in welfare and serious distress for its inhabitants.