Singapore: Unlikely Power

The Merlion statue at Merlion Park, Singapore. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@fad3away

An excerpt from John Curtis Perry's new book.

Editor’s Note: The following was adapted from Singapore by John Curtis Perry with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2017 Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press USA (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.

Today’s traveler arriving in Singapore by air sees first a great aggregation of ships laid out in the harbor below, vividly illustrating the city’s primary position among world seaports. In the soft freshness of tropical dawn, driving downtown along a parkway lined with flowering greenery, the many towers of the city gleam in their newness, reminding one how stunningly recent has been the global economic shift from Atlantic primacy to the Pacific as world center of explosive economic growth. In its wildly implausible story of survival, growth, and prosperity, Singapore exemplifies this great transformation and illustrates the power of the maritime world in making it happen.

Singapore is a survival tale of overcoming periodic, even life-threatening crises. Highly competent and ambitious leadership, fired by nervous anxiety and committed to success, has provided the program and pulse for what Singapore is today: an economic dynamo, a miracle of well-crafted institutional design achieved with remarkable speed. But its success was never a given.

Although most Americans scarcely know where it is, we have substantial interests in Singapore, both monetary and military. We have twice as much money invested in that tiny place than in all of China. With these heavy corporate stakes, Americans not only have a big economic interest but also, having long ago replaced Britain as guardian of the global seas, we have a strong strategic interest in ensuring open passage through the Straits.

Although no utopia, the achievements of contemporary Singapore are inspiring. We can admire the courage with which it has faced and overcome adversity. Many criticize its authoritarianism yet accept the substantive accomplishments of its leaders in advancing human welfare, opening society to new opportunities and ideas while sheltering it from those perceived as threatening social harmony. But, as in that ancient city-state Athens, the government believes that the good of the community must supersede the interests of the individual. And many outsiders would now agree.

In its earliest years, seven centuries ago, Singapore faced threats to its survival from hostile neighbors and lost its importance as a significant seaport. When the British arrived in 1819, they first faced an environmental challenge, to hack out a tentative settlement at the lip of a stubborn and aggressive jungle, in a tropical environment that many of its settlers found both alien and hostile. Immediately the threat of stillbirth loomed.

London, for European geopolitical reasons, threatened to repudiate the founders, only belatedly giving approval to its new rapidly growing outpost of empire. A generation later when the British defeated China in the Opium War (1839–42) part of the booty was the barren island of Hong Kong, which rapidly became a major British port. Singapore, hitherto touted as the “gateway to China,” lost that role and feared it would then forfeit the China trade, the principal justification for its founding and its first great hope for prosperity.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, fluctuations of global commodity exchanges, notably the elastic demand for rubber, a principal re-export, illustrated Singapore’s heavy dependence upon a world market beyond its control. And the trauma of destruction and brutal Japanese occupation in World War II again painfully showed Singapore its continuing vulnerability to forces from the outside world.

When independence abruptly and unexpectedly came, after a tumultuous and brief (1963–65) union with Malaysia, many thought the new nation could not survive. Unemployment soared. Disorder reigned. Strikes disrupted production. Rioters thronged the streets. Communism appealed to many, and Singapore faced a big aggressive neighbor in Indonesia.

With many to feed and few resources to do so, a fragile new political entity was challenged to create a stable economy and a sense of nationhood for a city diverse in race, religion, and language. Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew even called the idea of a modern maritime city-state a joke and national identity continues to challenge Singapore.

But ambitious for himself and for his country, Lee skillfully used the psychological impetus of freedom to animate the populace while gradually establishing political control, in part by using the mechanisms of authoritarian British colonial rule. Yet while economic growth began to generate jobs and diminish social tensions, by withdrawing its military presence in 1971, Britain struck a huge blow to Singapore’s national security and the economy. Its bases had generated nearly one-fifth of GNP and employed one of ten Singaporean workers.

Today Singapore is the world’s most trade-dependent nation, indicating its vulnerability to global economic forces beyond its control. A survivalist mentality, artfully orchestrated by the government, continues to drive educational achievement, military preparedness, attachment to thrift, search for a competitive economic niche, and the desire for a greater place in the global community.

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