Singapore is a controversial subject, described as “The Big Apple of Asia,” or “Disneyland with Capital Punishment.” On the one hand, there are those who admire its efficient government and material accomplishments; on the other hand, there are those who deplore its antipathy to freedom of expression. We can all ask how much an authoritarian government stifles the creativity necessary to nourishing a productive society.
Singapore, now the world’s leading trading nation, is a sovereign state analogous to the great maritime city-states of early modern times, Venice or Genoa. Yet unlike them, it is not merely regional, but global in its interests. Established in 1819 as a British colony, its development faced many obstacles at the time and thereafter, most notably its dependence on the will of the outside world. International politics brought a brutal and destructive Japanese occupation in World War II; the vagaries of the international market have brought disruptions and challenges to its trade flows and livelihood. But Singapore successfully sought and received foreign technology and investment that catapulted economic growth.
Today it is among the world’s richest nations. Its GDP per capita income is more than that of the United States. Singapore’s modern rise was based on a continuing emphasis on its maritime assets. Its deep sheltered harbor, the best within a thousand miles, situated on the Straits of Malacca, and historic salt water commercial crossroads, offered huge advantage. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew could say “without the harbor, we would not be half ourselves.”
Timing helped. Singapore’s life since 1965 as a sovereign nation coincided with huge growth of international trade and wealth in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today Singapore is one of the world’s top three ports and works hard to sustain that position.
For Americans, Singapore is not a danger, not a problem; but an opportunity. It has served us as a traditional entrance to China and Asia, an introduction to Asian cultures yet offering a veneer of glossy modernity. With that in mind, the tourist industry terms it “Asia Lite,” hoping to lure many visitors. Although most Americans scarcely know where it is, we have substantial interests there, both monetary and military.
We have more money invested there than in Japan or Australia, twice as much in that tiny place than in all of China. More than 700 American companies are members of the local Chamber of Commerce, representing a wide sweep of business activity, such as pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, banking, insurance, electronics, scientific research, education, and transportation. An American engineering company will design Singapore’s high speed rail system linking it to the Eurasian mainland.
27,000 Americans are now living in Singapore. So we have a strong financial interest. Thus we rely upon Singapore’s political and social stability and we have found that to be dependable.
Furthermore, having long ago replaced Britain as guardian of the global seas, we have a strong strategic interest in ensuring open passage through the Straits. If for any reason this passageway should be closed to traffic, the entire world economy would feel painful reverberations, most acutely oil-importing China, Korea, and Japan, but America inevitably too. Singapore has become our strategic anchor in Southeast Asia, offering us the use of a naval base where we are putting our new combat littoral ships, designed to operate in shallow coastal waters, and the base is large enough to accommodate our giant aircraft carriers.
Singapore, the contemporary world’s unique maritime city-state, exemplifies the power of globalization. Globalization is now under fire, but those who reject this great phenomenon will ultimately be losers because it is here to stay. And, if America turns its back, Asia, China especially, will seize leadership.
Featured image credit: “Night view of Bishan in Singapore” by Eustaquio Santimano. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.