On 7th August 1965, the Parliament of the Federation of Malaysia voted ‘yes’ on a resolution to expel Singapore from the newly founded Federation. On 9th August, Singapore’s independence and secession became official. Singapore would now be on its own. For the leaders of Singapore, this was not a particularly welcome development. The first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, famously announced this founding of a new nation not with a smile, but with tears in his eyes.
The new Republic of Singapore had little to no natural resources, a water supply that depended on Malaysia, and essentially no defensive capability. Even its economy was largely based around trading with the rest of Malaysia. However, in the fifty years that have since passed, Singapore has surpassed Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia to become one of the four ‘Asian Tigers‘, along with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. It is now an international economic powerhouse and a crucial part of the wider Asian economy.
This article will explore how Singapore managed to bloom into such a successful state, and how geography and location played crucial roles in determining its current prosperity and stability.
- Population – 5,674,472 (July 2015 est.)
- Size – 697 square km
- Official Languages – English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil.
- AKA – Republic of Singapore
From its founding, Singapore has been a multicultural and multiethnic state. One of the Singaporean government’s primary challenges over the years has been the task of maintaining social stability and cohesion between the various ethnic and religious groups that inhabit the island. The largest ethnic group in Singapore is Chinese, who make up around 74.3% of the permanent resident population. The other major groups are Malays at 13.3%, and Indians who make up approximately 9% of the population. These numbers have remained relatively stable since Singapore’s inception, but Singapore is also home to a large non-resident population. The ethnic composition of this population is unknown, as these statistics are not made public by the government. The population of these non-residents is estimated to exceed one million people – just under one fifth of Singapore’s total population.
Unsurprisingly, Singapore is also a diverse place in terms of religion. A 2014 Pew Research study found that Singapore was the most religiously diverse country in the world. No single religion dominates, but Buddhism is the most followed religion of the resident population. In the 2010 census, 33% of resident Singaporeans declared that they were Buddhist, with 18% Christians, and 14% Muslims. There are also significant populations of Hindus and Taoists living in Singapore. While the ethnic Chinese and Indians have relatively diverse religious backgrounds, the ethnic Malays who live in Singapore are overwhelmingly Muslim.
So how did Singapore, an island surrounded by majority Muslim nations, become dominated by an immigrant Chinese population? An answer can be found by consulting the history of the British Empire. During the 19th century, Singapore, along with Hong Kong, became an important trading outpost for the British. As both ports were under British administration, labour flowed freely between them, especially from Southern China to Singapore and the rest of what is now Malaysia.
Since the 1970s, Singapore has developed a reputation as a hugely diverse country in which these different groups largely get along and cooperate with each other. However, in 2013, the first riots in over forty years took place in the Little India neighborhood. This riot caused some to question the reliance on migrant labour in contemporary Singapore, and the potential social issues this could lead to.
This reliance on cheap foreign labour in Singapore can largely be attributed to its own demographic situation. After its founding, Lee Kuan Yew encouraged families to stop at two children, as he felt that the small island state could only support a certain number of people. This campaign was largely successful and the birthrate fell. But in the 21st century, Singapore has one of the lowest birthrates in the world at 1.32 children per woman in 2015, which is well below the replacement level of 2.1. A shrinking younger workforce has led to companies looking abroad for labour, particularly in the construction industry.
This has not gone unnoticed by the authorities in Singapore, and efforts are being made to boost the birthrate and population, but some argue that increased migration to the island could be a further source of friction between the various groups inhabiting Singapore. Many of these migrant workers come from less developed countries, such as Bangledesh, Myanmar and the Philippines. They often do not have access to the same legal protections of the permanent residents of Singapore, such as a minimum wage, and usually live in cramped, dormitory style accommodation. The issue of inequality in Singapore is already a sensitive one, and the current reliance on migrant labour may well exacerbate the problem.
Singapore is the world’s only island city-state, and is located at the southern tip of Malay Pennisula. As an island state, it shares no land border with any other country, but lies between Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore’s geography was, in many ways, the greatest challenge it faced at the moment of independence fifty years ago. However, its location on the Strait of Malacca means that geographical location also played a crucial role in Singapore’s prosperity.
The Strait of Malacca is a stretch of water that runs between the Malay Pennisula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. From an economic perspective, it is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, with over 94,000 vessels passing through every year. The economies of China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea all rely on various goods that pass through this channel, which at its narrowest point is just 2.8 kilometers wide.
Clearly, Singapore is in a prime position to take advantage of all the shipping that passes through the Strait of Malacca. Shortly after gaining independence, Singapore immediately began to industrialize, starting with a major expansion of its port facilities. Energy, in the form of oil, is one of the most important resources which is transported through the Strait of Malacca. Singapore is now one of the most important areas for the oil refining industry in Asia. Oil from the Middle East often makes its way to Singapore, where it is refined and then transported to the various industrialized economies in East Asia.
Water was and remains a big issue for Singapore. Because of its small size, it initially had no water resources of its own, and has relied on water from neighboring Malaysia for decades. However, Singapore has been keen to develop its own sustainable water resources, and has invested a lot of time and money into desalination projects. Singapore is aiming to lessen its reliance upon Malaysian water in the future.
Singapore remains a small country, but since independence it has grown by 23% thanks to extensive land reclamation projects. Today it is often known as the ‘Garden City‘ due to the numerous parks and tree-lined avenues that make up the city-state. This objective of creating a ‘green’ urban environment was originally envisioned in 1968, shortly after the founding of Singapore, and has been largely successful. The ‘Garden City’ label has also helped make Singapore a popular global tourist destination.
Following its founding in 1965, Singapore immediately sought international recognition, which was forthcoming. In 1971, the British army and navy left Singapore for good, which left the island without any real military. As it was a country surrounded by much larger and populous neighbours, the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew decided that Singapore must have a strong military of its own, as well as close relations with other countries.
The military of Singapore was initially modelled on the Israeli armed forces. Singapore and Israel share similar geopolitical positions. They are always going to be outsiders in their respective regions, and their defensive needs will also be similar. Because of this, the two countries engaged in low key training exercises and military trade beginning in the 1970s. Singapore purchased 72 tanks from Israel before either Malaysia or Indonesia could do so. This gained Singapore a technological advantage over its larger neighbours, an advantage which continues to this day. While Israel continues to play a role in the defense sector, the military and diplomatic relationship between Singapore and the United States is the one relationship which is crucial for both the island nation and the world’s superpower.
As mentioned before, Singapore sits in a crucial location for global trade, the Strait of Malacca. As the United States has key allies who rely on trade passing through this strait, the world’s global superpower would be motivated to form a close diplomatic relationship with whomever happened to control the strait. Because of its location, Singapore became an obvious choice as an American ally.
Thinking from a more global perspective, it is crucial to understand the philosophy of the United States and how it relates to Singapore. The United States is primarily concerned with trade flowing between different states as freely as possible. This is why the United States has diplomatic and military interests in certain key locations, or ‘choke points‘. There are several of these points around the world, including the Suez Canal in Egypt, the Strait of Hormuz between the Gulf States and Iran, and the Strait of Malacca. If any or all of these points became compromised, the economic situation around the world could quickly become volatile.
What all of this means for Singapore is that the United States has a keen interest in making sure that the island city is well-defended and stable. The two countries maintain close economic ties, with a bilateral trade agreement being signed in 2003. The United States Navy also has access to Singapore’s ports, with American combat ships being deployed there year-round.
Despite the success that Singapore has achieved in the last fifty years, there are still challenges which need to be faced in the near future. Many of these challenges are domestic. For instance, when measured via its Gini coefficient, Singapore is the most economically unequal developed country in the world. This is not an entirely fair measurement, as individual cities such as New York and London are even less equal than Singapore, but it does point to a wider trend of inequality. Inequality, coupled with a large migrant worker population and increasingly high property prices, are issues that have not gone unnoticed by the central government in Singapore. In 2014 and 2015, the government has taken steps to increase the salaries of the lowest earners, while simultaneously increasing the tax burden on the richest individuals.
Looking forward, the reliance on cheap foreign labour, especially in the construction industry, is something that will have to be addressed. The questions posed by years of consistently low birthrates will also have to be answered by Singapore’s leaders if it wishes to maintain its upwards trajectory. A future which consists of a shrinking workforce and a growing number of retirees is not unique to Singapore – it is a problem which many developed countries will soon face – but it must attempt to overcome this hurdle all the same.
The story of Singapore is one that shows that even the tiniest of states can grow into important and wealthy hubs of trade and industry. Singapore is also an ideal case study of how geography and location can be crucial parts of a country’s success. Without the Strait of Malacca and the thousands of ships that pass through it every year, Singapore would have found its development process much more challenging. That’s not to say that success was handed to Singapore on a silver platter, but rather that good governance coupled with a good location will be extremely useful to any developing state.
But contemporary, developed Singapore is not a country without its challenges. Singapore must monitor its own domestic issues, but also be wary of any disputes between its much larger neighbours. The ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea also concerns Singapore, as the trade that passes through the Strait of Malacca also passes through this contentious area. Pollution from neighboring Indonesia also continues to be an problem every year, which damages not only the health of the average Singaporean but also the reputation of Singapore as a clean and safe tourist destination.
Despite its size, Singapore has become an important part of the greater Asian economic community. It was a founding member of the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992, and signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in early 2016. These trade agreements ensure Singapore’s continued importance in the contemporary system of global trade. With a close economic relationship with both its Asian neighbours and the United States, Singapore could prove to be an important mediator when territorial disputes flare up in Asia. Singapore is a state that relies on the continuance of the current global free-trade system. Any disruptions to international trade could quickly challenge the current prosperity that Singapore enjoys.
[ This article was proofread and edited by my good friend Miles Raymer. Please check out his fantastic blog at http://www.words-and-dirt.com/ and his goodreads profile at http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/7208369-miles ]