Initial Thoughts on Singapore

View of From Our Apartment

In anticipation of our 19-day stay in Singapore, I did some reading and thinking about the island.

Singapore will be a new country for all of us. It is more of a city-state than a nation-state. It is a small island, much of it reclaimed land (23%), off the coast of Malaysia. Due to its location in the Malacca Straits, a narrow sea passage connecting south Asia (India) with east Asia (China/Japan), it is one of the biggest trading ports in the world. For over 700 years, Malays have been trading in Singapore, but the island never reached a population over 1000. The British recognized this strategic position within its colonies. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 and developed the with the British East India Company. The island’s population swelled to 80,000, over half being Chinese workers for the rubber plantations. The British controlled Singapore for 141 years total.  That started its path to becoming an independent city-state of today. I am looking forward to seeing the Raffles’s legacy and have a Singapore Sling in the eponymous hotel from that era.

After WWI, the British built a naval base, which was taken over by Japanese in Battle of Singapore on February 15, 1942 The British military surrendered to invading Japanese forces in World War II. The Japanese controlled Singapore for 3 years, but not before killing between 5 -25 million Chinese, before losing the war and ceding the island back to Britain.  I want to learn more about the battle for Singapore and the Japanese occupation, so will look it up during the holiday.

In 1959 it became self-governing within the Commonwealth. Four years later the British left and  Singapore joined Malaysia, but was expelled shortly thereafter. Singapore leaders felt that it would always be at a disadvantage because of its Chinese-majority (77% Chinese), in a Malay dominated country. On August 9, 1965, Singapore became independent from Malaysia, and has stayed that way for the last 51 years.

No writing about Singapore would be worthwhile without a mention of the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew. He was an autocrat who engineered the amazing growth of Singapore. He limited individual freedom greatly and quashed dissent, but because of his vision and a lack of corruption, he inspired others to work hard raise the standard of living for all citizens. He set an environment conducive to international investment and trade, and it is one of the great global cities of finance and business. My sister-in-law works at one of the many international schools on the island, thanks to this foreign investment.

This autumn I visited the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur and thought that this is what Singapore would be like if it wasn’t for Lee Kwan Yew. It was nice, but with its infrastructure, it felt more like Latin America than developed Japan. The stifling of individual liberties was justified if it meant long-term prosperity for the majority of citizens. As Lee Kwan Yew said of Singapore before he straightened it out, “people could make tapioca, make children and drink.” No one from that era would recognize a Singapore with a GDP of $82,000 US, good traffic flow, little self-generated pollution and no litter. I loved his maxim, “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,” and his rule was ruthlessly pragmatic, enabling him to rule almost as a (mostly) benevolent dictator.

With the economic and military rise of China, I could see Singapore moving closer to China. Not like Hong Kong or Macao because it is far away from mainland China. However, there are 1 million mainland Chinese recent immigrants here. It is inevitable that they will have closer ties to China in the future.

I will be experiencing Singapore for a couple of weeks and hope to get a good feel for the place. I am curious to see if it feels crowded, as the 5.6 million people live on an island a little bigger than Guam, which makes it the third most densely populated country in the world. It is also nice to be 1 degree north of the equator in the middle of a Japan winter. I read were it is dull and authoritarian


“The Lands of Charm and Cruelty: Travels in South East Asia by Stan Sesser