By Akshobh Giridharadas
I worked in Singapore for seven years, the last four being as a news reporter and producer for state broadcaster Channel NewsAsia covering business and international news.
During my time in the city state, I frequently reported on Singapore’s business environment and how much of an economic miracle the city state was and how far it had come in just half a century since gaining independence from its northern neighbours.
Singapore is a utopian miracle and one that is seen as ensconced from the fractious geopolitical rumblings, this despite being in its share of a politically complicated neighbourhood like ASEAN and in the center of China’s South China Sea expansions.
Singapore’s economic exceptionalism has long been codified in the fact it is the world’s easiest place to do business, has the highest concentration of millionaires per capita (statistics reveal one in six is a millionaire) and a plethora have multinationals that have their Asia-Pacific headquarters in the city state.
Much of the foundations of Singapore’s economic prowess have been credited to the perspicacity and gumption Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.
The economic miracles can be more tangibly witnessed in Singapore’s glistening skyline or the returns on the stock exchange and maybe the Michelin-Star restaurants and ‘atas’ (a colloquial Singlish word for high-class) cars.
Perhaps less conspicuous to the fleeting tourist or the private sector employee is Singapore’s robust foreign policy architected by Mr. Lee’s profound understanding of geopolitics, history and realpolitik.
In my years of covering business news out of Singapore, I had initially never really perceived Singapore as a place for much discourse on geopolitics and international affairs. This despite the fact that some commentators had given Singapore, the sobriquet of ‘Washington of the East’. A sensitive media framework would eschew from covering anything that could stir the pot, even mildly. Geopolitical news pertaining to Singapore was largely anodyne about bilateral state visits and multilateral trade deals.
As a journalist, my inbox would be flooded with near ten press releases every day. The items were largely focused on news from commercial enterprises, new IPO listings, mergers & expansions and given that Singapore was well on its way to becoming the world’s first smart nation, there was plenty of news pertaining to Big Data, Data Analytics, AI, Digital Payments, FinTech, Driverless Vehicles and IoT.
Singapore as a city state had a plethora of embassies but yet there were more global conferences, seminars and discourse around Fintech than over the South China Sea. However, it would be hard to compare Singapore to Washington D.C. Setting aside years of history, a western liberal order, the American capital has fifty other states to pump its economic vein and hence can afford to have various think tanks, non-profits and other such centers. Singapore realized earlier on that it needed to ruthlessly prioritize those industries that do add to its coffers since it is a city state.
Furthermore, Singapore’s economic survival right from its earliest days was to be an open economy, a free-trade entrepot, thriving hub for banking and finance and other industries that add to the exchequer and its growth story. The room to be a hub for geopolitical discourse could be only be an embellishment, but not its main course.
That being said, now that Singapore’s economic foundations have been firmly laid, it’s one of the top five financial hubs and a tiger economy. Traditionally, the major players on the geopolitical scene were the large economies – financial wealth translated to geopolitical clout. Hence, an elite clique of G8 nations and the Permanent Five members of the Security Council. Singapore, by it’s a small size will be precluded from the ginormous trillion-dollar clubs of United States and China. But Singapore has certainly punched above its weight.
Mr. Lee’s deft touch on foreign policy saw a delicate balancing act between the United States and China. The Lion City has had historically strong relations with both Washington and Beijing. Mr. Lee was a close friend of Henry Kissinger, who served in the Nixon & Ford administration as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Mr. Lee’s strong stance against communism during Singapore’s early independence movement, made him a natural friend of the United States in their Cold War quest to seek bulwarks against communism. When it comes to its Asian neighbour, Singapore has had a long and strong cultural link to China given its ethnic Chinese majority.
Apart from playing a key role in United States thawing relations to China in the 1970s, Singapore was one of China’s first partners in their quest to modernize their economy.
With Mao’s time fading and towards the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, China was in search for a system that allowed it to embrace an open economy, but yet keeping firm authoritarian controls.
Deng Xiaoping was so impressed with Singapore during his visit to the city-state in 1978 that many commentators attest to the fact that his conversations with Mr. Lee served as the basis for him to use Singapore as a framework for his economic vision.
One Op-Ed accurately noted of Singapore that “the country’s power doesn’t just come from its wealth but also from the powerful friendships it has made with the world’s two largest superpowers.”
Equally as dexterous as the US-China delicate rebalancing relationship was Singapore’s strong bonds with Israel. This was particularly sensitive since its closest neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim states that do not have any diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Born out of a sudden ouster with Malaysia, Singapore needed assistance in setting a military framework for its limited land mass and small population. The initial training was provided by the elite Israeli Defense Forces in the late 1960s, a relationship largely kept under wraps in its initial years.
Both countries have robust militaries disproportionate to their size, mandatory male conscription and reservist duties, however Israel unlike Singapore, still sees itself under existential threat from hostile neighbours. Both Tel Aviv and Singapore boast of vibrant startup ecosystems and innovative economies, further strengthening Middle East and Southeast Asia ties.
Singapore was also a founding member of ASEAN, one of the key drivers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and even though it is not in the top twenty largest economies, Singapore has been invited as a participant at G20 summits, a testimony to its geoeconomic standing.
Singapore is a key arbitration center for many private sector disputes, but increasingly Singapore has played host to landmark meetings. In 2015, the Southeast Asian country played host to the first-ever meeting of a Chinese leader and a Taiwanese president. This as it would turn out was only a precursor in terms of the magnitude of meeting importance. A few weeks ago, Singapore played host to what many geopolitical commentators in 2017 would have called an unlikely US-DPRK summit.
The irony for me personally was that I was sitting in Washington D.C – the defacto geopolitical hub of the world as I witnessed the world’s eyes gravitate towards two of the most pugnacious geopolitical figures. U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, descended on the luxurious island of Sentosa (one that has ubiquitous golf courses and Universal Studios) to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The incongruity was glaring for many reasons. Not just a meeting between unlikely individuals, or the juxtaposition of the world’s oldest democracy with a totalitarian state, but a meeting in Singapore of all places?
I couldn’t initially fathom why? What happened to the codified diplomatic turfs of Switzerland or Sweden, maybe even China or Republic of Korea? The two Asian countries that have direct borders and more skin in the game with North Korea.
Singapore, turned out to be a wise choice for many reasons. Apart from their own alacrity to host the historic summit, it’s proximity from Pyongyang precluded a long journey for Kim. Singapore has limited public protest, and hence human rights groups and other DPRK dissenters would not play spoil sport. The Lion City has diplomatic ties with North Korea and one where the Kim family feel safe. Singapore’s outstanding logistics and tight security arrangement for a high-profile summit would ensure a steady flow of all things planned.
The summit’s success may still be debated, Trump maybe castigated for meeting Kim, but Singapore came out flying in their ability to host, organize and be a part of the summit without directly playing any part in it.
Singapore success story has long been told through its economic lens of wealth and prosperity. But, perhaps, even in the days of yore, it was the affluent that had a hand in the kingdom’s statecraft.