By Selcuk Colakoglu
Singapore is one of the most central and salient countries in the world. With a population of nearly five millions, Singapore is not to be underestimated in terms of demographics. But the thing that makes Singapore special is its 700 square kms. surface area which places it among the smallest independent states of the world in geographical terms. Singapore’s special status will be better understood when the fact that the populations of countries such as Fiji, Maldives and Andorra, that occupy surface areas approximately as large as Singapore’s, are always less than one million people. With this aspect in mind, it is fair to say that Singapore constitutes a modern city state.
Singapore is a tiny island state which separated from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 and functions as a commercial base built in Asia, just like Hong Kong, that was once founded by the British Empire in the 19th century. Being small, manageable, and necessarily multi-cultural are the prerequisites for the formation of such commercial centers. In this respect, it is possible to come across people not only from Asia but of nationalities from all corners of the earth in Singapore.
Out of the five million citizens of Singapore, 77% are Chinese, 14% are Malays, 7% are Tamils and the remaining 2% is constituted by other ethnic groups. All the ethnic groups except Malays settled in Singapore lately with the increasing economic attractiveness of the city brought about by British colonialism. That’s why only Malay language among official languages was declared as the national tongue, out of defer to native Malays. Other official languages are Chinese, Tamil and English. But English is the most commonly used language in Singapore beyond dispute, and all traffic signs as well as public announcements are prepared assuredly in English. Therefore any foreigner who visits Singapore and speaks English faces no difficulty at all. As a matter of fact, the Singaporean government places great importance to English education and promotes graduate programs only if the language of education is English, in order to enhance the competitiveness of the country internationally. Because of such an emphasis placed upon English language in all sorts of education, all the ethnic groups in Singapore are capable of speaking advanced English.
Singapore is also a multi-religious country besides being a multi-ethnic one. The Chinese are mostly Buddhists, Taoists or Christians; the Malays are all Muslims, whereas the Tamils are either Hindus, Sikhs, or Muslims. Thus, places of worship belonging to any religious group are highly visible all around Singapore. However, central and colossal shrines mostly consist of churches. Muslims’ religious representation rate, when their %15 share in the total population of the city is considered, can be regarded as higher than average. The Sultan Mosque in the old town, where low-rise buildings with Arabic architecture are most prominent, is among the oldest and most historical structures in the country. The Chinese, who arrived lately in Singapore just like in Malaysia, do not show any lack of respect towards Malays and Muslims in this sense. In the first place, the multi-cultural and multi-religious fabric of Singapore makes it easier for it to become a global center of attraction.
Like the Chinese, both Malays and Tamils put great importance to cultural variety and the harmony between different ethnic groups for they are well aware that the Singapore “brand” they have created in solidarity with the rest of the ethnic groups serves the welfare of all the citizens of the country. The annual national income per capita in 2011 approaching nearly 49 thousand dollars is the greatest source of inspiration for the people of Singapore.
Singapore as a Commercial Base
Singapore, in the full sense of the word, is one of the commercial bases of the world. Many prominent multi-national corporations have agencies in Singapore. Singapore’s economy has reached the volume of 260 billion dollars by 2011. And while the industrial sector constitutes 30% of this volume, the share of services sector corresponds to 70%. The majority of industrial activities involved in Singapore are about assembling and packaging. On the other hand, agricultural production is nearly null. In this respect, the services sector constitutes the backbone of Singapore’s economy; therefore the country strives to gain an advantage above global standards. Singapore was among the four “Asian tigers” (the others were South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong) in 1980s, and provides with a considerably well-developed economic infrastructure. Today, the tourism sector emerges as an offset of the strong services sector in the country. Singapore, with a population of five millions, achieves to attract an overall of ten million tourists annually, thereby hosts a population more than twice the size of its own. That is why numerous luxury hotels cluster in the city center, contributing to the economy as if they are factories without chimneys or machinery. With its liberal market system, developed social infrastructure and neutral political stance; Singapore also became an ideal hub for various international meetings.
Does Singapore Have a Foreign Policy?
As a member of many esteemed international organizations such as the UN, ASEAN, APEC and the Commonwealth of Nations, Singapore conducts diplomatic relations with many countries all around the world; although it has diplomatic missions only in a few of those countries. For instance Turkey’s embassy in Singapore was opened in 1985, whereas a Singaporean embassy in a G-20 country like Turkey was not yet existent as late as 2012 when it was finally established. It has always been subject to curiosity that what kind of a foreign policy will a country like Singapore which was founded in specific circumstances and whose commercial existence is much more significant than its political role adopt.
Even though it is usually a truly challenging task to survive without starving to death for five million people trapped in a small piece of land; Singaporeans are among the most prosperous societies in the world. And they owe their current position to being a liberal center of global capitalism. As long as the regulatory and protective task took on by the British Empire in the past is continued by the US at the outset and the EU to some extent in order to keep Singapore functional, the issue of survival will not bother Singapore. In such a context, Singapore’s greatest security concern is the possibility of a global crisis that may shake the whole world politically and financially. Such a devastating blow to the international system will leave Singapore vulnerable to external threats, and it will also pave the way to frictions within the country’s multicultural framework.
In terms of national security, Singapore attributes great importance to its relations with two Muslim neighbors, namely Malaysia and Indonesia, as well. Entering under the protective umbrella of one of these two states will provide with further assurance in addition to the Western powers’. Malaysia is the country among the two giant neighbors, which has the upper hand in intensifying bilateral relations with Singapore.
The Island of Singapore, which is separated from Malaysian Peninsula with a narrow strait, has railroad and highway connections to the latter thanks to bridges. Many food products with drinking water at the outset come from Malaysia. Therefore, Singapore’s primary trade partner is Malaysia. However, Singapore also has problems with Malaysia, such as in water sharing, the sovereignty conflict over various islets and the issue of air space limitation. While Singapore offers Malaysia to turn into profit the common benefits brought about by global economic opportunities on the one hand, the tiny country strives to avoid coming totally under the influence of Muslim Malays on the other hand.
Singapore will continue to pose a sui generis example to be examined from the lens of international relations hereafter as well.
USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies