Contemporary Singapore has transformed into a “global city,” and remains an important player in international affairs. One of the original “Four Asian Tigers,” Singapore’s economy has grown into one of the most competitive and dynamic economies in the world. However, Singapore faced great adversity on its journey towards modern power.
In this shortened excerpt from Singapore: Unlikely Power, author John Curtis Perry sheds light on the importance of Singapore as a symbol of courage and strength.
As a long-time student of Pacific Asian civilizations, my interest in Singapore rises out of the distant depths of childhood, as a small boy remembering the pleasing tactile sensation of running my fingers across the satiny wooden surface of a small model boat, lacking its sail but with the stub of a mast. I liked carrying it around and embodied it with people sailing aboard who were, I imagined, somehow secreted in the solid space below the deck. My parents told me it was a prau (proa, prahu), a Malayan boat from the “Far East,” a place vastly remote geographically and in any other way from my hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey. In the 1930s, that town served as a bedroom of New York City, a conventional middle-class suburb, insular in experience and attitude, like much of America in those difficult years. While the Great Depression raged, the grownups tried to hide their anxieties from the children. Bankrupt companies were dismissing their workers. Itinerant homeless men, so-called tramps, often came to the kitchen door asking for a meal. With so many others, including people like us, clinging desperately to economic survival, the world beyond America seemed an alien irrelevance.
“In its wildly implausible story of survival, growth, and prosperity, Singapore exemplifies this great transformation and illustrates the power of the maritime world in making it happen”
Today’s traveler arriving in the city by air sees first a great aggregation of ships laid out in the harbor below, vividly illustrating the city’s primary position among world seaports. In the soft freshness of tropical dawn, driving downtown along a parkway lined with flowering greenery, the many towers of the city gleam in their newness, reminding one how stunningly recent has been the global economic shift from Atlantic primacy to the Pacific as world center of explosive economic growth. In its Wildly Implausible Story of survival, growth, and prosperity, Singapore exemplifies this great transformation and illustrates the power of the maritime world in making it happen. Singapore is a survival tale of overcoming periodic, even life-threatening crises. Highly competent and ambitious leadership, fired by nervous anxiety and committed to success, has provided the program and pulse for what Singapore is today: an economic dynamo, a miracle of well-crafted institutional design achieved with remarkable speed…
Britons can assuage memories of World War II’s catastrophic defeat in Singapore by recognizing the contributions of their imperial rule to independent Singapore’s accomplishments; and although most Americans scarcely know where it is, we have substantial interests in Singapore, both monetary and military. We have twice as much money invested in that tiny place than in all of China. With these heavy corporate stakes, Americans not only have a big economic interest but also, having long ago replaced Britain as guardian of the global seas, we have a strong strategic interest in ensuring open passage through the straits.
Americans can be grateful that Singapore provides a strategic asset to the United States Navy, now that we no longer hold our great base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Our fleet has found Singapore a receptive host where the largest American aircraft carriers can be accommodated, and where the navy stations several of its new littoral combat ships. Singapore thereby provides support for a forward American naval presence in Southeast Asia no longer available elsewhere. This carries special importance because of our proclaimed “Pivot to Asia.” As nation-states falter in efficiency, Singapore demonstrates that cities may be the salvation of humankind. That this city-state can thrive now leads some to suggest that smallness could even be the wave of the future, that cities as global actors may become more important than nations, at least in some spheres, environmentalism being one example. Cities themselves have traditionally functioned as centers for generating ideas and turning out products. In America, large cities produce the great bulk of the national economy.
“Although no utopia, the achievements of contemporary Singapore are inspiring. We can admire the courage with which it has faced and overcome adversity.”
In May 1995, the then Singaporean minister George Yeo gave a prescient speech in Tokyo talking about the future of cities, suggesting “in the next century, the most relevant unit of economic production, social organization and knowledge generation will be the city or city-region…a little like the situation in Europe before the era of nation-states,” the time, he might have added, when maritime city-states like Venice, Genoa, or Amsterdam conspicuously flourished. Singapore now aggressively markets itself as a global city, aspiring to be more than a regional center for international commerce, perhaps even to become a world maritime capital, “the new London.”
Although no utopia, the achievements of contemporary Singapore are inspiring. We can admire the courage with which it has faced and overcome adversity. Many criticize its authoritarianism yet accept the substantive accomplishments of its leaders in advancing human welfare, opening society to new opportunities and ideas while sheltering it from those perceived as threatening social harmony. But, as in that ancient city-state Athens, the government believes that the good of the community must supersede the interests of the individual. And many outsiders would now agree.
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