Singapore: A Small Asian Heavyweight

Edgar Su/Reuters

Singapore, one of the world’s wealthiest and most trade-dependent countries, punches above its weight in regional and global affairs.

June 26, 2018

Edgar Su/Reuters
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.


Singapore is a global financial and economic hub that sits astride the meeting point of the strategically vital Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. Despite its small size, the island city-state of 5.6 million people is a heavyweight in regional and international affairs.

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A close strategic partner of the United States in Southeast Asia, Singapore also maintains a close relationship with China. In recent years, it has pursued a balanced foreign policy, seeking to avoid getting caught up in the geopolitical competition between the two countries. In June 2018, Singapore was chosen as the destination for a summit meeting between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, underlining its heft in international diplomacy.

Founding Father: Lee Kuan Yew

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Southeast Asia


Political History and Theory

Politics and Government

Singapore was a British colony and entrepôt for more than a century. Following World War II, as the British empire unraveled, Singapore gained considerable autonomy in the 1950s and joined with other British territories to form Malaysia in 1963.

The marriage was short-lived, however. Amid growing tensions between Malay nationalists and the predominantly ethnic Chinese supporters of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP), Malaysia expelled Singapore in 1965, which then became an independent parliamentary republic.

The country’s founder and first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, ruled for more than thirty years, until 1990, after which he became senior minister and ultimately minister mentor to the Singaporean government until his resignation in 2011.

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Lee’s influence over Singapore’s national identity and approach to public policy cannot be overstated. Under Lee, Singapore became one of Asia’s four so-called tiger economies, along with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. However, unlike these other rapidly growing Asian tigers—and Japan—Singapore, while retaining state control of core economic development, did not employ protectionist policies to help nurture its own domestic industrial giants. Rather, Lee’s Singapore pursued an economic development model that prioritized courting foreign direct investment, particularly from U.S. multinational corporations, such as Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor, looking for low-wage labor.

Soft Authoritarianism

Today, Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is among the highest in the world. The PAP, which Lee founded, continues to rule Singapore today, having never lost an election. Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the country’s third and current prime minister.

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Political History and Theory

Politics and Government

Lee Kuan Yew was famous for his political philosophy, which viewed national government as a paternalistic and technocratic manager of all aspects of social and economic life. He saw individual liberties as secondary to communal prosperity and social discipline as a necessary condition for that prosperity.

Over the years, Lee’s political opponents and other dissenters often found themselves in prison. While many experts credit his model with enabling Singapore’s incredible economic growth, Lee’s approach also earned him a reputation as a soft authoritarian. Singapore today is considerably freer than it was during Lee’s rule.

Having witnessed the legacy of ethnic violence in Malaysia in the early 1960s, Lee understood the need for racial harmony in multi-ethnic Singapore. Accordingly, the government has, over the years, engineered a range of policies to promote social stability, including racial quotas in housing and racial representativeness requirements for election candidates.

However, Singapore’s record on human rights has drawn criticism from nongovernmental organizations. The country’s use of capital and corporal punishment and its strict regulation of speech have drawn particular scrutiny. The 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranks Singapore 151st out of 180 countries, just below Ethiopia, citing the government’s liberal use of defamation suits against journalists. Public acts of protest are strongly proscribed.

In recent years, social media has given the opposition a greater voice and improved their competitiveness in national elections, which poses obvious challenges for the country’s entrenched leadership. The PAP-led government’s attempts to crack down on the use of social media received international attention in 2015 when Amos Yee, a teenager, was arrested for posting a YouTube video “wounding the feelings of religious groups” and criticizing the late Lee Kuan Yew. He eventually was granted asylum in the United States.

Global Singapore

Singapore’s economy depends heavily on trade, and the country has long supported international efforts to reduce trade barriers. At 318 percent in 2016, Singapore had the second-highest trade-to-GDP ratio in the world, after Luxembourg, which leaves it particularly vulnerable to turns against globalization and free trade in the West. The country’s domestic market is relatively small, but Singapore ranks as the world’s top transshipment hub. Its primary exports include electronics, pharmaceutical products, petroleum and mineral products, and industrial equipment.

Singapore was among the Pacific Four group of countries, along with Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand, which launched the negotiations in 2008 that eventually led to the twelve-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks. After the United States withdrew from the TPP in 2017, Singapore signed an agreement with the eleven remaining countries. Singapore has several other free trade agreements, including one with the United States and one with China.

While U.S.-Singapore ties remain close, trade policies under President Donald J. Trump have drawn a rebuke from the highly trade-dependent country. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee, writing in the Washington Post in April 2018, criticized the Trump administration’s announcement of unilateral tariffs on China, Singapore’s top trading partner, which he said were “not the correct solution” to Chinese economic practices. “A trade war between the two largest economies in the world will have a big, negative impact on Singapore,” Lee added.

Singapore’s Active Diplomacy

Relationships with the United States and China. As a small country that keeps close ties with both the United States and China, Singapore has had to walk a careful line between these competing powers.

Today, Singapore is a close strategic partner for the United States in Asia, and the two countries have particularly advanced military ties. The U.S. and Singaporean militaries conduct regular exercises together, and the U.S. Navy uses Singaporean naval facilities to support its operations in Southeast Asia. Even though it is not a U.S. treaty ally, Singapore is poised to become the first and only Southeast Asian state to field the most advanced U.S.-made fighter aircraft.

Singapore has also sought warm ties with China, but their relationship has been difficult at times. In recent years, China has taken steps to drive a wedge between Singapore and its longtime partner Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway territory. Tensions spiked in 2016 when China seized several Singaporean military vehicles that were returning from maneuvers with Taiwan. In 2017, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee was not invited to China’s inaugural Belt and Road Forum as relations remained cool.

More recently, Singapore has broadly refrained from commenting on great powers matters. For instance, in a bid to improve its relationship with China, senior Singaporean officials have not criticized China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea; Singapore is not a claimant state in the disputes there. The extent to which Singapore should voice its preferences on the South China Sea and other regional issues also remains an active debate. Relations between the two countries extend beyond economic ties to political and cultural ties.

Beyond the United States and China, Singapore maintains close diplomatic and economic ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). As a former British colony, it is also a member of the Commonwealth and participates in the Five Power Defense Arrangements, in which it coordinates on military matters with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

Terrorism and piracy. Singapore’s main security threats include transnational terrorism and maritime piracy. At least three Singaporean citizens have traveled to the Middle East to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and the country is wary of foreign fighters returning to commit acts of terrorism and spread their ideology in Southeast Asia.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) conducts regular anti-piracy patrols near Singapore’s territorial waters and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including the Malacca Strait, where piracy and armed robbery have grown in recent years. The RSN has also deployed to support anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. Singapore has also supported the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, providing refueling aircraft, imagery analysis, and medical personnel.

Climate change. Global climate change is a major threat to Singapore, and the country has been a leading proponent of coordinated international action to reduce carbon emissions, including the 2015 Paris Agreement. Nearly a third of Singapore is just five meters above mean sea levels, leaving the low-lying island highly vulnerable to coastal flooding. Climate change also threatens the city-state’s water resources, food security, biodiversity, and public health.

High-stakes summitry. Though Singapore does not enshrine neutrality as a principle of its foreign policy, its de facto even-handedness has left it a popular venue for high-stakes summits. In 2015, the city-state hosted the first-ever meeting of a Chinese leader and a Taiwanese president. In June 2018, Singapore hosted the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit meeting.

Pyongyang and Washington reportedly chose Singapore not only for its perceived neutrality—it maintains diplomatic ties with both countries—but also because the country is capable of providing adequate security for the meeting, which saw North Korean leader Kim Jong-un travel farther from Pyongyang than he has since beginning his rule in 2011.

Singapore also hosts the Shangri-La Dialogue, an important Asian security forum attended annually by regional defense chiefs and the U.S. secretary of defense. The country has an important role in the ten-member ASEAN grouping, where it holds the rotating chairmanship in 2018, and it will host the thirteenth East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum in 2018.

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