Independent Singapore

As a newly and unexpectedly independent nation in 1965, Singapore took advantage of shifting geo-political circumstances, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, to build a future for itself.

In Southeast Asia, the ideological conflict of the Cold War of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the Vietnam War, the Cambodian civil war, instability in Indonesia, and immediate concerns that Thailand might succumb under the southward advance of the Bamboo Curtain, Asia’s equivalent of Europe’s Iron Curtain.

To safeguard its security against communist states in Asia and the potential of military incursions by Indonesia’s armed forces under the aegis of neo-nationalism, Singapore established armed forces along the Israeli model, enhanced its security arrangements with Britain, New Zealand, and Australia (under the Five Powers Defence Arrangement), and became a bilateral military ally of the United States. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew cultivated close diplomatic relations with Henry Kissinger during the Richard Nixon administration.

Two ships in the Republic of Singapore's Navy, the RSS Steadfast and RSS Vigilance, sail alongside one another.

To date, Singapore has remained one of Southeast Asia's major purchasers of U.S.- and Israeli-manufactured military equipment and weapon systems. It has a naval base that is capable of, and regularly hosts, U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, and is home to several U.S. Air Force and Navy littoral combat units.

At the same time, the rehabilitation of Japan into an economic and military power as part of America's strategic framework in the 1950s and 1960s meant that Japan underwent an economic renaissance that saw an expansion of its manufacturing capabilities.

Japanese companies developed global chain-manufacturing systems, where different factories in the world would produce different components, which were then shipped to Japan for final assembly. The finished products were then dispatched to their final destination markets in the West.

This global system of product manufacture and assembly was made possible by the invention of the cargo container in 1958 and the international standardization of shipping containers in 1968, which led to a revolution in the global shipping industry. Mechanization began to replace human labor.

The Port of Singapore is one of the largest and busiest container ports in the world. 

The launch of the Boeing 747 in 1970, which had two and a half times the carrying capacity of its largest predecessor and a cargo hold that was compatible with the international containerization system already developed for sea freight, provided a complementary high-speed logistics network with global potential.

Singapore benefited from all these developments.

The country’s strategic location between several key economies of the postwar era—Australia and New Zealand, Japan, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, and Europe—helped make it a node for international trade, as under British rule during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition, the fact that the Melaka Straits remain the only channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has meant Singapore was well placed to capitalize on the global containerization process, with the port of Singapore becoming central to the maritime shipping networks that connected the west coast of the United States to Asia, and onwards to Europe and the Middle East.

The Jurong Industrial Estate was built in the 1960s and contributed to the industrialization of Singapore's economy.

Logistics technology, the availability of global capital, and access to international markets meant that geographical constraints no longer determined economic survival and prosperity.

Once again, as in the fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries, regional factors played a decisive role in providing Singapore with the ability to maintain its newfound autonomy.

The convergence of all these developments presented Singapore with tremendous new economic opportunities. For Japanese companies seeking to build their supply chain manufacturing bases in Asia, the only viable locations were Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—all of which were not communist countries and which did not come under international trade sanctions.

Singapore's political leaders were presented with an economic and trade opportunity that they capitalized upon to great effect.

These opportunities have also led to an emphasis to train Singapore’s political leaders in macro-economic skills. While technical education and the sciences have gained disproportionate attention and resources in its education system, a premium has been placed on macro-technical training for its top political and bureaucratic leadership. Singapore’s second and current prime ministers, Goh Chong Tong and Lee Hsien Loong (right), were both trained as macro-economists.

The country’s top scholarship holders, who are bonded to the Public Service Commission after graduation from their university studies, have consistently been encouraged to undertake technical or social scientific degree programs as opposed to programs in the humanities. It has only been in the past two decades that scholarships in the arts and humanities have been offered by the Singapore government.

Singapore Today

By the 1990s, Singapore had become listed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as an advanced economy, and was regarded as one of the four so-called Tiger Economies of Asia.

Nonetheless, economic development has brought with it new sociopolitical challenges. Chief among them is the inherent contradiction between the needs and dynamism of a nation-state, on one hand, and a global city on the other.

A view of the Singapore River.

Since the 1970s, the economic policy of Singapore, which has been based primarily on attracting foreign direct investments by multi-national corporations, has resulted in a very open foreign labor policy. While economic success and innovation has meant that doors are kept open to the flow of international talent and capital, Singapore’s nationalists have increasingly demanded that Singaporeans be given first priority in economic and education opportunities.

In recent years, qualification requirements for foreign worker permits have been raised, while the ratio of unskilled foreign workers to Singaporean workers in any business, with the exception of construction, has been capped at 1:3. Certain sectors hitherto reliant on foreign labor, have undertaken deep restructuring.

The West end of Bukit Batok, one of Singapore's large-scale housing projects.

Singapore's government has pushed forward with the goal of developing the country as the world's leader in widespread and fast internet access. However, these goals of connectivity have produced tensions internally. These media platforms have been used internally both by political parties and civic groups as a means of galvanizing ground support and social dissent against government policies.

China has now emerged as the major competitor to the United States in shaping economic and military policies in the region. These include benign initiatives, such as the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, and more aggressive ones, such as the reclamation works in the South China Sea, where various Southeast Asian countries have laid claim to parts of this important maritime zone. With the recent violations of the territorial integrity of smaller states in other parts of the world, it is not clear what impact a resurgent and increasingly assertive China would have for smaller states in Asia.

Singapore's Marina Bay Sands building had the second highest construction cost in the world.

Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once commented that city-states throughout history have had a very poor survival record. Global forces have long provided the context for city-states to emerge, while regional forces have provided the opportunity for autonomy to be sustained.

As the world and the Asia-Pacific traverse the 21st century, and as Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence, it is worth pondering whether Singapore will survive as an autonomous country in the upcoming 50 years, or whether it will return to its longer historical legacy as part of a larger regional entity.