Strife Feature – Small but Mighty: The critical importance of Singapore in contemporary geo-politics

By: Cheng Lai Ki

“I’m not interested in being loved. What’s the profit in it?”
– Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, The Father of Singapore.

The small city-state of Singapore is today known for its progressive economic development, diverse ethnic cohesiveness or national governance strategies. When it’s independence begun on 9th August 1965, Singapore was tiny and underdeveloped. Making matters worse, it possessed no natural resources, limited national sustainability and a highly diverse population of recent immigrants. Guided by Singapore’s first Prime Minister the late Lee Kuan Yew, the nation-state slowly gained rapport in international diplomacy and established a firm foothold in financial markets which allowed it to expand into the metropolitan marvel it is today. Singapore has accomplished much in the last 51-years through exploiting its strategic geographical location, welcoming foreign trade, encapsulating on technological empowerment and focusing on utilitarian civil-policies. Today, Singapore possesses a steadily growing GDP (Gross Domestic Product), technologically advanced military capabilities, is a key player within international trade and initiated a multitude of developments (i.e. the ‘Smart Nation’ vision) empowering several other sectors. In the coming years, Singapore will play an increasingly important role in global geopolitics – but how? The paper argues that Singapore’s strategic pragmatism has potentially made the nation-state indispensable in navigating an increasingly unpredictable landscape within international commerce, politics and security domains.

To illustrate this, the paper is broken down into two parts. First, I highlight areas of Singaporean focus since its independence in 1965. The objective here is to: a) provide a brief insight into how the country developed throughout the last 50-years and b) to identify Singapore’s fundamentally pragmatic approach to national and international development. In the following sections, I continue to outline Singapore’s importance in contemporary geopolitical, technological and international security domains. The objective here is to show how strategic pragmatism has made Singapore almost indispensable amidst fluctuating international status-quos.

Majura Singapura

Today, Singapore is often considered a model for sustainable national development and is respected for its capability to defy domestic odds and become the metropolitan marvel it is today. However, Singapore’s political power was not developed overnight, but was accumulated through a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to state governance, guided by the teachings of PM Lee Kuan Yewotherwise known as Minister Mentor. After it was discarded by the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, Singapore not only survived, but thrived. Focusing on pragmatic strategies and not populist axioms over the last fifty years has turned Singapore into the metropolitan marvel it is today. At its core, Singapore focused its national development under three domains of Economics, Security, and Diplomacy.

Its first objective was to re-establish Singapore’s economy. Exploiting its strategic geography and understanding the value of foreign investment, Singapore’s highly developed market economy has a long history of entrepôt trade. Extensive international investment between 1965 to the present supported a high GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth rate, which allowed the nation to invest in key technological innovations to advance its own national infrastructure, commercial sector and civil services. Today, Singapore is best known for its economic freedom, technological innovation, highly competitive and business-friendly financial environment. This makes it a very attractive investment choice for international corporations with significant economic influence on global geopolitics. With technology, oil and financial services driving commercial forces in global economics, Singapore subsequently emphasized developing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) sectors to concurrently: a) maximize national capabilities in adapting to core economic drivers, and b) increase its awareness of global economic fluctuations for long-term national investment and financial stability.

The Port of Singapore, a key hub for international logistics and trade.

Its second objective was to protect itself from regional threats and thus provide security to citizens and foreign investors. The Singaporean military (Army, Navy, and Air-Force) is arguably the most technologically advanced fighting force in the region, and is well-armed and developed to respond to a broad range of conventional and unconventional warfare and crisis scenarios. The Singaporean military is today highly active in aspects such as counterterrorism measures, the provision of effective maritime security and providing humanitarian support to crisis scenarios around the world. Its various military branches possess a significant global presence, and they often train and operate with other national militaries around the world. Modern Singapore is described to adhere to a ‘porcupine strategy’ where it focuses on developing the reactive capabilities of the military and intelligence capabilities (i.e. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to deter and inflict intolerable costs on potential aggressors. The country’s geographic restrictions have meant that Singapore’s military must be capable of repelling an attack swiftly and decisively, as there is literally no ground to retreat nor re-group. Heightened domestic security systems, strict security laws, sensory systems and secretive intelligence services arguably make Singapore an advanced surveillance stateunderstandable given its geographically incurred limitations. Despite being a nation of skilled reservist soldiers, Singapore continues to expand its national readiness through introducing the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC), a uniformed scheme designed to further expand the nation’s national defense. It is arguably a reinvigoration of its predecessor, the Singapore Volunteer Corps of the mid-1800s. The Singaporean Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) continues its focus on strengthening its multilateral military relationships and empowering old ties.

Its third objective was to establish functional diplomatic domestic infrastructure and international network. This was essential towards its economic internationalization and national security. Domestically, Singapore possesses a parliamentary political infrastructure, led by an elected Prime Minister and with democratically elected Members of Parliament (MPs) representing various districts in Singapore. While elections are democratic and clean, Singapore has been labelled as a ‘flawed democracy’ on page 34 in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2016. Internationally, Singapore’s core foreign policy ideals emphasize regional security and a belief in multinational prosperity through security. Singapore’s strongest reflection of multilateralism was the formation of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in August 1967. ASEAN is multinational collective designed to promote better regional relationships between nations and highly reflected Singapore’s belief in multinationalism. At its core, ASEAN is an essential mechanism allowing for peaceful discussions between participatory states and the rest of the international community. Further, a reflection of Singapore’s extensive diplomatic abilities can be seen in its passport rankings. According to the Passport Index, the Singaporean passport has a VFS (Visa-Free Score) of 157 and is ranked second in the world alongside Sweden in 2017. Bilaterally, Singapore has developed and maintained close ties with the United States (US). The two countries possess significantly close economic and security relationships. In December 2015, Singapore’s Minister of Defense, Dr. Ng Eng Hen signed a ‘Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA)’ which enhanced better bilateral collaboration in areas of ‘military, policy, strategic and technology spheres’. The close and renewed American-Singaporean relationship could be viewed as a geopolitical counterbalance rapid emergence of China as a hemispheric power.

The Pragmatic Approach  

Through mapping Singapore’s economic, security and diplomatic developments, a governance trend revolving around strategic pragmatism can be easily traced. Under economic domains, the nation depended critically on foreign investment and importation of critical resources. Acknowledging the power of technological innovation, it focused on cultivating its STEM, financial and legal capabilities in future generations. This pragmatic approached paved the foundations for future generations to easily adapt to the rapidly evolving commercial industry, especially within Information Technology (IT) – a concept revisited later.

Singapore Technologies (ST) Kinetics’s Terrex-2

Within the security domains, Singapore’s global presence is often reflected by its technological innovation in aerospace, electronics, land systems and maritime disciplines. Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd (ST Engineering) is a publically traded, integrated engineering group headquartered in Singapore. Much alike other engineering corporations such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, ST Engineering has become a formidable player in the weapons industry. In March 2016, its subsidiary, ST Kinetics, was awarded a bid to provide the US Marine Corps the TERREX-2, an 8×8 multi-terrain amphibious armored troop transport. In earlier years, ST Kinetics also won the bid to provide the British military another armored platform called the BRONCO (or known as the WARTHOG) in the early 2000s. The pragmatic element here is how Singapore exploits its technological innovations to empower existing multilateral military relationships with commercial trade of weapon platforms.

In terms of diplomacy, pragmatism is more evident in domestic than in foreign policies. Domestically, Singaporean governance has been criticized, given the degree of state influence by the dominating People’s Action Party. However, this paper cautions the reader to not confuse pragmatism as a ‘flawed democracy’. A key lesson from PM Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was that it avoided populist measures, while focusing on providing the welfare its people needed and not ‘‘handouts’ [which undoubtedly would have] undermined self-reliance and fostered a dependence on the state’. Singapore’s brand of democracy focuses on the collective. Welfare is granted through the provision of skills, opportunities and failsafe programs (i.e. Central Provident Fund) for its citizens. Although Singapore’s pragmatic approach to international diplomacy is visible through the establishment of ASEAN to promote a collective and collaborative regional development, it is however undermined from its closer ties to the West than the East. As such, it is plagued by a phenomenon this paper terms as The Janus Dilemma, where a nation displays varying ‘faces’ of allegiance to competing powers. It is evident that at the very core of Singaporean national strategies is the emphasis on practical and utilitarian approaches, designed to streamline development and focus on collective evolution.

Tiny Lion, Loud Roar: navigating global challenges

Over the last decade, the world has undergone significant shifts in geopolitics, technological and security.

US Withdrawal from the TPP

A major development has been the USA’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by President Donald J. Trump within the first 100-days in office. The TPP is a 12-nation trade agreement liberalizing the flow of commercial goods between nations within the Pacific Rim and was a focal achievement of Former-President Barrack Obama. The agreement focused on issues such as unified trade tariffs and copyright laws to streamline and expedite commercial trade between member nations. However, China has been consistently unclear about joining the partnership and considered the TPP as an American ploy to resist China’s rampant expansion through controlling the international economic status-quo, as the TPP arguably would reduce its commercial influence and dominance. Should China join the TPP now, it could potentially hijack the agreement to assist its expansion and rejuvenation objectives under President Xi Jingping.

Amongst the remaining TPP states, Singapore currently possesses the highest GDP. According to a 2013 article for Inbound Logistics, it revealed Singapore as a ‘prime location for major logistics firms [and] possesses 200 shipping lanes to 600 ports in 123 countries’. This has also inspired ‘20 of the top 25 global logistics service providers [to] conduct operations there [alongside establishing] regional or global headquarters in Singapore’. Armed with decades of experience international trade and strong diplomatic relationships, the nation is well equipped to guide future discussions under the TPP.

Smart City Vision

International investment from multiple global industries allowed Singapore to exploit key technological innovations. Technologically, the increasing Internet-of-Things landscape has stimulated national projects towards building smart cities and increased focus on the IT sector. Most recently through the Smart City vision. Per a 2014/15 Annual Report of the Information Development Authority of Singapore, the objective of the vision was: ‘[t]o develop information technology and telecommunications within Singapore [through] working with leading global IT companies [to develop national] information technologies and telecommunications infrastructure, policies and capabilities’. While the project is still within its infancy, it is still closely coordinated by the state. However, this program has drawn the attention of other nations such as India aiming to test the smart city concept.

With a city-scape powering towards thriving in an Internet-of-Things era, Singapore’s need for effective cybersecurity that protects the state and its commercial relations is unquestionable. Per its 2016 Cybersecurity Strategy, it is underpinned by four pillars: a) strengthening Critical Information Infrastructures, b) institute a nation-wide cultural change, c) cultivate a new sector of economic and skills development exclusively for cybersecurity, and d) establish strong international partnerships to maintain sovereignty within cyberspace. While most other countries all possess their relevant cybersecurity strategies, what makes Singapore unique is that is strategy directly correlates with its smart city vision. Concurrent development of both programs is reflective of Singapore’s underlying security-centric characteristic.

Singapore’s Smart City vision

Unease in South East Asia

Finally, a ubiquitous security development would undoubtedly be the tensions in the South China Sea between China and several ASEAN member states. China’s strategic expansions are two-fold. First is gaining military dominance through expanding strategic borders, reflected in their 2013 Science and Military Strategy publication. It also aims for greater control over regional trade routes, which sustains China’s growing maritime logistics sector that has established (and empower) ports in nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Africa, that reflect its Maritime Silk Road initiative. Despite being situated on the outskirts of the region under tension and possessing no claim to the contested territories, China’s expansion has come to even worry Singapore – reflected in the Shangri-La Dialogues of 2016. Its initiatives have caused tensions between various ASEAN member nations and have guided political shifts within the region (e.g. Duterte and Chinese relationships). China’s expansion of its strategic domain significantly increases is deployment distance and regional dominance. The importance of Singapore here resides in its close security relationships. As revealed in the Snowden Files. Singapore possesses formidable military intelligence relationships. With increased strategic relationships between Singapore and several regional militaries (like Thailand) recently renewed, the nation-state is very capable of being the voice of reason to China’s military expansionism.

The emergence of extremism in the region is also a key concern. Amongst the various regional nations, Singapore has a consistently evolving counterterrorism program coupled with a highly effective de-radicalization program. Singapore’s counterterrorism model is a blend of both soft approaches (like the British CONTEST Strategy) focusing on community cohesion and hardline strategies that employ the use of decisive force. Singapore’s civil experiences have since made significant research leaps into understanding violent extremism and radicalization , making it a good model and information resource for policy-makers and academics.


Singapore maybe a small nation-state with a population of 5.61 million people, but it carries a mighty roar that rumbles throughout the Asian region. With the global status-quo in flux, the small nation continues to thrive. Long guided by the skilful geopolitical navigation of the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to focused on pragmatic approaches toward empowering Singapore’s Economy, Security and Diplomacy.  While not necessarily gaining the most popular support for various policies and strategies, it reinvigorated the nation and modernized it. Emphasis on constructive welfare ultimately empowered the nation in multiple aspects, making it a leader under various domains alongside streamlining its national development and subsequent importance in a fluctuating geopolitical landscape.

I have illustrated Singapore’s deep involvement in multiple international developments and issues. Despite being geographically small, its progressive economy, pragmatic geopolitical decisions, and security-centric development grant Singapore a significant amount of political power – making it an essential ally for many states. Despite the recent withdrawal of the US from international arrangements such as the TPP, Singapore’s experience in economics and international trade gives it significant authority and influence within global commerce. Its emphasis on technological advances has stimulated a city-wide revolution and initiated the smart city vision. This development significantly increases national output and continues to improve the quality of life for many. Singapore has metamorphosed into a role-model nation state that other countries often look up to; this gives it leverage to deepen bilateral political ties. Finally, Singapore’s advanced military, multilateral relationships and unique experiences in counterterrorism heighten its status as a valuable mentor to other countries. The nation’s strategic position requires it to have a security-first sensibility and is something emerging weaker nation-states could learn from. At its core, Singapore is a city built on pragmatism, a guiding principle that might prove valuable in the current geopolitical climate of seemingly endless political noise. This paper ends the discussion with a video about the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew where he says, ‘I’m not interested in being loved. What’s the profit in it?’ – what do you think?

*The views and opinions represented within this piece does not represent that of the Singapore government or its Ministry of Defence but are only the intellectual analysis of the author.

Cheng Lai Ki is a reservist military officer with the Singapore Armed Forces. He possesses degrees in Criminology, Intelligence and International Security respectively from the University of Leicester and King’s College London. Formerly the Managing Editor for Strife Blog and Journal, his work has also been featured by IHSJane’s Intelligence Review and Cyber World.

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