The Battle Against City State Complacency? A Review of Singapore, Singapura.

Walton, Nicholas. Singapore, Singapura: From Miracle to Complacency. London: Hurst & Company, 2018.

By Taoyu Yang

If territorial size were the critical factor in determining a country’s success, then Singapore, at 280 square miles (less than half the size of Houston), would seem little more than a curious throwback to antiquity: a city-state, somehow still viable in the 21st century. But Singapore is more than viable. By almost any measure it is an economic powerhouse, which on a per-capita basis ranks among the wealthiest nations in the world.

Stamford Raffles
Stamford Raffles: Sir Stamford Raffles was a British colonial officer, whose arrival in Singapore in 1819 marked the genesis of the country’s modern history. Kian, “Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles” (2006), Flickr.

If we could magically bring to life Sir Stamford Raffles—the indefatigable British governor whose arrival in 1819 marked the birth of modern Singapore—even he would be astonished at what this city (independent of the UK or surrounding Malaysia) has managed to achieve over the past half-century under the leadership of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

What is unique about this sovereign city-state? What historical, geographical, social, political, and cultural forces contributed to the Singapore miracle? And if the country’s recent history has been characterized by staggering success, then what does the future hold? In Singapore, Singapura, Nicholas Walton addresses these difficult questions with levity, a sharp sense of humor, and a measured understanding of the city’s past, present and future.

Walton, a former BBC foreign news journalist, spent three and a half years in Singapore. The narrative arc of the book is his single-day journey on foot across the entire city-state that allows us to explore Singapore’s key landmarks and the stories behind them. In the course of his tour, Walton weaves the elements of a diary, travel writing, anthropological observations, and scholarly reading into an entertaining and insightful story.

81iCd2aa78LFor Walton the key word is “complacency,” which he sees as the “greatest threat to the Singapore miracle.” The miracle, Walton explains, is not only deeply rooted in the country’s pivotal geographical position, which allows it to function at a point of confluence for Indian and Pacific ocean trade, but also in its pragmatic, albeit visibly authoritarian government and its “hunger, sense of vulnerability, and appetite for hard work.” However, there are worrisome signs: Singapore’s strategic importance is gradually being overshadowed by other Central Asian nations; its economic structure urgently needs to be adapted to a technology-driven “smart economy;” the increasing assertiveness of China has upset the stable international trade climate on which Singapore’s economy has depended; what appears to be a largely conservative and conformist society, is now rent by divisions along racial, gender, and class lines. And there remains the issue of Singapore’s tiny size, which ostensibly would provide the city with distinct advantages in governability and adaptability. But as Walton points out, Singapore “has little control over the wider environment…and almost no wiggle room if you get your technocratic solutions wrong.” In the face of changing domestic and international circumstances and compounded by its remarkably small size, neither the Singaporean government nor its populace can afford to be “complacent.”

Singapore, Singapura serves not only as an evocative guide to a remarkable city’s past and present, but also as an invitation to compare the world’s great seaports. Walton sees parallels between modern Singapore and the medieval city-state of Genoa, Christopher Columbus’ hometown. Both were transformed from obscure fishing villages to powerful seaports. But there are important distinctions to be made between ports. While little Singapore faces the world alone, Shanghai is buttressed by China. As Singapore’s famous rival, Hong Kong—a super seaport in its own right—struggles to maintain its independence in the long shadow of the People’s Republic, this reviewer has to exclaim: Remarkable—these city-states!

Taoyu YangTaoyu Yang is a PhD student of modern Chinese history at University of California, Irvine. His research interests concern colonial history, urban history, history of modern China, and critical historiography. Yang’s dissertation project examines the role of multi-imperial interaction in the production of urban space in Tianjin and Shanghai, two of the largest treaty port cities in China from 1840s to 1940s.



Featured image (at top): Ranked as one of the top universities in the world, National University of Singapore epitomizes the country’s innovative spirit that underpinned “the Singapore miracle.” Uiking, “National University of Singapore” (2014), Flickr.

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