Singapore: A Globalized City-State

The History of Singapore. Editor: Jean E Abshire. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Imagine a poverty-stricken country with people living packed together in a slum along a river that doubles as a sewer. Now fast-forward just a couple of decades and envision tourist boats on a river against a backdrop of glass-faced skyscrapers sparkling in the tropical sun. This is the journey of Singapore, from third world to first world. Many people think immediately of China or India when they think of rapid economic development through globalization, but Singapore succeeded in moving from third world to first almost before China even entered the race—and Singapore has come farther. One of the Asian Tigers, together with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, these economies became famous for their high economic growth rates and rapid industrialization from the 1960s onward. They achieved this through intensive participation in the global economy.

Many Westerners may think of harsh government practices or strict societal order when they think of Singapore. This is due to high profile events such as the 1994 caning (whipping with a flexible rattan cane) of American teenager Michael Fay for vandalism, references in the media to the fact that littering and chewing gum sales are illegal, and that drinking or eating in the subway can merit a several-hundred-dollar fine. However, when Singaporeans think of what it means to be Singaporean, for many the national image is a globalized city-state, as embodied by the slogan “Global City, World of Opportunities” used by Singapore 2006, a major event launching the first Singapore Biennale. However, slogans do not begin to capture the essence of this fascinating, colorful, diverse, and globalized country. A slogan does not show the vivid yellow and magenta blooms of the flower stalls in the Little India neighborhood or tickle one’s nose with the incense drifting from the Buddhist temple down the street. It does not begin to depict the towering skyscrapers of the Central Business District that are filled with the names of corporations from all around the globe or the heat, noise, hustle, and smells of a hawker center food court. During the lunch rush people savor Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, European, or Japanese dishes reflecting the amazing social diversity that is Singapore, a diversity that comes through Singapore’s position at the leading edge of globalization.

At 269 square miles (just about three and a half times the size of Washington, D.C.), Singapore is one of the smallest countries in the world when measured by territory and has only 4.7 million people; yet in terms of economics, it is a powerhouse with a 2009 gross domestic product (GDP) ranking of 48 out of 227 countries. When analyzed on a per capita basis, Singapore’s GDP status is even more impressive: seventh in the world behind Lichtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Norway, and Kuwait. This is amazing wealth for a country that in the 1960s was considered to be among the poorest, a part of the less developed world. One might ask how Singapore accomplished this. The short answer is globalization, defined as the increasing economic, social, and political integration of countries and peoples. In 2009, Singapore ranked first in the world for having the most globalized economy and seventh in the world for social globalization.

Globalization has been one of the strongest forces shaping Singapore throughout its history. Its geographic location at the tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, just a little over a 100 miles north of the equator, placed it at a crossroads for trade, first regional, then global. Almost everything about Singapore, from its people to its languages and cuisine to its businesses and even its political history, has been inseparable from globalization.

New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote The World Is Flat, a book in which he described globalization as having different phases, Globalization 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. Globalization 1.0 was the integration brought by European colonization. Wealthy countries and their governments drove this phase of globalization as they sought territory and wealth to expand their power. Globalization 2.0 came later when multinational corporations began to drive global integration. This phase began with the advent of corporations like the British East India Company, which profoundly shaped Singapore for four crucial decades in its history. The multinational corporations found motivation in their search for markets, labor, and profits. While interrupted by events such as World Wars I and II, corporate globalization was the primary force in the world from 1800 until 2000. Globalization 3.0 is, according to Friedman, a variation in which people are the driving force, empowered by technology like the Internet to reach around the globe. So where does Singapore fit into this? Singapore is globalization. It was a global crossroads, a place where boundaries were broken down through trade for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived to expand their imperial hold. It was later controlled by Britain in the name of corporate globalization and is an outstanding example of Globalization 2.0. After it gained independence in 1965, Singapore learned to harness globalization, to become a center of global trade, finance, shipping, and technology of a greater caliber than it had been under British colonial control. With this harnessing of globalization, Singapore expanded its wealth and its prominence. Thus, globalization is the underlying theme for this examination of Singapore’s rich history. Its small size has not left it on the sidelines. Its geographic position has lent itself to trade and given Singapore a status across the centuries that is uncommon for such a diminutive territory.


Singapore’s population was formed by globalization, as people came from other areas to engage in trade or work in trade-related businesses and industry in an economically vibrant location. Singapore’s current population is predominantly (77%) of Chinese origin. This group, however, also exhibits diversity, as the forebearers came from different parts of China, bringing with them different dialects, foods, and traditions. Today, the largest subgroup is Hokkien-speakers descended from immigrants from the Fujian Province; the next largest is Teochew-speakers, whose origins are in the northeastern part of Guandong Province; and finally those speaking the Yue (Cantonese) dialect who are descended from the Guangzhou area of the Guandong Province. The next largest ethnic group at 14 percent is the indigenous people of the region, the Malays. While the Malays may have been the original inhabitants, the Chinese quickly outnumbered them. The next largest ethnic group is Indian at 8 percent, who, like the Chinese, came from different parts of India for economic opportunity and, thus, are diverse within their community as well, although approximately two-thirds are from Tamil areas in southern India and northern Sri Lanka. The next two largest groups, each comprising about 8 percent of the Indian community are Punjabis from Punjab in northern India and Malayalis from Kerala State.

The demographic composition is reflected in Singapore’s four official languages of Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. Each of these is widely spoken, with most people speaking at least two languages. English, however, is the common language of business, government, and increasingly everyday life. Unofficially, there is a Singaporean Creole language, known as Singlish. It is English-based with the addition of some Malay and Hokkien words and grammar. The government frowns on the language, declaring it incompatible with Singapore’s image as a serious business center, and even began a Speak Good English Movement to discourage the use of Singlish. Despite these efforts, it remains very popular in television shows and local films, although one (a comedy) received an adult rating in 2002 for containing “excessive Singlish.”

Singapore’s immigrants also brought considerable religious diversity. Buddhism and Taoism are most prevalent in the Chinese community; Islam is the religion of almost everyone in the Malay community and some in the Indian community; Hinduism is the most widely practiced faith among Singaporean Indians; and a range of Christian denominations are practiced by some Chinese and Indians. In recent years Islam has come to be treated with caution due to the rising threat from Islamic terrorism. Instead of cracking down on religious practice, however, the government has worked with the Muslim community to encourage religious harmony and to encourage the Muslim community itself to limit extremism in religious education.

Despite the diversity within society, there is evidence that Singapore is developing a common national identity, that people increasingly identify themselves as Singaporean, rather than by their communal group. This development was long hindered by the fact that immigrants typically did not come to Singapore with the intention of staying. Instead, they intended to work for a time and then return home, thus retaining strong connections with their homeland. Later, leaders planned for Singapore to merge with neighboring Malaysia, so many people never expected Singapore to become an independent country until it actually happened. It has taken time to overcome this history and the societal divisions that separated the ethnic groups. The Singaporean national identity is not a finished product, but it is emerging. The goal of the government after independence was expressed by Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, who thought that Singaporeans would be people “rooted in the cultures of four great civilizations but not belonging exclusively to any of them.” Despite that, however, marriage rates between members of the different ethnic communities are quite low; and even with government programs to integrate housing, the communities have somewhat resegregated in recent decades.

While Singapore has considerable diversity among its citizens, that is only part of the story. The reality of globalization in Singapore is that the country continues to draw people from around the world for work and economic benefits. Singapore ranks fifteenth in the world for migration into the country, thus Singapore’s diversity continues to evolve. In fact, the 2000 census revealed that close to 20 percent of the residents were non-citizens. Singapore’s openness to the world’s peoples is likely to continue, since the government sees immigration as central to the country’s ongoing economic growth and the mitigation of Singapore’s alarmingly low birthrate. Thus, Singapore is and will be a global city-state.


Singapore’s government is a parliamentary republic with a single legislative body of 84 elected seats and up to nine appointed seats intended to offer non-partisan voices in the parliament. The leader of the strongest party in the Parliament is the prime minister, who with the cabinet and the president comprises the executive branch. The presidency was for decades a ceremonial role, but in 1991, the powers of the office were expanded by constitutional amendment. It became an elected position and the president gained veto power over some financial matters, such as spending the national reserves, and also over appointment to some official positions, including civil service and government companies. These powers, however, are limited, and the real power within the government rests with the prime minister.

While those are the constitutional arrangements, the dynamics of political power play out somewhat differently due to Singapore’s party politics. Although a variety of political parties exist, there is only one, the People’s Action Party (PAP), that exercises power and has done so with very little competition since 1959, even before Singapore gained independence. The PAP controlled 100 percent of the seats in the Parliament from 1966, when members of the opposition Barisan Sosialis party resigned, until 1981, when one seat was lost to a Workers’ Party member in a special election. Following the next general election in 1984, the government enacted a new policy to guarantee the opposition parties at least three seats in parliament, even if they won fewer than three, so there could be at least some assurance of opposition representation. However, since 1988, the government has formed increasing numbers of “group representation constituencies” (multiple representatives for each voting district) in place of a single elected official representing a voting district. This group system involves voting for parties rather than candidates, and the party that wins the largest number of votes wins all the seats allotted to the electoral district. This was introduced to improve minority representation in the parliament since a certain level of minority representation is required in the electoral groups, but there are allegations that this system has made it more difficult for opposition parties to compete in elections. Indeed, in the last several elections, there have been just two elected opposition members of parliament, and thus far no opposition party has won a group representation constituency. The PAP’s control of Parliament, and thus of the executive branch, is exceedingly strong and gives the party almost unlimited political power in Singapore.

The PAP also manages to dominate nongovernmental aspects of the political system. Most community organizations are in some way affiliated with the party. There are strict controls on local and international media organizations. For instance, the Wall Street Journal Asia and other organizations have been sued by government officials for libel and defamation. The expansion of the internet poses opportunities for greater freedom of speech, conforming to Friedman’s idea of Globalization 3.0, but the Singaporean government has been a leader among restrictive countries in limiting the ability of citizens to use the Internet for opposition. Any Web site with “political intent” must be registered with the government and several have closed down under government pressure. At the same time, the administration has been an innovator in using the Internet to make the government more accessible to its citizens. The government portal, eCitizen, is a one-stop connection for most government services. If someone needs a pet license, eCitizen will provide the form, along with links to lists of veterinarians, information on pet shops and animal welfare organizations, and education for pet owners. If someone wants to get married, eCitizen offers links to “find your soulmate,” registration information for civil or Muslim marriages, and advice to keep the marriage happy, such as dealing with in-laws, financial management, communication, parenthood, etc. This selective approach to political globalization is the single weak point (albeit an important one) in Singapore’s status as a globalization leader.


Singapore has, as indicated above, a robust, capitalist economy. Manufacturing and financial services are the most significant sectors, with export of consumer electronics, computer products, and pharmaceuticals leading the way. The United States, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Indonesia are Singapore’s most significant trading partners. Like most advanced economies, it is heavily vested in services (73%), with industry comprising only 27 percent of GDP. Although Singapore’s wealth is enormous, it is not evenly distributed across members of the society. Singapore ranks twenty-ninth worst in the world for income inequality, despite having the second highest standard of living in Asia, behind Japan.

While Singapore has one of the most open economies in the world, it is not an economy in which government is uninvolved. Indeed, one factor that makes Singapore an inviting location for investment is the high degree of stability afforded by the consistency and control of government. The architect of Singapore’s economic development strategy, Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee, argued that “The role of government is pivotal. Non-economic factors … are more important than economic variables.” Singaporean economist Tilak Abey-singhe refers to it as a “market driven guided economy,” in which the government has a heavy presence through statutory boards, land ownership, government holding companies, and government-linked companies. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the government’s management of the economy is its agile efforts to keep up with global market leaders. Again and again, as global markets changed, Singapore’s policy-makers shifted economic priorities to keep Singapore competitive and its services marketable. Often this involved financial incentives to businesses and major retraining programs for the population. Recently, the government has targeted new areas for expanding Singapore’s participation in the knowledge-based economy, focusing on medical tourism because excellent medical care is much less expensive than in the United States and focusing on becoming an “education hub” for the world, seeking to capitalize on its recent investments in improving higher education by inviting international students to study in Singapore. Another new and controversial economic undertaking, expected to bring in billions of dollars per year by 2015, is casino gambling as part of two integrated resort projects that the government hopes will boost tourism.

Society and Culture

For most of the country’s existence, Singapore’s people were self-segregated into ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown, Kampong Glam for the Malay population, and Little India. The Chinese and Indians lived in the most urban environments, and many Malays lived in more rural, traditional villages. As the government began to improve housing in the 1960s, this aspect of society was transformed. Today, almost everyone lives in apartment housing, most of it ethnically integrated, and most own their own apartments. Most of the apartments are in high-rise buildings, as Singapore’s population density is among the highest in the world.

With this improvement in housing, came improvements in infrastructure. The government invested heavily in a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which opened in 1987, involving a combination of subway and above-ground trains that move people around the island and among the new neighborhoods that developed with the housing construction. The government has sought to limit the number of automobiles to save Singapore from the problems of traffic congestion that plague many major cities by requiring a Certificate of Entitlement in order to purchase a car. People must bid on the limited number of available certificates and pay high fees (such as a 41% tax to import a car), which makes vehicle ownership prohibitive for most Singaporeans. Public transit is the most accessible means of transportation for nearly everyone. Other social improvements include nearly 100 percent literacy, a healthy population, and a life expectancy that rivals other wealthy countries. Political leaders viewed these improvements as necessary for economic development; the country needed healthy, educated workers with an infrastructure able to support participation in the global economy.

Due to the lack of land and the country’s rush to build office towers to house its expanding business operations, most of the traditional appearances of Singapore vanished decades ago, as older buildings were razed after people resettled in improved housing. In the 1980s, a limited conservation effort began and some “godowns” (warehouses) along the Singapore River were preserved and converted into restaurants, nightclubs, and other tourist attractions, and several other neighborhoods, including the previously mentioned Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India, benefited from efforts to save some of the old “shophouses,” a distinctive Singaporean form of architecture that combined businesses on the lower levels with living and storage space on the upper levels.

In terms of culture, Singaporeans are hard working with a five-and-a-half-day workweek (44 hours) being the norm. After work, people tend to pursue two favorite activities, shopping and eating. As the tourism industry expanded from the mid-1970s, large shopping complexes were developed, leaving Singaporeans, as well as their visitors, with almost unlimited shopping opportunities. The love of shopping is so common that even Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong commented that people’s lives would not be complete without it.

Singapore is also known as a “foodie nation,” with a high level of general interest in anything related to food and eating. While there are restaurants of many kinds, most Singaporeans eat at hawker centers. Prior to the development of improved housing, average people often did not have cooking facilities in the small accommodations they typically shared with other workers. To meet their need for food, the practice of hawking developed, with people selling prepared food from the streets. A hawker would typically specialize in just a couple of dishes, reflecting of his culture of origin. As the Singaporean government began to intervene in daily activities to improve public health, it quickly turned to the sometimes unhygienic practices of the hawkers. The government chose to ban street hawking, and instead created countless hawker centers where the hawkers could sell their goods from stalls with proper sanitation facilities in open-air food courts. The hawker centers are an institution, with most Singaporeans eating at least one meal a day in a hawker center, and oftentimes more. The stalls in the hawker centers sell dishes from each of the ethnic communities and, as globalization increased, so too did the array of hawker center options, which today may include British fish and chips, American hamburgers and fries, Japanese udon noodles, French pastries, etc. There is typically at least one hawker center in each housing development, and they are also scattered around the central business district, so most people live their lives only a short walk from a rich array of affordable foods. Many hawkers still specialize in just a few items, and sometimes they use recipes that have been handed down through generations of hawker families. The hawker culture is taken seriously enough that Singapore’s premier dining guide, Makansutra, includes hawker stalls in its rankings, with some hawkers gaining the publication’s highest rating of “die die must try!”

This cultural focus on shopping and eating, along with the government’s belief that a global city-state should have certain amenities, may have created concern among some public officials that Singapore lacked adequate high culture. Thus, in recent years, Singapore has invested greatly in the arts. The most obvious indicator of this is the new performing arts center, Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, which features performers from around the world. There is a month-long Singapore Arts Festival, which is the country’s largest annual cultural event. There is also encouragement for a local arts scene, but some artists feel constrained by the censorship of Singapore’s “out-of-bounds markers,” which are topics that, in the eyes of the government, are too sensitive for public discussion, including race relations, religion, and politics. The government invested in museums, including the Asian Civilizations Museum with an extensive art collection, and Cultural Heritage Centers reflecting each of the ethnic communities.

Overall, Singapore is a conservative country. The government has a large role in shaping public and even private life with the expectations of proper behavior and decorum. It strictly prohibits pornography; even Cosmopolitan magazine was banned until the 1990s. Homosexual activities are still criminal, although there are increasing public, and even government, discussions questioning the policy. Promiscuity of any sort is unwelcome. Alcoholic beverages taxes are extremely high to discourage alcohol consumption. Drug traffickers, such as people possessing more than a half an ounce of heroin or an ounce of cocaine, are subject to public hanging. Some elected officials found distasteful the government’s recent decision to create casino gambling, and the issue unleashed furious public debates as it drew opposition from many in society. Government rhetoric often contrasts Singaporean values with those of the selfish, decadent West, where crime, divorce, drug use, and other social problems are portrayed as rampant and adds to cautionary tales about such developments not being welcome in Singapore. Leaders heavily promote family values that help maintain the conservative orientation of society. In this respect, Singapore is being shielded from some aspects of cultural globalization, although there are pressures pushing at those limits.

If globalization is considered to be increasing interaction and decreasing barriers among different peoples, economies, and political systems, the following chapters make evident that Singapore has experienced these forces since the beginning. Initially, it was a small port in a mostly regional trade network of Southeast Asia, with some connections extending as far as China and the Middle East. It came under the influence of different regional kingdoms or sultanates, as different empires rose and fell. Once Europeans began colonizing the region, Singapore and its affiliated sultanates struggled to cope with this new challenge and eventually came under the authority of the British trading empire, the English East India Company. Some decades later, the British Crown assumed direct control, although Singapore’s role in Britain’s global trading network changed little. Globalization was interrupted by World War II and Singapore’s role shifted, in part, from a trading port to the bastion of defense for Britain’s colonial interests in the Asia-Pacific. The war proved to be one of the most painful episodes of Singapore’s history as the people suffered greatly under Japanese occupation. After the war, Singapore moved slowly toward independence and local political leaders, gradually gaining governing authority from the British Crown, set Singapore’s course for the future. They recognized that a tiny island with no natural resources and a small population had to fully exploit the few resources it possessed: a strategic position at a global crossroads of trade and a hardworking citizenry. These were the factors that facilitated Singapore’s rise to one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Globalization has been at the center of this—and appears to be set to continue shaping Singapore into the future.