A Singapore History Proposal: A Tale of Connections
The plot of the documentary features how Singapore as a global city-state has always been linked to a larger entity. The documentary portrays an internationalist instead of a nationalist history because Singaporeâ€™s evolution from an emporium to a city-state has always been shaped by global forces.
The two characters in the plot of this documentary are Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew. The documentary observes their contribution to the evolution of Singapore into a global city-state. Under Raffles, Singapore flourished under the cycle of globalization driven by the emergence of Britain as a world power. Under Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore was connected to the world through its global port and influx of multinational corporations.
The events the documentary cover include (i) a colonial free port under Raffles contributing to the prosperity of the country, (ii) the challenges the Lee Kuan Yew government faced when the merger with the Federation of Malaya disintegrated and lastly, (iii) the solution to independent Singaporeâ€™s struggle for survival without a hinterland.
Singapore was founded by Raffles to establish trading networks and port facilities to service the growing British colonial interests in Southeast Asia.[i] Under Raffles, Singapore was to be a free port, acting as an entrepÃ´t â€“ a significant nodal point of the convergence of Indian, Chinese and European traders. The Singapore entrepÃ´t grew as it channeled indigenous products onto the international market.[ii]
Raffles counted on Singaporeâ€™s strategic location to act as both a regional centre and a stopping-off point for international trade between Europe, India and China. This led to its use for both the storage and processing of a range of commodities.[iii] Many products traded in Singapore required sorting, classifying and packaging prior to their onward transit. Merchant houses were pivotal in channelling goods onto major shipping lines. This gave the port an opportunity to develop the infrastructure needed to manage a global trade.
Giving credit to Raffles is crucial because colonial links help shaped Singaporeâ€™s commercial success. The relationship with Britain and India was clearly a fundamental factor in the early growth of the port. Textiles, manufactured goods and coal for bunkering stations entered the port via Britain and India. Goods ranging from spices and precious metals from Southeast Asia, as well as tea from China were collected by the major British agency houses in Singapore and loaded onto British ships. The connections between circuits of capital, investment and trade helped Singapore flourish into a global port.
The East Indian Company bought rubber and tin plantations while agency houses provide technical and financial services to the plantation owners.[iv] These agency houses had major interests in Singapore and the rise of the rubber industry brought economic benefits to the city. The East India Company made Singapore the leading port for the Federated Malay States. Singapore rose to become the trading and financial centre for the rubber industry[v] It was the development of rubber and tin production that gave Singapore the impetus to propel it from a colonial port, dependent on trade with Britain, to a global port.
On the other hand, this paper argues that Singapore has always been linked to a larger entity even before the arrival of Raffles. Kwa Chong Guan maintains that Singaporeâ€™s survival did not depend solely on its status as a colonial entrepÃ´t.[vi] When Raffles decided to establish a free port on the island of Singapore, there was already a Malay settlement in place which had extensive trading networks in the region, particularly with the Bugis traders who had established trade links with the Malay Peninsula and southern Borneo.[vii]Hence, Singaporeâ€™s success cannot be solely ascribed to colonial influence.
The other significant character to be included in the documentary is Singaporeâ€™s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. What Raffles and Lee had in common was their strong conviction that Singaporeâ€™s survival depended very much on its ability to remain economically viable on the international realm. They believed that this is most easily achieved by linking Singapore to be part of a larger entity, and in the case of Lee, Singapore should be linked to a hinterland through merger with Malaysia.
Lee fervently believed that merger was vital to the survival of a prosperous Singapore. A common market had to be established to sustain commerce.[viii] Entreport trade, which was the economic foundation of Singapore, was threatened by tariffs imposed by neighbouring countries. Goods manufactured in the Malayan federation enjoyed free entry into Singapore, while goods made in Singapore had to pass through a tariff barrier before they could be marketed in the federation.[ix]
He argued that the islandâ€™s rapid population growth, coupled with a declining entrepot trade had posed a serious economic problem, especially as opportunities for employment failed to increase at a corresponding pace.[x] Industrialisation seemed to be the only option.[xi] However, for industrialization to be viable, a large market was needed for the goods and services produced. Hence, Lee strongly advocated for a common market through merger with Malaysia.
However, an observation by the late S. Rajaratnam more than a decade later suggests that a merger was hardly the only solution to ensure Singaporeâ€™s survival. On the contrary, Singapore survived not through merger but through plugging in to a â€œworld-wide system of economics.â€[xii] Confounding all doomsayers that an independent Singapore would be highly vulnerable to the economic climate of the region, Singapore showed that the absence of the Malaysian hinterland, the lack of raw materials and a small domestic market, had not led to the fall of the city-state. The world became our hinterland because we could get raw materials cheaply and quickly through our global port.[xiii]
The problem of the lack of jobs for a growing population was solved through the government initiated link-up with multinational corporations.[xiv] Transnational companies start complex industries for which we had neither capital resources nor expertise to initiate ourselves.[xv] Multinational corporations bring with them not just industries but also established markets.[xvi] To sum up, Singapore survived because the government, led by Lee Kuan Yew, established a relationship of interdependence with others in the rapidly expanding global system.
To conclude, both Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew recognized that in order for Singapore to survive, it had to exploit its strategic location by developing an infrastructure that was vital to the maintenance of a global economy.[xvii] Port facilities, accessibility and a laissez-faire economic system were top priorities.[xviii] On a final note, the documentary emphasises on how Singaporeâ€™s connectivity with the global system shaped our history and will continue to play an important role in the countryâ€™s future.
The author is currently a second-year Sociology undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS.
Tan Tai Yong, â€˜Surviving Globalization: An Historical Perspective,â€ Commentary Vol. 18 (National University of Singapore Society, 202), pp. 17-21.
S. Rajaratnam, â€˜Singapore: Global Cityâ€™, Wee Teong Boon (ed.) The Future of Singapore â€” The Global City. Singapore: University Education Press, 1977.
Tan Tai Yong, â€˜The Grand Design. British Policy, Local Politics, and the Making of Malaysia, 1955-1961â€™, The Transformation of Southeast Asia. International Perspectives on Decolonisation, edited by M. Frey, R.W. Pruessen, and Tan Tai Yong, New York: 2003
Kwa Chong Guan. â€œFrom Temasek to Singapore: Locating a Global City State in the Cycles of Melaka Straits Historyâ€ in Miksic, John; Low, Cheryl-Ann (eds) Early Singapore 1300s to 1819: Evidence in Maps, Texts and artifacts, Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2004.
[i] Kwa Chong Guan. â€œFrom Temasek to Singapore: Locating a Global City State in the Cycles of Melaka Straits Historyâ€ in Miksic, John; Low, Cheryl-Ann (eds) Early Singapore 1300s to 1819: Evidence in Maps, Texts and artifacts, Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2004. p. 135.
[ii]Ibid., p. 135.
[iii] Ibid., p. 136.
[vi] Ibid., p. 127.
[vii] Ibid., p. 130.
[viii] Tan Tai Yong, â€˜The Grand Design. British Policy, Local Politics, and the Making of Malaysia, 1955-1961â€™, The Transformation of Southeast Asia. International Perspectives on Decolonisation, edited by M. Frey, R.W. Pruessen, and Tan Tai Yong, New York: 2003. p. 151.
[ix] Ibid., p. 152.
[x] Ibid., p. 151.
[xi] Ibid., p. 152.
[xii] S. Rajaratnam, â€˜Singapore: Global Cityâ€™, Wee Teong Boon (ed.) The Future of Singaporeâ€”The Global City. Singapore: University Education Press, 1977. p.226.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 227.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 229.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 230.
[xvii] Tan Tai Yong, â€˜Surviving Globalization: An Historical Perspective,â€ Commentary Vol. 18 (National University of Singapore Society, 202), p. 19.