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April 23, 2024

The “Little Red Dot” of Southeast Asia: Singapore’s Internal Dynamics and its Balancing Role in the Indo-Pacific

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By: Aishwarya Dutta

Singapore: source Encyclopaedia Britannica

Introduction

A non-communist regime popularly construed as a “pseudo-democracy”, Singapore is home to the ‘healthiest’ and the most ‘disciplined’ population of the world fashioning one of the world’s most effective and efficient governments at work. The city-state has retorted immaculately to the snobbish “little red dot” remark (which was made by B.J. Habibie, in 1999, then President of Indonesia) with its incredible accomplishments. Thriving on the themes of ‘survival’, ‘prosperity’, and ‘order’, Singapore assumes a remarkable role in the Indo-Pacific region. Being located at the eastern mouth of the Malacca Strait, the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific and one of the world’s most important chokepoints, Singapore has become a very vital commercial hub for trade and various other services. With a strategy to become ‘East Asia’s equivalent of New York or London’, Singapore has established a commanding position and also articulated a rigorous capability development plan which obviously flows from its overall strategic posture and outlook.

Internal dynamics

The so-called ‘little speck on the map’ compared to its ‘massive neighbors’, has successfully grown into the third largest economy of Southeast Asia. It is ranked among the world’s most competitive economies. Post independence, Singapore witnessed a rapid development from a low-income country to a high-income country. Singapore was ranked the best country in the world in Human Capital Development in 2019. Starting from traffic rules to cleanliness, the regulation of citizen behavior has yielded great results in Singapore’s success. The condition at the time of independence was horrifying, yet the People’s Action Party (PAP) headed by Lee Kuan Yew brought about fundamental changes by introducing efficient economic and social policies.

Centralized, top-down and integrated policies coupled with one-party rule, totally against the western conceptions of a democracy, led to the establishment of a ‘parochial rule’ in the hands of one leader and his successors. As described by William Safire (1995), a New York Times columnist, Singapore is a family dictatorship which reflects the “old-fashioned European totalitarianism”. So far Singapore has been ruled by three leaders: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong (Yew’s son), who is also the current Prime Minister of Singapore. Yew had an unmatchable impact on Singapore. His governance was a mixture of the Western style democratic institutions and the Asian-style hegemonic political party system.

Oscillating in a continuum where democracy stands at one end and authoritarianism at the other, Yew strongly bent towards a total control of the country in each and every aspect which was best evident in the 1980s when he totally went far from open and pragmatic policies. Surprisingly, his rule achieved universal support and legitimacy. In the 1990s Singapore was in the hands of Goh, a close aide to Yew who took charge with utmost sincerity and dedication to Yew and his empire. In 2004, Yew’s son Lee Hsien Loong assumed office and is serving till date. Through Yew’s guidance and mentorship, Loong has been successfully leading Singapore.    

The opposition party/parties have very little say partly due to the factional politics and partly due to the rigid rules that curtail any opposition groups or any other dissenting voices thus representing an altruistic state (in Hegelian terms) which prioritizes solidarity and order over interest group competition. Parties like the Barisan Socialists, the Singapore Democratic Party and the Worker’s Party exist just for the sake of existing. The prevalent rigidity is also reflected in the fact that Singapore has a unicameral legislature and steady bureaucratization. In spite of a rigorous bureaucratic control, Singapore experiences less corruption as compared to other Southeast Asian states as evident from its inclusion in the five least corrupt countries in the world in the annual ranking of the Transparency International.

Despite being a country with an ethnically heterogeneous population, the society is quite homogeneous culturally and people have one thing in common and that is their distinct Singaporean identity.

Role in the Indo-Pacific

Apart from its domestic success, the city-state also plays a predominant role in maintaining security and stability in South East Asia if not the Indo-Pacific region. Singapore believes in the concept of “total defense” when it comes to security, with five important pillars: military, civil, economic, social and psychological. The government has adopted a “comprehensive, technocratic, forward-looking approach to security that greatly informs the country’s unique social model.” It is to be noted that Singapore is a mixture of capitalist and socialist economics, with emphasis on the former.

In the new international era, Singapore is maintaining a balance by interpreting China to the US and the US to China. It is Singapore’s dream to achieve peace with and between China and the United States. Any conflict between the US and China or any other power in the Indo-Pacific could derail the postwar Asian miracle and threaten Singapore’s economic or physical security.

Singapore maintains a strong security cooperation with the US which was formalized in the Strategic Framework Agreement which was signed by US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Washington in July 2005. Singapore thus relies on extra regional powers like the US to maintain a balance of power and to prevent a larger power from dominating the smaller Asian states. Back in the 1990s when US base negotiations with the Philippines had failed, Singapore provided the US military access to facilities in Singapore to fill the security void and to ensure a US presence in the region.

Some analysts predict that Singapore is so keen on US cooperation because they think that the US is much more preoccupied with Iraq and the Middle East and is not paying enough attention to Asia. Even when it comes to other states in South East Asia, Singapore maintains a specific balance. For instance, Singapore’s policy towards Taiwan is one where Singapore is trying to balance its interests in expanding its economic relationship with China and in helping to manage China’s rise as a peaceful actor in the Asian security system.

Besides playing an active role in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Singapore also has a Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) with major powers like the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia which provides additional security to Singapore. Singapore has calibrated its ties with the regional greater powers like India, Japan, the United States, and China very carefully. Given the current trends, Singapore seems well-positioned to continue expanding its strategic space and overall security through continued military modernization and geopolitical balancing achieved through bilateral and multilateral means.

Conclusion

After a careful analysis of Singapore’s state of affairs, we can say that the “little red dot” is not so little and it is an exception in Southeast Asia in terms of culture, ethnicity, geography, state capacity, and level of economic development. Singapore is destined to play a vital role in international trade, commerce, and finance as long as the ships need the Malacca Strait to transport food, manufactures, and oil between Asia and the world.

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