Singapore: Relooking Our Relations With Our Neighbours in the 21st Century

In order to understand the long term strategic decisions that Singapore should make, it’s important to understand how Singapore fits in with the other countries in the region.

Singapore’s current strategy is aimed at “making friends” with the two global powers in the world, America and China, while developing relationships to a lesser extend with India, Russia, parts of Africa and South America, and maintaining economic ties with Europe, and the traditional partners of Japan and ASEAN.

Singapore wants to align itself with America and China, so that as we continue to benefit from this alliance, we are also able to act as intermediaries to balance the two global powers. Since our independence, Singapore has acknowledged that without our own hinterland, we have to seek out a hinterland. As relations with Malaysia were frosty then, to say the least, we couldn’t rely on them. Relations with Indonesia were terse as well. This also explains the glaring lack of trust that Singapore has towards the Malay population, because of a political fear that Singapore will lose its political sovereignty. Imbued in our leaders’ mind then were that Singapore would become a laughing stock that Malaysia and Indonesia were waiting to happen. And the leaders’ insecurities edged them on to transform Singapore.

Unfortunately, the Malays in Singapore were symbolically dragged into the fray even as the political disagreements were playing out of the larger national arena. What is essentially a political tirade among insecure leaders thus impacted the Malay population adversely, as our leaders felt vulnerable, with the thinking that the Malay population in Singapore might be used by external forces against Singapore. Rightfully or not, their fears materialised when some Malays were held under the Internal Security Act in recent years. Yet, would this be a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Yet, the Malays in Singapore are the indigenous population of the land. The problem isn’t with what the Malays will do. The problem is that Singapore was artificially carved out from a Malay region which doesn’t reconcile with the history of the region. When the British and Dutch divided the Malay archipelago under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, they effectively split the Malay region according to their own political interests rather than acknowledged the historical and social truths of the region. Essentially, separating Singapore from the Malay archipelago is akin to New York being split from America or Tokyo from Japan.

Thus when Singapore looked outwards to establish a new hinterland, the decision was made to make our hinterland – the world. And thus we continue to align ourselves with world powers and to balance ourselves amidst their power. As Robert D. Kaplan said in his book, The Revenge of Geography, “a world balanced is a world free” and this is how Singapore continues to perch itself, as precariously as it might seem.

The ‘racial mix’ that Singapore seeks to maintain, is also measured against the larger picture of this balancing. In maintain the racial mix of a Chinese majority and a slightly increasing Indian proportionate population, Singapore seeks to maintain a demographic proposition to China as well as a testament to India of its growing prowess, one that is also an economic decision, as outlined in our Free Trade Agreement with India. Yet, the continued sidelining of the Malay population certainly doesn’t bode well for Singapore’s long term future, and is inherently not aligned to the history of the region.

In a world made up of larger and truer countries, Singapore recognizes that as a New York without America (or at our state of economic development then, as a Vientiane without Laos), it is unlikely that we will become internationally relevant, without our own larger country to prop us up, when needed. Thus the decision was made to make Singapore completely open where we will become the easiest place for businesses to do business. Once we do that, businesses will be attracted to the lack of over-regulation in Singapore and by extension, the world will become our hinterland. No other country has the kind of ‘advantage’ that we have, without a need to answer to a country and the corresponding citizens of a larger country. Yet, as much as we have city dwellers, they are also the citizens. So, herein lies the dilemma – as a city truly, how do you operate as a city but with having to meet the needs of a people who actually do not just see themselves as city dwellers?

As Singapore becomes the ‘hub’ that we’ve built ourselves up as, we created a new economic polity – one of a international node which, without the ‘burden’ of a hinterland, becomes a land that’s free for the world’s taking. Essentially, we’ve become a true property for the businesses of the world, which they can rent. Of course, a confluence of other factors also make Singapore the neat package – strong infrastructure, a strong legal and regulatory framework, ease of doing business, strong connectivity and links and an English-speaking population. By freeing up ourselves from having to meet the demands of the people, we become the dream that any business has ever wanted – back to the times when industrialisation first began and capitalists need not answer to its workers, where workers were made to work long hours and in poor conditions. Singapore now is a modern replication of the conditions of then.

Yet, the contradiction that Singapore lies on is precisely the flaw that it rests on – without a hinterland, a government that has geared its thinking towards planning Singapore as a city forgot to plan for Singapore as a country – for the social and psychological upkeep of the people, so much so that when the city has reached an economic standard of living that has propelled it into the league of the First World, only then did we realise that our people and politics are still stuck in Third World ideologies. A government which continues to want to constrain its people in a rich and connected country simply doesn’t make sense. The disjoint and disparity in our development has become our Achilles’ Heel.

Does this mean that our policy of engaging the America and China and neglecting our region somewhat is a pitfall for Singapore? No, this isn’t the case, for Singapore needs to adopt multiple strategies in order to stay relevant. Indeed, the states in the Southeast Asian region has always, in one way or another been tied to the fates of the larger states, like China and India. Malacca in the 1340s was a vassal state to China and as some sources have argued, Malacca had a special relationship with China and was considered a friend. This is exactly the relationship that Singapore hopes to achieve with China, and indeed, with America as well. For both countries, their stake in expanding or maintaining their diplomatic power in the Southeast region requires a strong focal point. For China, the alignment of Singapore’s demography makes it a natural partner for which to venture out from to claim it’s stake in the region. For America, what it had at one time established with Singapore mainly, is now also extended to Malaysia and Indonesia, with its traditional partner Philippines, and in fact, with the whole of ASEAN now.

Indeed, the Southeast Asian region was never a force to be reckoned with in itself, and this is really the geographical reality that Singapore is part of. As much as Singapore has carved out a niche for itself as a global node for the world, the geographical realities are such that Singapore belongs to a region which has always remained subservient to the stronger powers of China and India in the immediate region, and to the European colonialists and the Middle Eastern Islamists then. In fact, Singapore has never stood on its own for the most part of our history. We have always been part of a regional kingdom – Sriivijaya, Majapahit, the Malacca Sultanate, the Johor Sultanate and the Siam Kingdom. In fact, not only is our history intertwined with the region, the boundaries that now split Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia never existed and the fates of these states flowed with the straits that the archipelago lies in.

It is unrealistic at this point to think of a dissolution of the national boundaries, to allow our countries to align with one another again. Our recent history has created new memories, ideas of nationalism and rifts, such as racial ones, which will take time to heal and resolve themselves. However, for Singapore, without a hinterland to rely on, is our constant exposure to the world economy healthy when we are left at its mercy? We might have created strong financial institutions which can withstand the fluctuations of economic development, but without any semblance of self-sufficiency, is it wise?

It might be useful for Singapore to start exploring a regional approach and revive ideas of integration with the region once again. Our histories with the Malay peninsula and archipelago is one that the countries can look back on and envision for cooperation on a deeper level. Realistically, there is deep distrust among the countries – the Malays might not trust the Chinese. Also, the countries are at different levels of economic development.

But, yet, should we take these at face value and discount the cooperation simply because of past animosity created by the first generational leaders? Why is there distrust among the Malays and Chinese? It is one thing to accept the disagreements as natural and another to look at them to understand how they had developed, and what we can do to do things differently. Once upon a time, the Malays, Chinese and the Indians worked side by side. We spoke the language of one another and we would help one another in times of need. Before the idea of statehood as we understand it now came about, people were working together and we were friends. What changed? Because of an imposition of artificial boundaries in a period of global nationalism which created insecurities among peoples, which led to our leaders grabbing power from one another and distrusting one another? Is the inter- and intra-national distrust a reflection of our leaders’ insecurities and distrust towards each other, one which has arose over their want of power, and one that has become the national consciousness of our countries because of their strong rule of power?

It is in Singapore’s long term interest to have strong and friendly relations with the region, and especially with Malaysia and Indonesia. One day, when Malaysia and Indonesia attains a stage of economic development where they have significant bargaining power, where will that leave Singapore, not only with them, but with world powers who will shift their focus towards Malaysia and Indonesia, if they are not already shifting? One day, if world powers are able to influence and connect with millions more people in Malaysia and Indonesia, what significance will Singapore have?

In fact, when Kaplan spoke of how for “America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north to south, from Canada to Mexico,” what he speak about halfway around the world can similarly be applied to Singapore as well, albeit on a much smaller scale – where it is in our interest to align our interests with the north and south of our borders. Indeed, when Kaplan spoke of how if America were “not to continue to deepen links with Mexico and Central America … would be to see Mexico and perhaps some of its southern neighbors slip into a hostile diplomatic and political orbit,” what he says is ominous to the state of affairs of what can be in our region. Kaplan also spoke of how, “a border between a highly developed society and a less highly developed society will not attain an equilibrium, but will advance in the more backward society’s favour. In other words, the preservation of American nationalism … is unachievable unless Mexico reaches First World status. And if Mexico does reach First World status, then it might become less of a threat, and the melding of the two societies quickens.” In short, Kaplan suggests that, “this vision requires a successful Mexico, not a failed state.”

Yet, is Singapore comparable with America? In terms of geographical and political might, no. Yet, when played out on a much smaller scale, as it is in the maritime Southeast Asian region, Singapore is economically more developed as compared to the lesser developed but steadfastly growing economies in our immediate north and south. It would be wise to take a leaf out of Kaplan’s book to note how in ensuring the stability of not only Singapore but also of our region, integration and friendship with our region will only be beneficial. And as Kaplan had also mentioned, this means that we should work with our neighbors to also provide them with the necessary support, to uplift the region together, and then towards equilibrium.

Yet, this might seem like an arduous task, some might remark – for how is Singapore to integrate back with a region which we have learnt to reject, and which has learnt to reject us back in return. Several levels of change would need to happen in order for us to find renewed cooperation and dynamism within the region. Singapore would need to embrace and acknowledge the indigenous population of our land, but not only that, Malaysia and Indonesia would also need to accept the shift in demographic changes that have occurred in their countries as well, to create the diversity that exists in them today. In short, these countries would need to let go of their insecurities and embrace their history and the changes that have come along since. For Singapore, we have to acknowledge the reality of our history and use that to extend our friendship with the region. For Malaysia and Indonesia, they would as well have to let go of their colonial past to find renewed confidence in moderate Islam to guide them forward in a new era of development and cooperation.

Between Malaysia and Singapore, we’ve already started making headway in our economic relations, such as the joint development in the Iskandar region and the planned construction of a high speed railway to connect Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. In some sense, we are bypassing the fixed imaginations that our boundaries divide us to look into the connections that our history unite us once again. Malaysia and Singapore are thus taking the right steps towards embracing a common history that unite us, so that we can once again fulfill the destiny of our region. However, the current cooperation continues to be an extension of economic goals. As much as both our countries have gone on divergent paths over the past few decades, our common sole focus on economic development, whilst being trapped in outmoded forms of governance and societal impediments is something that both countries share. In order to truly relive the unity and dynamism that the region can bring, we need to reform politically and socially.

In 1994, the Singapore-Johor-Riau (SIJORI) Growth Triangle was established between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Has the growth taken off? It seems that the SIJORI has been superseded by the growth of ASEAN as a region. However, the partnership has also managed to take off between Malaysia and Singapore, more so than between Indonesia and Singapore. Some reasons would be because there was a change in leadership in Malaysia and Singapore which provided renewed vigour to put aside differences to pursue new growth areas. On top of that, Malaysia was also growing economically more vibrantly. On the other hand, Indonesia’s growth had largely centered in Jakarta. The Riau Islands might just be too far away from the Indonesian capital to be significant. This shows up on the enforced political differences that the British and Dutch had when they the Riau Islands became Dutch and now Indonesian territories and Singapore became the British and now Singaporean territory. This division which doesn’t represent the real cultural and political meanings has created present illogical geographical situations – the Indonesians simply do not think that the Riau Islands are central enough to their polity.

Yet, from another viewpoint, Singapore might need to look beyond our own imaginations. When the SIJORI Growth Triangle was mooted by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1989, he had envisioned a hinterland in Johor and the Riau Islands. But in regional cooperation, it isn’t just about what makes sense to Singapore. It’s also about what makes sense to Indonesia and Malaysia. Perhaps the project didn’t take off as much until now because the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia didn’t see the benefit as much as Singapore did. However, Singapore has now reached a stage where we are growing at our seams. Also, Malaysia has in recent years decided that developing Johor to tap on Singapore’s growth might also have benefits in spurring the growth of the Malaysian economy. At the same time, the Malaysian Prime Minister has also decided that he wants to continue centralising growth in Kuala Lumpur, and yet partner the growth with Singapore by thus constructing a high speed railway between the two key cities in Southeast Asia. We are thus meeting at the right time once again.

On Singapore’s side, we would need to also learn to understand that Indonesia would need to see value in developing the Riau Islands. Otherwise, Singapore would need to understand the importance of the role that Jakarta has among the Indonesian leaders. Afterall, during the reign of the Majapahit kingdom, their capital had also been located on the island of Java as well. However, as Singapore learns to become more open in sharing in our growth with our neighbours, they might also learn to trust us more and explore further options with us. As mentioned, this is what Malaysia has done with the Iskandar region, and also in jointly developing two office buildings in Singapore. For Indonesia, they are also currently exploring relocating their capital in view of congestion, or in developing a second capital city. If they can see Singapore’s sincerity, they might even explore restarting the development of the Riau Islands, so that together, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore can grow together to develop a larger core economic region in the Southeast region, which will allow us to have a larger representation on the world stage, and achieve better equilibrium with the other world powers.

In order for us to achieve this, Singapore, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, will need to understand the inherent fears and insecurities that they’ve been holding on to since parting ways with their ‘colonial masters’. This also requires political will to reform politically, economically and socially to kick start the region into a new dynamism. For Singapore, as we continue to go on the route of perform the balancing act between America and China and in future, Russia and India, we need to explore more seriously how we need to strengthen our ties with Malaysia and Indonesia. One day, we will need them more than they will need us. One day, we need to achieve self sufficiency within a cooperation framework with our two closest neighbours, with which we share a common history and with which we belong to. We might be separated politically by means of artificial boundaries which constraint our political cooperation. However, the history that we share, where the fates of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are intertwined over more than a thousand years, is something that is rooted in our natural and geographical history.


  1. Syed Alwi Ahmad

    You are naive….Malaysia is rapidly Islamising. The Chinese simply cannot fit into a very Islamic social climate…

    • My Right to Love

      Hi Syed Alwi Ahmad,

      This has crossed my mind as well. We need to look at the evolution of the region, as a larger shift that spans hundreds of years. We also need to look at Islam, and indeed Christianity, from the larger shifts of the last 2,000 years as well.

      Islam might be undergoing a phase of ‘Islamisation’ but it is not just important to recognize what is happening, but why it is happening. Islam had flourished in a Middle Eastern period of the past where the Middle East was a flourishing trade centre. Islam, as compared to Christianity then, was considered a modern and intellectual religion. At that time, Christianity was the religion which had felt ‘vulnerable’, in that sense.

      Fast forward to our time today, why does Islam feel threatened? How has the political juxtaposition that the West has with the Middle East spilled over into their cultural understandings of themselves, and of how Christianity and Islam then became pitched against one another?

      From a more localized perspective, how has colonialism, the sudden flux of independence and how Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore had shaped political discourse caused Islam to also be interpreted in the way it is now? Islam, as it is understood now, was very differently understood centuries ago, when it flourished with economic wealth.

      The idea isn’t about looking at what is happening now and to decide that the path of Islamisation as we are witnessing it now is a fixed and unmovable path. Islam, as well as Christianity shares a history which results in a competitive streak within them to define themselves, many times at opposition with one another, and this has been happening for a long period of time.

      The nations involved would need to understand how they use religion to further their own wants and desires, and indeed their insecurities. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia would also need to understand where they stand as nations, learn to find the confidence that defines them, so that we will not substitute our confidence with extrapolations of our race or religion but learn to use an united social and economic foundation as a way to propel us forward, together.

      Is this naive? You can choose to look at the shifts that’s happening as fixed and unchangeable and one that we should look upon in unfavorable ways or we can choose to reimagine how the shifts can be, what the root causes are that has resulted in things as the way they are, and how we can take a concerted effort to allow things to evolve differently.



  2. Hassan Amir

    a. It is lesser extent, not lesser extend.

    b. How you can talk about developing relationships with parts of Africa, and not mention the Middle East and in particular, the GCC countries is beyond me.

    c. Singapore is not in a position or in the business of acting as intermediaries to ‘balance’ the two global powers – China and America. What Singapore does, however, is termed as ‘hedging’. Google ‘hedging’ and ‘Singapore’ if you are interested.

    d. “Rightfully or not, their fears materialised when some Malays (in Singapore) were held under the Internal Security Act in recent years” – Malays in Malaysia were also detained under the ISA during the Operation Lalang of 1987.

    e. The Malay archipelago also includes the Philippines, which has nothing to do with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

    f. Singapore’s trade arrangement with India is not called a Free Trade Agreement. Rather, it is called the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).

    g. What do you mean by Middle Eastern Islamists? How was the region subservient to them? Care to explain please?

    h. Srivijaya and Majapahit are known as empires, not kingdoms.

    i. The entire premise of your article is that Singapore has not adequately cultivated its relations with Malaysia and Indonesia in the way that it has done with America and China. This is incorrect. Singapore’s relations with Malaysia and Indonesia under Najib and SBY respectively are the best and most cordial it has ever been. You should have focused less on history, and analysed more on the current state of relations between Singapore and its two larger neighbours. That, in my view, would have been a more fruitful piece.

    • My Right to Love

      Hi Hassan Amir,

      Thanks for the corrections. This is my humble attempt at understanding history from my perspective and to put out a vision as to how Singapore can envision itself, or like you have say, if it has, how people can perhaps understand our political strategy better, spurred by discussion such as this.

      I would be interested to understand how you view the balance and hedging that Singapore adopts and how you envision we should proceed from in the long term.



  3. eremarf

    Uh, a bit too rambly this time? Seriously – it’s not easy getting your main point, and there’re quite a lot of contentious things (e.g. state of race relations in Singapore, geopolitical relations between Singapore and neighbours, etc, as Hassan Amir has pointed out, your unfounded appeal to particular points in “history” (why not earlier?) as a starting point or baseline to compare today with, etc).

    I think you’re missing out on the trend of globalization making the region less important (relative to the world – like you say, today the world can be our hinterland – the concept of hinterland isn’t so useful in a highly globalized world) today compared to the past.

    But if you believe the people talking about peak oil (+ climate change), then you might want to consider what happens to Singapore in a post-peak-oil world (which will radically reverse globalization, and in which case, Singapore will once again depend much more on the region than the world).

    (Archdruid Report is my favourite example of post-peak-oil future speculations (he’s a good writer), and speculates about future geopolitical configurations – check out Parts 1 to 5: ; a more extreme (and funnier) guy along this line is Dmitri Orlov – check him out too.)


    Re: Islamization – I see so-called “radical” Islam serving a similar role to Communism in the Cold War era (being vehicles of resisting American/Western oppression, rather than ends in themselves). It is used to motivate, legitimize, rationalize, and organize oppressed peoples against their oppressors (notably Israel’s neighbours, and oil-states in the Middle East, e.g. historically Iran, now Iraq, etc but also more widely, against neoliberal economic assault, e.g. Indonesia).

    Following from this – the solution to radical Islam isn’t to ask its adherents to be moderate (that’s putting the cart before the horse), but rather, to stop oppressing people so they don’t turn to radical Islam to fight oppression. (In other words, you secularize fundamentalist groups by assimilating them into your own society – c.f. ancient Rome’s success at keeping control of vast swathes of land is partly due to its success at assimilating the components of empire – witness how non-Latins were absorbed into Roman society – they basically became citizens, entire Roman-style legions could be raised from assimilated areas e.g. Gaul and Hispania (very unlike Persian or Macedonian armies), and external religious beliefs were integrated with Roman ones.)

    However, Singapore isn’t really oppressing its Muslim population (for one, we oppress more along class lines, and religion isn’t conflated strongly with class here IMHO, and second, we oppress relatively lightly – oppressed Singaporeans are hardly desperate enough to become radical anything).

    Regionally, however, Singapore’s alignment with the US empire, and its client states like Israel, who actively oppress Muslim populations – this alignment can be problematic for Singapore in the region if our neighbours align themselves against the US. Which is why I agree with Hassan’s interpretation of Singapore’s behaviour as hedging (aligning with both the US and China). I see a third camp though – the OPEC nations are potentially their own power bloc, especially in an energy-scarce future, and Singapore seems not to be hedging for this – which could be a mistake – which is also the point of your post?

    • My Right to Love

      Hi eremarf,

      I had started out writing this article with the aim of looking from a broad historical perspective. Admittedly, it isn’t as comprehensive because this wasn’t what I had intended in mind. A more comprehensive study would be needed to understand the micro perspectives and the current effects of globalization on Singapore.

      I agree with your points on how we need to counter “radical” Islam. This is something that I subscribe to as well, that we need to counter oppression – it is precisely because the Muslims feel oppressed which is why they are pushing against ‘Western’ imperialism. However, this requires a fundamental global shift which requires that the West understands their role in the subjugation as well.

      What is essentially happening between the West and Islam is somewhat an extension of a West which continues to believe in their hegemony, and which puts itself as a more superior world order against Islam, where even as it is not spelt out officially, Christianity has become pitched against Islam. It would require a Christian West to move away from their mindset of superiority and recognize that their model of democracy or capitalism might not be welcomed in other parts of the world, albeit the ideals of freedom and respect should be honored regardless of which mode of governance or economy we adopt.

      I wouldn’t say that the Singapore government is oppressing the Muslims in Singapore. I think what’s happening is more at a level of national consciousness where the planning ideals are still aligned to the idea that Islam, as much as needs to be respected and enshrined as one of the key religion in Singapore, is something the leaders feel is tenuous when seen in relation with Malaysia and Indonesia. In this regard, Islam becomes more sensitive. I do not think it is an outwardly oppression of Muslims in Singapore but the Malays do sometimes become affected by a national policy making which is based in the insecurities that Singapore has with the region.

      I agree with you too that the division in Singapore is predominantly along class – which I think is the basic divide that will tear Singapore apart, if the government does not act immediately to rethink their principles and manage the divide. The government’s current motives of increasing wages somewhat, increasing taxes on wealth but not holistically on the rich, and yet, increasing prices of other essential goods and services poses a juxtaposition which if not managed carefully, will result in people reacting more angrily than they would otherwise.

      On the point of hedging with OPEC, I don’t actually think Singapore should do this, at least not in higher intensity than it should with the other powers. Actually I am with similar thinking that what’s happening in the Middle East now is a similar situation as how the communist countries had wanted to oppose Western democracy and how the Middle East, centered around Iran, Pakistan, somewhat Afghanistan and in the past, Iraq, had hoped to do in the present day. However, I think what they might have gotten wrong is that even as they want to shape a different form of governance or economic prospect, they need the buy-in of their people. The revolutions across the Middle East and Northern Africa shows how their mode of working will thus undo itself unless they are able to respect their people and bring their people in with them on governance – only then can they create a compelling force against the West. But as Kaplan had mentioned in his book, the different sects within these countries require that there is strong and perhaps overbearing leadership, which puts the Middle East in a very interesting situation – as much as they want to create a new system to repel the West, can they? – unless they move away from the Western-construct of nationalism imposed on them, regain their confidence in Islam and find a way to manage the inter-sectarian conflicts, also brought about by the insecurities of the region.

      Thus on the point of the OPEC, I do not foresee them as gaining ground in the foreseeable future, especially since their economies are driven by oil, and not on economic or social development, which will impede on their relevance in the long run. They will thus continue to be a region that’s second to the dominant powers.

      My point though is that Singapore cannot stand on its own in the long term, and we need to consolidate ourselves with the region. ASEAN is a way to integrate but there are too many disparate elements within ASEAN – there are at least three blocs – the Indochina region, Philippines and the Malayan-Indonesian region. In the long term, when Thailand gets its act together, it will become a core power centre in the Indochina region. And in Singapore, when the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia matches up, which country will become dominant – then again the Indochina has a history of competing power centers, so the situation is also uncertain. On the other hand, the Malayan-Indonesian region has always shared a common past. When Singapore is still strong, it needs to work with Malaysia and Indonesia more cooperatively so that we regain the past relationships that we have. When Singapore needs to, we need Malaysia and Indonesia to be open towards welcoming our people as workers in their land one day, even as distance as this future may seem – so that we create a back lane for our people when the day may come to pass one day.


  4. eremarf

    Re: countering radical Islam – well, this metaphor/language of “countering” might not be so apt – we’re talking more about assimilation, more about embracing than countering. (It’s not really “them vs us”, but more like getting them to join us and share our stuff?)

    BTW, re: Christianity or Islam or Communism etc – IMHO they’re just the surface forms of underlying power relations – it doesn’t really matter what people call it – a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. There’s nothing meaningful intrinsic to each of these “surface forms” individually. What’s intrinsic are power relations, human nature, etc – and I think it’s more useful to see things in terms of those. (i.e. radical Islam is similar to radical Christianity is similar to radical Communism, etc – they’re just manifestations of similar power structures and relations which recur again and again in human societies)

    Re: OPEC, well – right now they have their problems (victims of games of empire – and watch China enter the fray, courting Yemen, Sudan, Venezuela, etc – you talk about their problematic “mode of working” – but how far is their mode of work a product of imperial manipulation or at least influence?). They might be pawns today, but what about in a future with scarce oil? (If we don’t develop alternative technologies now, it’s going to be much harder to develop technologies in an oil-scarce world, where resources increasingly get diverted to maintaining old standards – people take time to adapt – and yet the urgency of developing alternative technologies surges. My point: don’t be so certain we’ll develop alternative energy sources in time to save the world from an energy crash. And if energy crashes, the OPEC folks could be wielding quite some influence. Big “if”, but black swans and all that – we shouldn’t rule this scenario out.)

    And re: Kaplan’s analysis of the sectarianism and stuff – I’m no expert on the Middle East – but how far are these incidental to ME societies, and how far are they the product of either American manipulation or propaganda? We should not be surprised if the US has had a hand in manufacturing political problems and erecting developmental barriers in the Middle East – after all look at their track record in Latin America – c.f. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Probably a mix of both – but I’m just saying, don’t discount the fact that the chaos we observe – which might be propaganda too – could be deliberately engineered by the US.

    (I haven’t read Kaplan, but I don’t think there’s a contradiction. For example, the US after invading Iraq could have influenced sectarian politics – no surprise that they armed and trained death squads from one sect against the other – yes, geography plays a part – but what powerful forces do matter as well – and ultimately why was the US in Iraq? If Iraq hadn’t had sectarian schisms to exploit, the US would have found other points of leverage. E.g. in Cold War era Latin America instead of sectarian schisms, the relevant leverage points were the left-right dichotomy.)


    Re: Singapore, well I’m actually pretty anxious to see change in Singapore, not because I think people are oppressed very much, but because I think the goal shouldn’t be to minimize oppression, but rather to maximize human well-being (in the long run). It’s inefficient and wasteful to not invest in your human beings (esp. if we’re looking at human well-being as composed of dimensions such as psychological measures, in addition to just material measures etc).

    And to be on-topic, we should just play down the whole “race” issue a lot more. Insisting on labelling people with a “Race” category just heightens everyone’s consciousness of difference. I propose we just write “Human” when filling in forms. (This might be an example of how to de-emphasize radicalism founded on religious/ethnic bases – but it doesn’t necessarily stop radicalism in other forms – e.g. so-called “xenophobia”? Or class-consciousness – in fact, I think the PAP has been playing up the need for “racial harmony” (or more popular recently – “to combat xenophobia”) to distract Singaporeans from noticing the growing “class” gaps.


    Re: Singapore needing to integrate more deeply with ASEAN… well…

    First, I think Singapore is one of those places which is meaningless to conquer. It’s much easier to secure natural resources (like blood diamonds, black gold, etc) than to secure intellectual effort (and Singapore is a knowledge economy – or should be transiting to becoming one, if not for the unfortunate reverses of the last decade). Even manufacturing doesn’t really work well without skilled labour, a whole web of supporting industries, institutional memory, etc (which is why not all high-tech manufacturing can move to China). So – Singapore’s “products” or “value” can’t really be secured by brute force. And these products tend to be un-needed in a war-ridden chaotic world – the very act of appropriating the resource diminishes its value.

    So, if brute force does not endanger Singapore (why then do we spend so much on defence?), what can? Obviously severe climate change or an energy crash will have huge impacts. It raises the value of stuff Singapore imports (food, energy) – and might diminish the value of Singapore’s exports (how well will goods and even information flow in an energy-short world?) It will also increase the power and influence of OPEC states – of which many are Islamic – which is where Singapore’s prior alignment with various power blocs matter. If this ever comes to fruit – it will be disastrous. Especially if we keep cramming people in right up to the collapse.

    If climate change can be dealt with, if there is no energy crash, Singapore’s hedging between the US and China looks a pretty sound strategy. The more globalization continues, the more linked to the rest of the world Singapore becomes, the more independent Singapore will be of the region. (This is of course assuming that globalization in its present shape and course does not trigger some kind of mass social upheaval globally – with who-knows-what consequences.)

    And lastly, the mother of all caveats: the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.

    It’s been fun reading and thinking and writing about this. Nice thought exercising! 🙂

    • My Right to Love

      Hi eremarf,

      Again, I do agree with many of your points. And I do think it has been an invigorating discussion as well.

      I think likewise with how the power structures have only be remodeled along different names but are essentially the same representation. In the current time, the conflict seems to be truly about capitalism (as how power is being portrayed through now). On a global perspective, people feel that capitalists and the governments in cahoots with them are subjugating their rights and this causing a huge class division among the people. This division and power struggle has thus spilled over into other power structures, such as the Christian-Islam sphere. But to be clear, this wasn’t ever about religion. It was always about power and money and the fight is played out as a cultural and religious war only because it can garner more emotions and thus support among the people. A fight about money, fought by the higher classes of society – the rich – would never have gained the support of the masses but to tie people’s morality to religion and then let them know that their religion is being threatened can enrage the masses more towards a cause for the rich.

      It is highly irresponsible for governments to do this but it wasn’t ever about the rights of the people. It was always about power and might. And herein lies the problem of our world – we make this world about the leaders and governance, rather than of the people. And in this time of struggle, the people are coming out and saying – you know what, enough of your struggles for power, the people want something different. The people don’t just want to keep making money for you. The people want to know what am I living for, and how can I change the world to suit that, and not to suit you.

      And I think that’s where, like you say, Singapore comes in – this what people in Singapore are thinking about, as much as we don’t understand that’s what it is and do not know how to verbalise it. At the end of the day, we are asking – why are we working so much for? What is life about? I want my government to start treating me right and I want fair returns and balance – so pretty much ensuring that people are paid fair wages and social welfare is transferred back to the people at adequate rates.

      Agree with you on the issue of race – race is only a function of climate and cultural development is next fixed but changes across the interactions of time. For a government to not realise this and continue to propagate fixed ideologies of race and culture, then use it to pitch the groups against one another is highly irresponsible. Yet, I acknowledge that they are doing so, because of how the other countries are doing it as well. Then, as responsible governments, these governments need to talk it out to rethink their relationships. But we know these governments aren’t truly that responsible – it’s all about power and the wealth of being able to be in the power.

      And I agree – it’s highly meaningless to attack Singapore. You just throw a bomb here and the whole place decimates. No challenge, no real reason to waste your money here when after that, there’s nothing in return. No resources. Nothing. In fact, our surrounding countries, at least for this moment, continues to require us to do well do that they can rely on us to some extent, and be uplifted by us to some extent. Their businesses and rich are investing heavily in Singapore, so there’s a mutual interest in ensuring that Singapore and the region prosper together.

      And like you say, climate change and identifying new energy sources would be what will be key in the next era of competition. Though in the short term, it’s really how the fight between the models of capitalism and communism will go through – in parts of South America, Iran and North Korea. The problem is with an America which uses capitalism against the other countries, which thus use communism as a form of protection against America. Of course, what is capitalism and what is communism but labels that America heaps on these countries, to render them as irrelevant. If America stops its rhetoric and we look towards a consolidated group of nations which is sincere in bringing about the protection to the peoples of these countries, things will look up in better ways.

      However, again the problem is with governments which continue to want to hold on to their own power and which then use other countries to pitch themselves against one another. Even as South America, Iran and North Korea are powerhouses in their own way, they are also used by America, Europe, China and Russia as pawns against one another. And this is the terrible state of the world, one where governments look at the people and their geographies as a chess game, rather than look at humanity as the end goal.

      And which is why people are revolting now – because we realise that our rights are being supplanted by the power struggles of our governments. And we want to change that – for a refocus onto the people and our well being.


      • eremarf

        Hi Roy

        Sorry I have hijacked your original topic. My thoughts on regional relations are very few actually. I only just wanted to raise the “climate change” (and what it means for food security) and “peak energy” (and what it means for Singapore’s relations with Islam), perspective. That’s more or less it on this topic from me.


        But since we started on other stuff – here’s my thoughts:

        I think we agree the religious stuff, the ideological stuff (call it capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, neoliberalism, conservatism, progressivism, nation, race, free markets, whatever), they’re often hijacked by power, civilized disguise for the raw exercise of power.

        I’m not saying these things don’t matter – they really influence lots of people, and of course it’s great if people analyse or deconstruct or re-appropriate them – as some kind of antidote towards their capture by powerful interests, as some way of re-appropriating these ideas to fight for those without power, to fight the bottom-up fight. (E.g. debating what race should mean, rejecting dominant interpretations of race, etc… or rehabilitating “dirty words” like socialism – these are worthwhile things to do.)

        But I was just hoping to sort of create a mental short-cut for people so we don’t get bogged down in debating those ideas, and miss the forest for the trees. And I think you and me we’re seeing similar sorts of forest.


        Re: “this is what people in Singapore are thinking about, as much as we don’t understand that’s what it is and do not know how to verbalise it. At the end of the day, we are asking – why are we working so much for? What is life about? I want my government to start treating me right and I want fair returns and balance…”

        I think understanding things, verbalizing them and persuading others, galvanizing people to take collective action… it seems to me to be a crucial step to take towards reclaiming power for ordinary people (from elites).

        Okay I’m really out on a limb here – it’s just my opinion – but I think the lesson for us ordinary people anywhere in the world is, that we shouldn’t trust powerful interests. Powerful interests manipulate us for their own ends. Once in a while you arguably get benevolent power (e.g. the early PAP? Or would you say they were forced to be benevolent because of the communist threat? Or would you say their power wasn’t so firmly entrenched in the early days, they weren’t complacent yet?).

        Ergo – pursue democracy. Pursue enlightened (as in AMAP free from the influence of powerful vested interests) democracy. Democracy isn’t as efficient as a benevolent dictatorship – but I say to anyone wishing to implement a benevolent dictatorship: “Good luck to wishful thinking!”.

        (Intermediate goal: free people from influence by powerful vested interests – which is why bloggers like you write so much, and why commentators like me take time to comment on blogs, and other Singaporeans take time to read social media I guess (so hooray – we’re going in the right direction at least? I hope?). Of course it requires much more to “free” people – they need leisure time (and maybe particular kinds of not-necessarily-formal educations) to think deeply, they need time to debate and persuade and reach compromise on what is good for society, and then to act and exercise power, e.g. telling your MP you will/won’t vote for her if she supports something, or banding together to form grassroots organizations to improve the community – it’s really perverse and ironic to have grassroots run in a top-down way by PA, which furthermore is affiliated to the PAP.)


        BTW, I would use the term “communism” with a lot of care (I only use it to describe entities from the CW era), it carries too much historical baggage. “Socialism” is just a little less dirty. I kind of remember a Richard Wolff (economist) interview where he suggested calling efforts to reform things “democracy” instead of “socialism” – which I think is a rather good idea. You see this notion popping up here and there, from Christopher Hayes (Twilight of the Elites), from Naomi Klein (Shock Doctrine, which requires the suspension of democracy), etc. “Democracy” seems to be a good flag to fly efforts for reform under (and it’s got the advantage that it’s not so far been aligned with left or right economic ideas, or with any particular religion – well one problem in Asia is that it’s associated with the West in a post-colonial kind of perspective – you get that a lot from the SDP slammers, or from the Burmese junta on Aung San Suu Kyi).

        (Oh talking about Burma makes me think of Singapore naming an orchid after junta dude Thein Sein back in ’09… Singaporeans do seem quite a selfish lot (so long as things are going well for us individually, we’re okay, even if society (or the region, or the world) suffers?). I think democracy kind of works based on being able to perceive common goods, depends on senses of solidarity – and Singaporeans seem to always be so individualistically pragmatic. When PRC workers strike, Singapore workers could have seen it as a struggle to obtain the common good of labour rights, but instead many perceive it in foreigner-local terms, or just as PAP-vs-people terms. I would like to think it’s just Singaporeans being too stressed, or holding long ingrained, unexamined ideas (e.g. not being able to see the usefulness of solidarity for democracy, or for non-radical Islam, across ASEAN states, or of worker solidarity in Singapore, etc).)


        So, anyway, thanks for the discussion. 🙂

        Good luck and keep up with the writing. It’s much harder to blog than to comment (though I do think your writing could be more concise – I deal with the same problem myself all the time so you’re not alone there). I do appreciate that people are writing, and I particularly like your occasional focus on empirical data, and the clear graphics.

        Cheers and all the best

  5. Jonno

    The world is changing! We’re shifting from one world period that exploits unlimitless resources to one that is now facing resource challenges that will create future conflicts, wars & misery. As eremarf had rightly pointed out the effects of globalization can be reversed in a post-peak oil period. Although I think the peak oil thingy is a bit overblown to some effect but the fact is that we’re facing the prospect of higher oil & gas costs with ramnifications of higher resource cost implications throughout the world. What that means is countries with natural resources will enjoy considerable higher standard of living than those without. Another consideration is the population issue – in a world of limited resources, a huge population will be a big, big problem in the future.
    In a nutshell, what I’ve just said totally undermines Singapore’s game plan of “globalization this & that, setting hubs here & there” plus that White Paper on increasing population. Singapore without a hinterland will not survive in the future – it will simply become irrelevant, just like Malacca – a historical monument of past gl

    • Jonno

      …glories. The US, Japan & EU are weakening economically – replacing them are the OPEC nations, namely the Arab oil-rich states and the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa. The common thread is that all of them are resource rich – carbon wealth, mineral wealth, plenty of natural resources – land, water, wind, etc. What has Singapore got to compete in this new world order? Oil & gas – nope, mineral resources – nope, natural resources – a small overcrowded island, you’re kidding!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s