Singapore profile

Singapore's Skyline    Image: Corbis

Singapore’s Skyline Image: Corbis


Singapore is, in many ways, the outlier of Southeast Asia. One-eighth the size of Brunei, it is by far the smallest country by area in Southeast Asia. Yet its five million citizens produce the fourth largest economy, measured by GDP,  in the region, with a nominal GDP per capita greater than that of the United States. With a Human Development Index ranking equivalent to that of France, and a Failed States Index rating the lowest in Asia, Singapore also greatly outranks its neighbors in quality of life.  And with four official languages, only one of them native to Southeast Asia, Singapore has long been a destination for international immigrants.  With its geo-strategic position at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, Singapore plays a key role in world trade.

But to ignore its place in Southeast Asia, as well, would be a mistake. Singapore’s largest trading partner, both in terms of exports and imports, is its neighbor Malaysia. With that country it shares a history, as well, as Singapore was a part of Malaysia until its 1965 independence. A founding member of ASEAN and firm supporter of the ASEAN FTA with strong relations with both China and the United States, Singapore is a major player in Southeast Asia.

Historical background

In 1819, when the Englishman and colony founder Sir Stamford Raffles arrived on the island of Singapore, it had only about one thousand inhabitants. The island had once held a trading post of the Srivijaya Empire, but that had long before been sacked by the Portuguese. The modern history of Singapore begins, therefore, with the efforts of the British colonials to create a rival to the Netherlands’ successful ports in the region. Hugely successful due in no small part to its strategic position and lack of taxes, which were heavily imposed in Dutch ports at the time, the settlement at Singapore thrived in its early years, increasing its population 100-fold in its first half-century.

British colonialist, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

British colonialist, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

Seven years after its founding, in 1826, Singapore was grouped with Britain’s other settlements on the Malay Peninsula, Penang and Malacca, to become the what was called the Straits Settlements – British trading centers located on a robust trade route between China and Europe.  This trade expanded particularly after the Opium Wars, which further opened up the markets of the former, and then the 1867 opening of the Suez Canal, which eased transportation to and from Europe.

Due to large-scale immigration in the early 19th century, the Chinese quickly became the island’s largest ethnic group, and this demographic dominance holds to the present day. Singapore’s development as a trading center continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, surpassing its rivals to become the primary trading port of Southeast Asia.

Singapore’s development continued unabated until the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941. Anticipating Japanese aggression, Britain built one of the world’s largest naval bases in Singapore, but was never able to send ships to the port as war broke out with Germany. Undeterred by the impressive but empty port, Japanese forces quickly conquered the Malay Peninsula, by then under British control, and then continued on to Singapore, eventually taking the island in one of Britain’s worst defeats of the war. Japanese occupation of Singapore (renamed Syonan, “Light of the South,” by the Japanese) was marked by harsh measures against the local population, and especially against ethnic Chinese, who the Japanese were having difficulty defeating in China.

Cargo ships docked offshore in the Strait of Malacca

Cargo ships docked offshore in the Strait of Malacca

The British retook the island after the war, but the Japanese takeover left Britain with little credibility in the eyes of Singaporeans, and Britain gradually began to transfer powers to Singapore, which after 1946 became a full Crown Colony in its own right as the Straits Settlements was dissolved. Singapore held elections in 1948 and 1951, and then gained some self-governing powers in 1955 – these powers were expanded in 1959. On what appeared to be a steady course for the independence of Singapore, the colony’s leaders, especially its Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, feared an independent Singapore lacking in natural resources would be isolated and unviable. The Federation of Malaya, though fearful of Singapore’s economic dominance and Chinese majority, agreed to incorporate it, along with the territories of Sarawak and Sabah into an independent Federation of Malaysia in 1963.

This union, however, would not last. Conflicts immediately arose between the left-leaning People’s Action Party, the governing party of Singapore, and the right-leaning United Malays National Organization, the governing party of Malaya. These were exacerbated by deep seated racial tensions. Affirmative action policies benefitting the impoverished ethnic Malays angered Singapore’s Chinese majority, eventually leading to violent race riots of 1964. Seeing no alternative, in August 1965, the Malaysian parliament voted 126-0 in favor of expelling Singapore from the federation.

So sure were observers that an independent Singapore was doomed to collapse -Prime Minister Lee famously announced the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in tears, so sure was he of Singapore’s imminent failure – that it came as a great surprise that Singapore was able to survive and prosper. The new nation’s early goals focused on recognition from the international community and cooperation with its neighbors, of whom it was acutely fearful. Singapore was admitted into the United Nations in September of 1965 and the Commonwealth of Nations that October; two years later, it was a co-founder of ASEAN.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew

Since pre-independence, and up to today, Singapore has been ruled by the People’s Action Party, and for most of that time by one man: Lee Kuan Yew. Elected prime minister in 1955, Lee was subsequently re-elected eight times until he stepped down in 1990, often with the PAP controlling every seat of parliament, despite policies enacted meant to ensure representation of opposition parties.

In 1990, leadership of Singapore passed on to Goh Chok Tong, who ruled until 2004, at which point Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong became Singapore’s third and current Prime Minister. Though the People’s Action Party has never faced a serious threat from opposition parties, it has faced criticism for its perception as authoritarian.

Initially through manufacturing, trade, and oil refining, Singapore has been able to grow its economy despite its dense population and minimal natural resources. Rapid economic development has continued nearly unabated since independence, earning Singapore its status as the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia, and one the “Four Asian Tigers,” along with South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Singapore has used its new wealth to build housing, transportation, infrastructure for its growing population, earning it a high place in measures of quality-of-life.

Politics and Governance

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with its legal basic in English common law. The head of state is the president, currently Tony Tan Keng Yam, who holds few formal powers. The head of government, with more power as the head of the executive branch is the prime minister, currently Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore has two deputy prime ministers (currently Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam), as well as a politically influential cabinet accountable to parliament.

The president of Singapore is elected by popular vote to a six-year term. The last election was in August 2011 with the next being August 2017. The prime minister, deputy prime ministers, and cabinet are all appointed by the president, usually (especially in the case of prime minister) from positions of leadership of the majority party in parliament.

Singapore’s legislative branch consists of a unicameral parliament of 87 members, elected to five year terms. As a means of supporting a wide range of views in what has often been a one-party parliament, Singapore has, since 1984 and 1990, respectively, allowed its president to appoint up to nine Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs), usually the losing candidates for parliament with the highest vote counts, and up to nine Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), non-partisan and independent members of parliament. Counteracting this encouragement of opposition, however, was the creation of Group Representation Constituencies, now comprising 75 of 87 seats, which make it difficult for any opposition party to win any individual seat. As of 2014, the People’s Action Party holds 80 elected seats of Parliament, while the Workers’ Party holds seven elected seat and two NCMPs, and the Singapore People’s Party holds one NCMP. Nine unaffiliated NMPs make a total of 99 members of parliament.

For the entirety of the nation’s history the People’s Action Party has controlled parliament, as well as the post of prime minister. From 1965 until 1981, the People’s Action Party won every seat in every election held. Since 1981, however, at least one opposition member (though rarely more than a small handful) has sat in parliament. The 2011 election saw a record number of five new opposition members to parliament, bringing the total to six (after a special election in 2013, it now stands at seven elected opposition members, all of the Workers’ Party).

The dominance of the People’s Action Party is due to a combination of factors: the first, that the party is largely credited (and perhaps not without reason, given its near-exclusive control of political power in Singapore) for Singapore’s continued economic successes, especially after the 1997 Asian crisis, from which Singapore recovered relatively painlessly; the second, that the PAP has, according to some, made “systematic use of fear” to intimidate opposition candidates, especially as some of the early opposition candidates were jailed for dubious offenses; and the third, the creation of Group Representation Constituencies, or GRCs, which create a winner-take-all system much more difficult for any opposition party to succeed (it’s been accomplished only once, in 2011).

The election of 2011, however, represented PAP’s biggest defeat in history (despite its win of over 90% of the seats), due largely to discontent with PAP policies. A growing income disparity between Singapore’s richest and its poorest citizens (Singapore has an income gap among the largest in the world), rising prices, especially on housing, and a rapid influx of immigrants, especially from China, in addition to the perceived arrogance and authoritarianism of the PAP, were major sources of discontent among the Singaporean populace. The 2011 election saw a major growth in the role of the internet in politics, especially for opposition candidates.

Economic Profile

Singapore has one of the most developed economies of Asia, with a GDP (PPP) per capita of $61,400, the world’s seventh highest. That large GDP is divided, essentially, into two sectors, services, contributing 73.2%, and industry, contributing 26.8%, with agriculture at virtually zero. The island’s economy has diversified from its early years, becoming a leader in electronics, chemicals, financial services, and petroleum refining, among many other industries. Singaporeans of 1965 would be surprised to learn that their country is, in fact, a net exporter, despite its miniscule size and lack of natural resources to support its population. In 2012 Singapore exported $435.8 billion worth of goods, its most important industries being machinery (including electronics), pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, and refined petroleum products. In 2012, the island imported $374.9 billion worth of goods, notably mineral fuels, foodstuffs, and consumer goods. Singapore’s largest trade partner in both exports and imports is its neighbor across the Straits of Johor, Malaysia. Both China and the United States are among Singapore’s largest trading partners, as well.

singapore GDP composition Singapore GDP growth

Singapore’s economy, though impressive given its size, is not without its problems. As a country dependent upon international trade, it is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the international economy. In five years, between 2007 and 2012, Singapore’s GDP growth dropped from 9.0% in 2007 to -0.8 in 2009, then jumped to 14.8% in 2010, before dropping again to 1.3% in 2012. In addition, economic growth is also no longer as high as it was in the 1980s and 90s, when Singapore consistently experienced GDP growth in excess of 10%.

Another significant economic problem facing Singapore, and one that has also received much political attention is the issue of income inequality. In terms of Gini Index, Singapore, at 47.8, is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The government has long pursued a non-welfare, individual responsibility policy, which has succeeded in fostering economic growth, but which has created a highly unequal society.

Singapore Imports and Exports Singapore inflation

International Relations

Singapore’s most important foreign relationship is with Malaysia. Malaysia provides Singapore with raw materials, including rubber, tin, palm oil, and timber, as well as water. Singapore is, in turn, a major investor into the Malaysian economy, as it is (to a lesser extent) in other ASEAN nations, as well as China.

In its relations with China, Singapore has been cooperative, if cautious. Singapore, as the only Chinese-majority nation outside China has always been wary of the influence of the People’s Republic of China upon its own populace, not recognizing the People’s Republic for the first forty-one years of its existence. The relationship showed markedly improvement, however, after Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 visit to Singapore, which found itself compelled by the attractiveness of investment opportunities in a liberalizing China, finally formally recognizing the nation in 1990. Singapore has backed numerous development projects in China since then, notably the construction of an industrial city in Suzhou (though Singapore would eventually back out of this project when costs became prohibitive). Singapore’s relationship with China has continued to develop since then, with China now representing Singapore’s second-largest trading partner.

Basic country profile prepared by Sam Kennedy, May 2014.


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