[The following is the draft of a proposed research project.]
In late 2013, the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked top secret documents that suggested that Singapore plays an important role in global intelligence by allowing the US and its “Five Eyes” partners (Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand) to tap into undersea telecommunications routed through Singapore. Located geographically between members of the Five Eyes network, at the southern tip of mainland Asia, Singapore is a critical node in the internet’s physical geography, connecting many of its neighbors to the internet. By virtue of its history as an important colonial port, and the path dependency between shipping routes, telegraph networks, and undersea internet cables, Singapore mediates much of the internet traffic across Asia. But the intelligence leaked by Snowden has placed Singapore in an awkward position politically, further estranging the island-nation from its neighbors. It is an island of intelligence, at once a part of, but also seemingly apart from the region.
But it wasn’t too long ago, in the late 1980s, when the state embarked on turning Singapore into an “Intelligent Island.” Anticipating the acceleration brought about by fibre-optic cables, the world’s busiest transshipment port leveraged its existing infrastructures to consolidate its position as an important information gateway, connecting the rest of the world with the rest of the world. Today, the island-nation remains a critical node in global logistics and internet traffic. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the global economy moves and moves through this city.
Yet, the metaphor of an “intelligent island” continues to haunt Singapore, not just in the case of those documents leaked by Snowden, but in the ambivalent combination of the two terms (“intelligence” and “island”): if “intelligence” suggests a distributive, centrifugal force of networked communications, “island” implies a certain level of exception, excommunication, and centripetal containment. At once an island of intelligence, a free port and a tax haven, Singapore is a contradictory (pressure) point of fixed flows. As John Hibbard, president of the Pacific Telecommunications Council, describes it elsewhere: “Singapore is about the most wired country in the world. The only reason why it doesn’t move is because it is tied down by all these undersea cables.”
This research project proposes to examine Singapore’s recent history as a significant site that facilitates the global flows of communication networks. It understands communication media broadly to include within the term, shipping routes, railway tracks, broadcast media, and the internet. Here, I draw also from the work done by media scholars John Durham Peters and Ned Rossiter, understanding the role of media as one that is fundamentally logistical, arranging and organizing people and property into designated spaces.
While I acknowledge the importance of Singapore’s colonial history as foundational to its existing infrastructures (e.g. 1819 founding of a free port, 1871 wiring of Singapore to the British empire’s telegraph network), I will be examining this history mostly as prefatory context. The project will, instead, mainly be focused on key historical coordinates since the 1960s, taking cue largely from the rhetoric and branding employed by the Singaporean state. This historical framing is chosen largely because it coincides with Singapore’s national independence, against a global backdrop of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the emergence of global logistics, and marks the beginning of the US’s increasing involvement with Singapore.
- “Global City” (1972): This section looks to the 1960s and 1970s when Singapore gained its national independence, transformed its ports into container port facilities, and marked Singapore’s significant entrance into the global network of supply chains and logistics. At the same time, we cannot ignore Singapore’s complicity with the military logistics of the Vietnam War, when it served as a recreational and refuelling stopover for American troops heading into Vietnam during the war. The metaphor of “containment” is particularly resonant here in the age of containerization, despite the distributive vectors implied in the term “global”.
- “Intelligent Island” (1992): This intermediary section turns to the 1980s and 1990s with Singapore embarking on its “Intelligent Island” initiative, connecting Singapore to the global network of undersea internet cables, and thus laying the necessary groundwork and infrastructure for global finance and smart urbanism. Critics (e.g. William Gibson, Sandy Sandfort) writing in this period had considered Singapore’s top-down governance as antithetical to what was then the dominant rhetoric of the internet as a dematerialized, decentralized and boundless space. Against this flattening of the internet, Singapore’s “Intelligent Island” offers a fascinating counterexample to critique the internet as always already embedded within a finite territory and geopolitics.
- “Smart Nation” (2014): This last version of Singapore looks to the past decade when we have witnessed the global hackathon for smart cities prototyping. Though only official launched in 2014 through the label of “Smart Nation,” Singapore’s smart urbanism began at least as early as 2004, when it implemented the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) program — adapted from and in consultation with John Poindexter’s “Total Information Awareness,” which Poindexter had initiated earlier at DARPA. The official launch of Smart Nation in 2014 was necessitated in part after the 2013 Little India Riot, which involved local police dealing with “unruly” migrant workers from South Asia, thus providing yet another point of entry into questions of urban communication/containment. This section ends with a consideration of Singapore’s smart urbanism within a broader framework of logistics, economic securitization, and biopolitics.
The aim of the project is to broaden and complicate existing accounts of Singapore that tend to over-explain the island-nation’s “miraculous” development (despite its physical limitations — e.g. lack of natural resources, its size) simply as a result of exceptional and intelligent planning by the state’s politicians from within. Not to dismiss the work done by the state’s politicians over the years, but such a centripetal account is also complicit in building up a greater sense of containment within the island-nation. Instead, my project situates Singapore’s fortunes and status as a critical information gateway and logistical node from without, placing a greater emphasis on the larger geopolitical and geophysical realities that have informed Singapore. Perhaps what emerges might be termed instead as a kind of media theory of Singapore’s nationalism.
I’d like to think that it’s not a pure coincidence that Singapore came of age just when media studies became an academic subject in the mid 1960s. Since then, Singapore has consolidated itself as a significant mediator of global communications and trade. But the flow of information, people and goods in and out of Singapore is matched by the fluidity of its territory. The more Singapore communicates, the more its territory expands, the more it extracts resources from its less-affluent neighbors. At the same time this horizontal expansion of infrastructural spaces also seems to necessitate a vertical containment of its citizens and foreign laborers, most evident in the acres of public housings that seem to rise up higher and higher as the coast becomes an infrastructural space exclusive to the state. Singapore has also, as I have pointed out in my historical coordinates, mediated itself across various scales: as a global city, an intelligent island, and a smart nation. And it is my intention to content that these scales are not mere branding exercises, but have political and historical significances.
The method of research will be largely historical. I will be collating archival materials (e.g. official press releases from the Singaporean government, newspaper articles, publications and grey literature) corresponding to the three historical coordinates identified: “Global City” (1972), “Intelligent Island” (1992), “Smart Nation” (2014). A historical approach is important as I wish to consider the trajectories and vectors underlying Singapore’s transitions from a (global) city, to an (intelligent) island, and to a (smart) nation. But the change in scale from city to island to nation is not a linear progression necessarily, even if Singapore has been steadily increasing its land area. Hence I am not interested simply in presenting materials illustrating the political and cultural milieu of each period; rather I would also like to showcase, if any, materials that seem to resist and complicate the branding and rhetoric used by the state in the respective periods.
This also explains why I am favoring the format of an exhibition where materials may be presented in a manner that is not simply linear or teleological. This is not to suggest that essays can never accommodate different registers, voices or undertones. But perhaps these other voices and trajectories are typically pushed down to the margins of the page, in the footnotes, in favor of an overall coherence. That is, in my own experience of working historiographically with the exhibition format, audiences seem to tolerate and accept heteroglossia and polyphony in exhibitions much more than readers would for the written word. I believe that the relative openness of an exhibition space allows for viewers to “read” diagonally across the space, drawing connections between seemingly disparate materials, and hence to perform a historiography of Singapore.
 For a good overview, see Murray Hunter, “Is Singapore Western Intelligence’s 6th Eye?” Asia Sentinel, December 6, 2013. https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/singapore-western-intelligence/. Alternatively, see also Philip Doring, “Singapore, South Korea revealed as Five Eye’s spying partners,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 25, 2013. https://www.smh.com.au/technology/singapore-south-korea-revealed-as-five-eyes-spying-partners-20131124-2y433.html.
For an example of regional tensions, see “Malaysia summons Singapore envoy over spying claims,” The Guardian, November 26, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/26/malaysia-singapore-nsa-spying-claims. Perhaps this also explains why since 2013, Singapore has been busily curating exhibitions and cultural events promoting the region of Southeast Asia. While such discussions have taken place since the opening of the Singapore Art Museum in 1996, there is now a marked ubiquity of “Southeast Asia” in Singapore’s schedule of art events, often to such a exhausting degree that one is tempted to say that this isn’t simply the case of Singapore trying to consolidate its position as an economic and cultural hub for the region, but as a form of cultural diplomacy to over-compensate for the political embarrassment caused by Snowden’s leaked intelligence. For a physical illustration of Singapore’s estrangement in the region, one only need turn to the architecture of the latest art institution in Singapore — the National Gallery Singapore — which consists of two separate buildings, one housing the Singapore permanent collection and the other the Southeast Asian collection, with a suspended bridge connecting the two spaces. For an excellent critique of the National Gallery Singapore, see Philip Ursprung, “Self-Preservation,” Artforum International 54.9 (May 2016).
 John Hibbard, cited in Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 10.
 For a succinct overview of media as logistical and infrastructural, see John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), 37–38. For a further elaboration and extrapolation of Peters’s work, see Ned Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (New York: Routledge, 2016), 4–6.
 While this arrangement ended officially in 1970 after the US decided to reduce its number of troops in Vietnam, it remains an important context to consider against the rhetoric of Singapore as a “global city.” For a good summary, see National Library Board, Singapore, “First batch of American soldiers arrive for R&R, March 1966,” HistorySG. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/6e7cb450-9f0e-4bfb-9f88-298c9d5496f6.
 William Gibson, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” Wired, April 1, 1993. https://www.wired.com/1993/04/gibson-2/. Sandy Sandfort, “The Intelligent Island,” Wired, April 1, 1993. https://www.wired.com/1993/04/sandfort/. This rhetoric of the internet in the 1990s as a flat space is also interesting to consider alongside Rem Koolhaas’s 1995 critique of Singapore as a perpetual tabula rasa, flattening its land and its histories for the securitization of its economic futures. On latter, see Rem Koolhaas, “Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis … Or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa,” in Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995), 1008–1089.
 See Shane Harris, “The Social Laboratory,” Foreign Policy, July 29, 2014. http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/07/29/the-social-laboratory/. Here, Harris essentially argued that Singapore’s top-down state, the lax attitudes of Singaporeans towards surveillance and the relative trust Singaporeans have with their state combined to present Singapore as a perfect alternative test-bed for Poindexter’s ideas after they were mooted by the American public.
 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “National Day Rally 2017,” ITE College Central, Singapore, August 20, 2017. http://www.pmo.gov.sg/national-day-rally-2017.
 The most dominant account being the official Singapore Story penned by Singapore’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. See for instance Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000).
 I would also argue that this sense of containment plays out elsewhere in the state’s framework of “Total Defence” which covers military, civil, economic, social and psychological defence. See Ministry of Defence Singapore, “The Five Pillars of Total Defence,” MINDEF. https://www.mindef.gov.sg/oms/imindef/mindef_websites/topics/totaldefence/about_us/5_Pillars.html.
 For more on Singapore’s land reclamations, see Joshua Comaroff, “Built on Sand: Singapore and the New State of Risk,” Harvard Design Magazine 39 (Fall / Winter 2014). http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/39/built-on-sand-singapore-and-the-new-state-of-risk.
 I will be exploring this aspect of horizontal expansion vis-a-vis vertical containment in Singapore’s urban developments in a separate visual essay that I am working on now, titled “Traveling Light: Singapore” for another class (Urban Intelligence).
 Hélène Cixous, in her reading of Freud’s writings, saw Freud’s footnotes as a “typographical metaphor of repression”. Hélène Cixous, “Fiction and its Phantoms: A reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The ‘uncanny’),” New Literary History 7.3 (Spring 1976): 537.