Politics, Development, and Identity in Singapore

On the Multiple Hybrids of the Lion City

The Central Area of Singapore with a statue of the Merlion, the official mascot of the country, which is half lion and half fish.

Singapore has been a prominent fixture in international news of late, due to its gracious hosting of the 2018 North Korea-United States Summit between Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. Singapore’s stability and prosperity have often made it an important actor in the realms of regional and global affairs. The unfortunate irony of this positive status is that Singapore’s own history and meteoric rise are now easily overlooked or taken for granted by others, especially because it is a novel, island city-state.

Within the realm of human discourse, there is a perverse quality that typically inclines people to ignore or dismiss entities that we know or assume to not be troublesome or ever in need of aid. Singapore certainly fits this bill. Its positive development should actually make it a central point of examination, especially because its small size makes the stakes higher rather than lower. Whereas in large states domestic conflict can be isolated to one geographic locale, this is not possible in small states like Singapore, where even minor civil strife may end up consuming the entire country. Such was nearly the case early in its history, which is why its government and its people have insisted on never being complacent about potential problems.

Singapore’s peculiar history, governance, and societal norms render it a fascinating case study for modern national formation and consolidation, one based on hybridized socio-political approaches emphasizing a balance between democracy, domestic stability, and innovative economic growth. Singapore is certainly not without its flaws, but it is hard to argue that it has not delivered unparalleled positive results within a remarkably short period of history.

Singapore’s modern history began as an East India Company trading post turned Crown Colony of the British Empire, founded originally by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Its name is anglicized from the Sanskrit Singapura that means Lion City. Singaporean history, more broadly, is a history that inherently begins somewhere else. All the modern citizens of Singapore, the Chinese (majority population), the Malays, the Tamils, and others, came from homelands beyond the island, brought together via a broad spectrum, from entrepreneurship to indentured servitude.

A map of Southeast Asia with a map of Singapore inset.

During the period of decolonization following World War Two, Singapore first gained home-rule within the British Empire with an election in 1959. The People’s Action Party (PAP) overwhelmingly won this election and have dominated Singaporean politics ever since. PAP began as a pragmatic, big tent organization, initially including capitalist, socialist, and communist factions. Singapore’s longtime leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was head of the PAP in 1959 and became the first Prime Minister of Singapore following the election.

Adjacent to Singapore, the Federation of Malaya (today’s West Malaysia) had been independent of the British since 1957. By September 1963, an agreement was reached to enlarge the Federation by including Singapore and the Borneo-based states of Sarawak and Sabah (today’s East Malaysia), thus forming the Federation of Malaysia. The growth of the Federation was for pragmatic political and economic reasons, but disputes between the PAP and the Malaysian ruling coalition, the Alliance Party, tainted relations between the territories from the start.

The disputes between the PAP and the Alliance were structural and ideological. Central to the rivalry was the political mobilization of the main racial groups of both Singapore and Malaya. The PAP, though it began as a predominantly Chinese party, had broadened itself to appeal to all racial groups. The Alliance in Malaya, however, was built on three separate racial parties, each based on Malay, Chinese, and Indian identity.

The Malay and Chinese parties within the Alliance, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) respectively, felt threatened by the multiracial orientation of the PAP, while the latter objected to UMNO’s emphasis on implementing affirmative action to exclusively help Malays. Although Malays were the majority in Malaya, they held very little of the territory’s economic wealth. The PAP, however, urged that policy should be structured to help all citizens, regardless of race. The PAP rally cry for equality thus became A Malaysian Malaysia!

Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903–90), the first Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The PAP and the Alliance had previously agreed to not interfere in each other’s affairs, but the Alliance violated this agreement. It established the Singapore Alliance Party to compete with the PAP in Singapore, but the former did not win any seats in the 1963 Singaporean election, failing to connect with even Malay Singaporeans. In response, the PAP established the PAP of Malaya in Malaya, which did win a seat in the 1964 elections, angering the Alliance and its leader, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

These heightened tensions meant that Singapore faced its own upheaval with the Race Riots of 1964, which occurred during the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday (Mawlid Nabi). It remains disputed who actually instigated the violence, but it is stipulated that it occurred along racial lines between Chinese and Malays. 23 people died, hundreds were injured, and thousands were arrested in the ensuing violence, which spread to several areas of Singapore.

In 1965, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided that he had had enough of the PAP and Singapore. He urged the Malaysian Parliament to unilaterally expel Singapore from the Federation. Despite last minute appeals by Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP leaders, the Malaysian Parliament voted unanimously, without any representatives from Singapore, to expel the latter on 7 August 1965.

Two days later, Lee, now as Prime Minister of a newly independent Republic of Singapore, held a televised press conference to address this rupture of the status quo. On national television, he stated, “For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life, you see, the whole of my adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship.” The press conference then had to be suspended for he was overcome with emotion.

Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew (center) weeps on television in August 1965 after Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia.

Understanding the context of the time clarifies why the expulsion was like an apocalyptic event for Singaporeans. Singapore possesses no natural resources and had a small domestic economic market at the time. Half of the population was illiterate, unemployment hovered at 14%, and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was equivalent to 516 American dollars. In terms of living conditions, 70% of Singaporean households lived in decrepit, overcrowded structures and one-third of Singaporeans were slum squatters on the peripheries of the territory.

Given the racial nature of the disputes with the Alliance/UMNO and how they bled over into the Race Riots, the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew could have made the spiteful choice to pursue racial policies that prioritized Chinese Singaporeans above others. Worse more, there could have been policies stigmatizing Malay Singaporeans. Fortunately, the PAP and Lee did not pursue this path, instead further emphasizing a multiracial Singaporean identity and public policies aimed at uplifting all citizens. The path to achieving these two things, however, has meant a peculiar social politics that girds the unique norms of Singaporean society.

It is essential to first consider Singaporean politics and its unique forms of democracy and social control, as these are part and parcel of broader development policy and the construction of Singaporean identity. Singapore has full procedural democracy and thus Singaporean citizens freely elect their representatives to its national Parliament. The legal voting age is 21, with universal suffrage and compulsory voting for all citizens.

Singaporean law, however, limits substantive democracy in terms of civil liberties and civil rights. PAP leaders have framed this type of democracy in terms of Asian Values that stand in contrast to the liberal democracy of the West. Singaporeans have generally been supportive of this distinction, overwhelmingly returning the PAP to power in every election since 1959. The lowest electoral result ever for the PAP was in 2011, when it still won 60% of the popular vote.

Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, the only permit-free speech zone of Singapore.

Freedoms of speech and of the press are limited, with public group assemblies requiring disclosure of the reasons for, and content of, activities to the Singapore Police Force, which then issues permits if the activity is deemed acceptable. The only place not requiring an explicit permit is Speakers’ Corner, a public area in Hong Lim Park established in 2000, where activity requires online registration beforehand but not disclosure of reasons or content. Cameras do monitor the area, but the government claims they do not possess audio input. Thus far, no gatherings at Speakers’ Corner have ever been interrupted by government authorities.

The reasons for the denial of regular permits usually involve deeming activities as a risk to the public order. This has been especially true if activities are seen as an incitement of hostility or hostile action towards particular racial or religious groups. Notwithstanding judgments that could be made about possible abuses of these denials, it is understandable why the government and most of the public remain supportive of these measures, especially in light of the Race Riots and the delicate balance of racial groups living in the small territory of the city-state.

The increased racialism of Malaysian society through the years has also provided a tangibly proximate foil for Singaporeans who embrace racial harmony. The Islamization of Malay identity and the continuation of Malay affirmative action in Malaysia have left its minorities in marginalized positions socio-politically. Singaporeans do not want to see such developments inversely replicated in Singapore and thus support limits on freedom for chauvinistic activisms.

Beyond restrictions on substantive democracy, there is also a paternalism that manifests through the extensive fines imposed on a plethora of public behaviors. These include: spitting, not flushing the toilet, selling and chewing gum, being disruptive with a musical instrument, playing in a way that blocks public traffic, obscene singing, and carrying the durian fruit on public transport. Violations of these laws and others lead to extraordinary fines or even caning.

Lee Kuan Yew’s advocacy for these measures was two-fold. Firstly, transforming Singapore from a developing society to a fully developed modern one would require attracting foreign investment. Consequently, this meant that foreigners, especially Westerners, needed to feel respected and to believe that Singaporeans also deserved respect. This would not be possible if its local population held onto lewd public behaviors that would turn off foreigners.

Secondly, in terms of Singaporeans themselves, Lee believed that work ethics and an attitude fixed on positively contributing to society began fundamentally with personal behavior. Reflecting on Singapore’s progress in 1987, he stated, “I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters: who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Singapore, despite being known as a haven for business and entrepreneurship, has followed a mixed model of statist capitalism with Keynesian aspects. This has meant welcoming foreign investment and market competition, but also making the Singaporean Government a source of business implementation and capital funds for innovation and entrepreneurship. One of the key governmental bodies in this task is the Economic Development Board (EDB), which is part of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The EDB is the principle body in charge of planning and implementing business strategies focused on Singaporean economic growth, providing essential tools for investors and firms in Singapore, and, in turn, helping these entities connect with Singaporean citizens seeking employment and other economic opportunities.

Furthermore, the Singaporean Government owns two massive holding companies, Temasek Holdings and GIC Private Limited, which, respectively, are valued at 205 billion and 365 billion American dollars. These are usually referred to as sovereign wealth funds internationally, but the Singaporean Government prefers them to be characterized as investment companies, since most of their assets are owned outright, taxes are paid, and investments are mostly in equities. Whereas GIC Private exclusively manages Singapore’s foreign reserves, Temasek has 31% of its portfolio domestically, possessing the majority stakes in Singapore’s largest and most influential companies, including Singapore Airlines.

Given the country’s strategic but isolated location, the Port of Singapore is vital to the country’s economy, especially as Singapore lacks any natural resources and arable land, critically relying on imports. The Port is the third busiest in the world by total shipping tonnage, after Ningbo-Zhoushan and Shanghai in China. Singapore acts principally as a transshipment port (entrepôt), which means that raw materials are imported for manufacturing or refining, only to be exported once again as finished products. The two principal products for transshipment are wafers (electric/photonic circuits) and refined petroleum products. These products make Singapore the first in the world in transshipment status.

It was noted that in its early days, the PAP was a big tent organization that included Marxists of all stripes. However, during the 1960s, as the PAP government under Lee Kuan Yew became electorally dominant, it purged its Marxist factions and detained key leaders. It also took steps to control and co-opt workers. In 1961, the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC) split into a pro-PAP faction, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and an anti-PAP faction, the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). The PAP neutralized SATU by arresting its leaders and deregistering its legal status, while passing in 1968 an amendment to the Industrial Relations Act that limited workers’ right to strike. The NTUC followed suit by calling for cooperation rather than confrontation with employers and businesses. Today, the NTUC remains the only trade union federation in Singapore, with 98% of unionized workers affiliated with it.

Flats of the Housing Development Board (HDB) in the area of Jurong West.

In the same way it took charge of labor issues to both accommodate and control concerns, the PAP government did the same in housing and urban development. This is important given that Singapore is a small island. In 1960, the Housing Development Board (HDB) was created, which became part of the Ministry of National Development. Between just 1960 and 1965, the HDB built over 50,000 housing units for low-income Singaporeans to rent. The Home Ownership for the People Scheme eventually transformed these units, and others after them, from rentals into potential real property. The Scheme allowed residents to purchase their apartments and gradually pay off their mortgages to the Government, using their own money or by borrowing from the Central Provident Fund, the social security system. In this way, residents could achieve greater security for the long-term. By owning the properties, they would also feel invested in maintaining them, thus preventing blight. 82% of Singaporeans live in housing associated with the HDB.

Beyond Singapore’s remarkable domestic accomplishments is its positive international profile and reputation. There are different lenses through which to consider this aspect of Singaporean development. Using the national flag carrier of Singapore Airlines (SIA) is most helpful in this regard. It is often rated as one of the best, if not the best, airlines in the world, so like all things Singaporean it is now easily taken for granted. Yet consider how radical an idea the airline was at its inception: an internationally profitable airline with an impeccable reputation that, by definition, would have no domestic market. Many external observers at the time laughed off the idea, assuming it would be independent Singapore’s first major humiliation.

Flight attendants of Singapore Airlines, wearing Sarong Kebaya uniforms. Blue: Economy Class. Green: Raffles/Business Class. Red: First Class.

Operations commenced on 1 October 1972, after splitting with the then Malaysian Airways. Essential to the growth and success of SIA was its initial marketing and branding campaign. Many airlines at the time focused on services and aircraft in promotions, while SIA made the cabin crew, especially the female members, the center of its public outreach. Thus, the wildly successful ad campaign of the Singapore Girl took off, emphasizing the grace, beauty, and hospitality of Singaporean women in-flight. Central to this was the now recognizable aesthetic of the SIA female uniform, which is a Singaporeanized Sarong Kebaya outfit that blends aspects of Malay and Indonesian ethnic dress. Lee Kuan Yew was not typically boastful, but he would often remark that the Singapore Girl was the one thing he wished he could take credit for.

The success of SIA further depends on Singapore Changi Airport serving as an appealing hub for travelers in transit, as many passengers flying with SIA do not actually visit Singapore. In its now four terminals, Changi facilities include elaborate shops at all levels of spending, spa wellness centers, indoor gardens (including one with live butterflies), art galleries, a rooftop swimming pool, a movie theater, and a gaming arcade among other attractions. Changi is now the sixth busiest in the world for international travel, making it the second busiest in all of Asia.

There is a ubiquitous fallacy in economic developmentalism that assumes prosperity, ipso facto, brings domestic stability, social harmony, and meaningful state consolidation. Although a pleasant notion to imagine, this assumption is empirically false, which is why the subject of Singaporean identity construction is the final and most important subject to consider. Recall how potentially fractious the country’s path could have been following the Race Riots and the expulsion from Malaysia, even with economic development. There are political, social, and economic steps that the PAP consciously took to foster a harmoniously multiracial Singaporean identity that celebrates its differences while also emphasizing a quintessential nationalism.

Language has historically been a constructive or a destructive factor in state formation depending on policy choices. In Singapore, there are four Official Languages, which are English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, representing the three main racial groups and the colonial legacy that is now an internationalist reality. Additionally, Malay is also held as the National Language, used in state ceremonies and the national anthem. This was no accident, as the PAP and majority Chinese establishment wanted to acknowledge Malays as being the native (or most native) of racial groups. In the context of the split with Malaysia, this was also essential in demonstrating to Malay Singaporeans, 13% of the population, that Singapore belonged to them, too.

The aforementioned issue of adequate housing, addressed principally by the HDB, also proved to be important, including measures to prevent both socio-economic stratification and racial isolation and separation. Applicants to estates and new towns were consciously assigned housing based on mixing households of different income levels and, after the Ethnic Integration Policy of 1989, also on mixing households of different races. Like so many other initiatives, the goal was to foster an authentic nationalism and social cohesion that would engender stability.

Soldiers of the Singapore Army.

The final important aspects of identity formation are the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and a civically enforced national vigilance against external threats. Since 1970, Singaporean males and second-generation permanent residents have been required to serve in the SAF for around two years, known as National Service (NS). In the early years of NS, Malays were not conscripted and when they later were, were posted mostly to policing and civil defense roles. The issue was patently related to the fact that Singapore’s neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, are Muslim-majority countries. The PAP was initially concerned about morale in the case of a conflict. However, Malays are now prominently present in combat and specialized units.

The broader public is included in national vigilance through Singapore’s strategy of Total Defense, which includes five dimensions: Military, Civil, Economic, Social, and Psychological. Annually on 15 February, Total Defense Day is commemorated, this being the same date as the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese. Schoolchildren experience a multitude of drills and at 6:20pm, the Singapore Civil Defense Force activates the national Public Warning System, with radio stations subsequently explaining the steps in response to specific messages issued. The message of all this is clear: only Singaporeans can defend the country and only if united.

This dual consideration of Singapore’s history and national consolidation illustrates that its successful development was hardly a preordained matter. It was, in fact, unlikely given the tremendous adversity it faced upon independence. For Singaporeans, expulsion from Malaysia did feel as if the world had ended, but through the leadership of the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew, the country was able to forge a path forward through raw effort and a fixation with national unity. Weeks after independence, Lee stated, “I am nobody’s stooge. I am not here to play somebody else’s game. I have a few million people’s lives to account for. And Singapore will survive.” Survive it did, and its nationalistic prosperity has meant that it has truly thrived.

The three Prime Ministers of the Republic of Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong. Loong is the son of Lee Kuan Yew.

The key to Singapore’s success has been an obsessive pragmatism and anticipation of future problems, the standards of which were set by Lee and the PAP. Notwithstanding the purge of Marxist factions, the PAP has remained open to numerous hybrid approaches in the political, social, and economic realms of public policy, so long as approaches are flexible to change and serve the interests of stability and unity. “The system works,” Lee asserted in 2007, “regardless of your race, language, or religion because otherwise we’d have divisions. We are pragmatists. We don’t stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.”

Granted, there is always something lost in national formation no matter how well-intentioned. Even Lee Kuan Yew acknowledged doing “nasty things” like arbitrarily detaining Marxists for stability, while affirming it as utterly necessary. This article has provided a contextual skin-in-the-game perspective so that readers may understand and appreciate the challenges that come with leadership and citizenship in desperate and unexpected circumstances.

It is important to judge such histories within such a perspective, especially as it concerns pragmatic governance that ought to be appreciated. This is especially true in the contemporary global context, in which ideology is subsuming common sense and realistic governance. Critics of Singapore often state that the successes of its national model should not tempt people to idealize it. Granted, no country or national system is perfect enough to be idealized. However, there can be reasonable and deserved admiration without idealization. The Singapore way as a whole does not have to be idealized for the sensible ethics girding it to be rightly honored and emulated.


An online platform for thought-provoking, critical, and contextual articles on politics, society, and policy.

Rushd as-Safaa → The Contrarian Muslim

Written by

Male. Democrat. Pluralistic Muslim. Indonesian Renewal Disciple. Ex-academic. Opposing all fanaticism. Formerly of Reformer Mag. Now active as Haytham ad-Din.



An online platform for thought-provoking, critical, and contextual articles on politics, society, and policy.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade