KD Suarez

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From a sleepy colonial backwater to one of the world's richest and most cosmopolitan cities, tiny Singapore has come a long way

From a sleepy colonial trading post to one of the world’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities, tiny Singapore has come a long way in its relatively short history as a nation.

The smallest of the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore lies at the tip of the Malay peninsula, less than 200 kilometers north of the Equator. This lends to a year-round tropical climate, with hot, humid weather and abundant rainfall.

Its population is made up mostly of Chinese, Malays, and Indians. But due to its nature as a global hub, a sizable percentage of the population is foreign-born, including those coming from the Philippines. Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity and Hinduism are the top faiths practiced by its citizens, a reflection of the country’s ethnic mix.

All of its citizens live in an urban environment – the government’s Housing Development Board is the world’s biggest landlord, with 80% of Singaporeans living in HDB projects. Literacy is at 97%; English and a second language – depending on ethnicity – are taught in schools. The crime rate is low compared to the rest of the region, helped by very strict laws. Corporal punishment – caning – and the death penalty are punishments for some of the most serious offenses in the country.

Singapore is a parliamentary republic; the head of state is the president, elected at large, while the head of government is the prime minister, the leader of the majority party or majority coalition who wins the most of the 87 seats in the unicameral parliament. The incumbent president is Tony Tan Keng Yam, while Lee Hsien Loong – son of Lee Kuan Yew, acknowledged as the architect of Singapore’s jump from third world to first in one generation – is the current prime minister.

The country’s political landscape is dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled since the 1950s. Its hold on power, however, has been challenged in the past few elections due to citizens’ disillusionment on issues such as immigration and economic inequality. The main opposition Workers’ Party gained support and parliamentary seats.

From backwater to global city

Singapore – coming from the Malay term “Singapura” or “Lion City” – was first settled by Malays and Chinese, before it became a British trading post in 1819 courtesy of Sir Stamford Raffles. It then became a British possession, becoming part of the Straits Settlements (along with Malacca and Penang). During this time, the city became a thriving port, and it quickly grew to become one of the British Empire’s major colonial outposts in Asia.

Japan invaded and occupied the city-state in World War II. After the war, Singapore was repossessed by Britain, and was eventually allowed internal self-rule. It was granted independence by the United Kingdom in 1963, and subsequently joined the Federation of Malaysia, along with Malaya, Sarawak, and North Borneo. From 1963 to 1965, the union with Malaysia soured as racial and political tensions rose; eventually, the Federation’s Parliament voted to kick the city-state out of the union on 9 August 1965.

The tiny city-state, kicked out of the Federation it saw as its key for survival, faced an uncertain future. But it quickly adapted policies that focused on economic growth and stability, and in maintaining harmony among its citizens. Nearly 5 decades since independence, the city is now renowned as a thriving center of global commerce, with one of the highest per capita incomes and standards of living.

Tiny size, big influence

Despite its small size, its influence in the region is no small thing. Aside from being one of the richest economies in the region, it is a transport, finance, and economic hub, and it is positioning itself as the gateway to the fast-rising Asia Pacific region.

It is home to one of the world’s busiest air transport hubs, while its ports are capitalizing on its strategic location between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, becoming a major transshipment point for goods making its way between the East and West.

The economy is heavily reliant on manufactured exports; its top earners are consumer electronics, pharmaceuticals, and financial services. On the other hand, its imports are composed mainly of raw materials (food, water and consumer goods) owing to its small size and lack of natural resources.

Media is highly controlled in the city-state. The two main media companies – MediaCorp (TV and radio) and Singapore Press Holdings (print) – are closely allied to the ruling party; in fact, MediaCorp is owned by the state’s investment arm, Temasek Holdings. The BBC notes that self-censorship in media is common; online media is highly curbed, and websites – particularly those dealing with news or political content – are required to register with the government to operate. Social media use is widespread, particularly Facebook.

Numerous foreign media entities have offices or bureaus in Singapore, and the government plans to make the country a regional media hub, especially for digital media. Despite this, foreign media can be restricted if they are engaged in domestic policies, according to watchdog Freedom House.

A cornerstone of its foreign policy is regional stability and security, and Singapore is adept at flexing its diplomatic power. It is one of the founding members of the ASEAN; it houses the headquarters of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); and it is a key ally of major powers, including Britain and the United States. It is a member of the Commonwealth.

From independence, Singapore has been highly conscious of its vulnerability as a small city-state. This led the government to develop one of the most advanced defense forces in the region, the Singapore Armed Forces. Military service is compulsory for males aged 18-21, and they are under the National Service (NS) for 2 years.

In 2015, Singapore celebrated its 50th year as an independent state. It has big plans for its future, as it strives to maintain its first-world status amid growing competition in the global stage. –

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