How globalization changed Singapore

17 minutes to read
Mariosé Bergsteijn

During my visit to the city-state Singapore in December 2017, I went to the Singapore City Gallery. The entire history of Singapore is exhibited there, from its start as a fishing town to the thriving megapolis it is now.

Learning about the history and then minutes later walking through the business center, got me thinking. How is it possible that Singapore grew so much, in such a short period of time? To try and answer this question, I will look at the history of Singapore and how through economic, cultural and political globalization it grew to be a core nation, a center of the world. 

Singapore's history

In order to really understand the position Singapore holds in the world-system nowadays, we first have to look at its history.

The earliest records of Singapore are from when the first settlements were established in AD 1298-1299. The settlement was known as Temasek, which means Sea Town. Legend says that it wasn’t until the 14th century that Singapore earned its official name. When a prince from Palembang founded a city, at the place where he caught an unknown animal, he called it Singapura, “The Lion City” (Van de Waal, 2018). During this period the city flourished as a trading post for ships, which turned Singapore into a fishing town as seen on figure 1 below. This was only the beginning of the immense harbor activities taking place in the Port of Singapore today, which is ranked the world's maritime capital (Lim & Swaminathan, 2017).

Figure 1 Fishing town Singapore


In the 19th century, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded colonial Singapore as a trading post of the British East India Company. With the establishment of several institutions, the city continued to grow (Silver Media, n.d.).
During the second world war, Singapore was attacked by Japan. Despite the large numbers of British military, the allied forces had to surrender to the Japanese. After the war, the island was handed back to the British Military Administration, but the trust in Britain was demolished. Anti-colonial and nationalist movements eventually led to the country’s independence. Singapore merged with Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. Two years later Singapore separated itself from Malaysia over ideological differences, and became a sovereign, independent city-state (Mykura, n.d.). This was a very important development, as Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore. It was under his leadership that Singapore developed from a poor third-world fishing town, to the prosperous and affluent nation it is now.

Figure 2 Old vs. New


In figure 2 above we can see how a certain part of Singapore has flourished immensely. From bad housing and visibly poor circumstances, to colorful accommodations and dinner possibilities. Now after talking a little bit about the history of Singapore, in order to understand what the country looked like before, we will turn to the effects of political, cultural, and economic globalization. Figure 2 shows only a rather small outcome of the effect of globalization on Singapore, as we will see below.


Political, cultural and economic globalization

The world-system consists of numerous nation-states: independent, bounded and unique units which are all different from each other. In the present day we cannot see the world as all separate units anymore, we must see the world's past and present in terms of movement, networks, and complexity between these units (Wallerstein, 2004). Globalization is therefore seen as the interconnectedness between large parts of the globe within systems of political, cultural and economic networks and flows. In all three of these perspectives, Singapore is doing exceptionally well. We will thus look at the developments the city-state has gone through from these perspectives, so that we can properly look at the outcome of globalization in Singapore.

Political development of Singapore

Since the new political regime, which was first introduced by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has come out of its earlier state of a city characterized by poverty, with people living in bad circumstances. Singapore was characterized by race riots, unemployment, shortage of food, and violence after WW II and during the independence period.

"I am often accused of interfering

 in the private lives of citizens.

 Yes, if I did not, had I not done

 that, we  wouldn't be here today."

 - Lee Kuan Yew

Yew’s politics, which were based on Confucian concepts, paved the way for the totalitarian state (Teon, 2016). Some opponents of the totalitarian state argue that the political regulation restricts people from their political rights, but in Singapore this government system worked out pretty well.

Lee Kuan Yew’s emphasis on economic growth, his support for business and the limitations he placed on democracy were the groundbreaking rules on which Singapore thrived. Economic success was seen in the dropping of the unemployment rate, higher wage incomes, and the presence of technological industries. They established their own airline and the already existing harbor grew immensely during this period. At the same time Singapore also became a huge tourist destination (Wikepedia contributors, 2018). Thus, we can conclude that Singapore’s political system, the almost totalitarian government, can be seen as a key component in the globalization of Singapore. The stability the totalitarian state causes paved the way for the growth of the economy, politics and cultural events. The political system and the stability that comes with it, makes sure that Singapore is also extremely attractive for foreign multinationals and business organizations.

We can, thus, look at Singapore as a micro-hegemony in the world-system as described by Immanuel Wallerstein (2004). A hegemony is "a state who establishes the rules of the interstate-system, dominates the world economy, and get their way with minimal military force". Now, Singapore is not the hegemony of the world, but we can certainly look at it as a micro-hegemony. This is because a (micro-) hegemony creates stability "within which capitalist enterprises thrive". A hegemony makes sure that their set of political and cultural rules are aligned with the hegemony's need for the accumulation of capital. This is precisely what Lee Kuan Yew tried to achieve with his political system: stability and with that the growth of Singapore. 

Figure 3 Old vs. New 2


In figure 3 we can really see how the business center of Singapore has developed since the year 2000. Without the stability caused by the political system of Lee Kuan Yew, this would have never been possible.

Economic globalization

As stated above, the political system emphasizes economic growth. Singapore has one of the largest and most thriving business centers of the world, but in the past Singapore’s economic comfort was far from what it is now. After Singapore became an independent, sovereign city-state in 1965, much of the population was unemployed. Most people were living in slums under bad circumstances: there was a huge lack of infrastructures, sanitation needs, water supply and most importantly for the industry, lack of natural resources. Singapore was forced to look beyond its own nation state to constitute its industrial development. Lee and the other leaders of the government knew they had to experiment with globalization. They needed to connect with the developed world and persuade them to place their multinational companies in Singapore. Singapore had to create an attractive environment, which would be characterized by safety, freedom of corruption, low taxes and few restrictions with regard to manufacturing. These laws made Singapore very attractive to international businesses, in contrast to its neighboring countries, which had conflicting political and economic climates (Zhou, 2018).

One characteristic of globalization is the circulation of knowledge and information (Wallerstein, 2004), which are settled in a core nation of the world. With the investments from foreign countries, Singapore could focus on improving its own infrastructure and human resources. They set up technical schools and paid workers to train their skills in information technology, e-literacy, electronics, computers etc. For people who were unable to get industrial jobs, the government sought labor-intensive jobs, for example in tourism or transportation. By the 1990s, Singapore was engaging in intensified flows of capital, goods, logistics, pharmaceuticals, engineering, new knowledge infrastructures, etc (Zhou, 2018). Thus, in the aspect of knowledge and information infrastructures, Singapore is a center of the world.

The capitalist world-system is

driven by the inequalities between

centers and peripheries

Singapore was one of the first countries to start globalizing in Asia, which gave it a head-start in becoming a core nation surrounded by (semi-) peripheries. The huge economic development I described above thus paved the way for Singapore to become a center in the capitalist world-system. Immanuel Wallerstein (2004), explained this concept as “when the system gives priority to the endless accumulation of capital (…) and wherein the efficacy of labor is what holds it all together”. The global division of labor and profit is thus the main feature of capitalism.

But not everyone has equal access to new technologies, infrastructures, and capital. The world-system consists of a core and (semi-) peripheries, and it is exactly the capitalistic inequalities between these zones that drive the capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, 2004). The law of unequal development also applies to Singapore and its surrounding countries, as we will see under the heading "A center and peripheral neighbors".

Cultural superdiversity

Singapore’s tourism is also thriving, not only because of its cultural heritage but also because Singapore takes up a special place in Asia. Compared to the countries that abut Singapore, it is a very safe, clean and developed country. Although it has a relatively small surface, Singapore is characterized by many cultures, religions and languages. Singapore’s culture is now a combination of Asian and European cultures, and shows influences from Malay, South Asian, and East Asian sources. Since 1819, when Singapore served as a trading post for the British East India Company, the country has flourished and has attracted many migrants. When Singapore became independent, many of its foreign citizens were uneducated workers from Malaysia, China and India. As a reaction, the government began creating a Singaporean identity and culture. Regardless of your cultural background, the government makes sure that everyone has access to education and they also emphasize mutual respect between religions and cultures (Singapore Expats, 2018).

The main religions in Singapore are Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism; the four official languages are Tamil, Malay, Mandarin (Chinese) and English as seen on the road sign below. Besides these four official languages, Singapore has recognized 20 other languages.

Four languages.jpg

Figure 4 Four official languages of Singapore


Language and culture are immensely intertwined. English-speaking Singaporeans lean towards the Western culture, Chinese speaking citizens towards Chinese culture and Confucianism, and Malay native speakers lean towards Malay culture (Seah, 2018). This paves the way for cultural and linguistic superdiversity, which implies not only the increased diversity of many immigrant and ethnic groups, but also within them. Globalization and superdiversity lead to the emergence of immigrant communities. People from the same nationality, language or religion go live together in the same places, in the same zones (Vertovec, 2006). In Singapore there are many distinct ethnic neighborhoods, like China Town, Little India and Kampong Glam. The diverse ethnic groups of Singapore can be seen in its linguistic landscaping. Although English is commonly used in the business center, because it is the working language of Singapore, in the rest of the city there is not at all a monolingual landscape. Tourist attractions, road signs, street names, official buildings and hospitals are almost always presented in several languages. This is not just to serve the diverse citizenry, but also the immense tourist flows. Figure 5 below shows an example of linguistic landscaping in Little India. Although the food court is located in a Tamil speaking location, the food court is not only represented in Tamil, but also in English.

Figure 5 Linguistic landscaping in Little India


Thus, looking at the economic, cultural and political development Singapore has gone through, we can argue that the city-state is a core nation in the capitalist world-system in all of these three perspectives. To have a closer look at Singapore as a center in the world-system, we must look outside the country, we must consider Singapore’s globalization in a global context. We will do this in the next section, where I will compare Singapore to its neighboring countries. 

A center and peripheral neighbors

To understand the globalization that is taking place in Singapore, we also must look outside the country. Because in order to understand the local, we must look at it globally. Globalization is international, meaning that globalization is not about the concept of nation-states, but about the connection and movement between these nation-states (Wallerstein, 2004).

How is it that Singapore flourished so much in such a relatively short period of time? To answer this question I will look at its two neighboring countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. Since 1994, these three countries are part of the SiJoRi growth triangle. Singapore is the hub, the center of the treaty because of its infrastructures, economic capital and expertise. Malaysia and Indonesia, on the other hand, are the peripheries of the agreement, with raw materials, unexploited land, and labor resources (Revelli, 2016). This is exactly the reason why the SiJoRi growth triangle is so successful, because of the inequality between the three participating countries. Peripheral or weak states are subject to exploitation by firms and persons from a stronger country. Looking at it like this, we can see Singapore as a hegemony, having the power in the inter-state system of the SiJoRi triangle. Hegemonies create stability, which is needed for capitalist industries to thrive (Wallerstein, 2004).

Figure 6 The SiJoRi triangle


Globalization is something that produces opportunities as well as constraints, new possibilities as well as new problems, progress as well as regression (Blommaert, 2010). Globalization is truly global, but it is not homogenous. Not everything globalizes at the same speed or in the same way, and this is specifically visible in the relationship between centers and peripheries. Infrastructures are the means to globalization, as they are the instruments which enable connections between local and global events, patterns, and developments. For the countries and citizens of that country, who do not have equal access to new technologies and infrastructures, globalization is more of a problem than it is an opportunity. Applying this to the example given above (the SiJoRi triangle), we can see that Singapore differs from the other two countries with regard to the accessibility of infrastructures. It fits perfectly in the capitalist world-system, as introduced by Immanuel Wallerstein (2004). The main feature of capitalism is the division of labor and profit, and the world-system is driven by the inequalities of capital. We can distinguish between center, semi-peripheries, and peripheries. In our example Singapore is characterized by high-surplus value, new technologies, low labor intensity and marketing, which makes it a center in the capitalist world-system. Malaysia and Indonesia are characterized by low- or moderate-surplus, primary materials, high labor intensity and manufacturing, which gives them the position of (semi-) peripheries. 

The Future

The exhibition I talked about earlier, the Singapore City Gallery, did not only show the history of Singapore, but also the future plans the government has. This includes the expansion of the business center and the enlargement of residential areas. Because Singapore is still attracting more business partners from foreign countries and with that even more citizens, the city-state must expand to house all of them. Also because Singapore holds such a special place in comparison with other Asian countries, the city-state is still booming, not only with regard to new businesses and new citizens, but also with regard to tourists.

Figure 7 Singapore City Gallery


Figure 7 is a photo taken in the Singapore City Gallery and shows a scale model of the center of the city-state. Not only the already existing buildings and infrastructures are presented on the model, but visitors can also see the future plans the government has for this core nation. 

Singapore in the world system

By looking at Singapore’s history, the political, economic and cultural changes the country went through because of globalization, examining Singapore from outside the nation-state and comparing it with other Asian countries, we can conclude that Singapore is indeed a core nation in the capitalist world-system. The main reason for this is, thus, that the government of Singapore focused on making the country attractive for foreign countries, multinationals, and institutions, while at the same time improving the infrastructures, technologies, and education-system in the city-state itself. This made sure that Singapore stood out, and still stands out, from other Asian countries. Taking into account the future plans of the nation, we conclude that Singapore is not done growing and will keep growing for a long period of time. 


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