The idea of Singapore

Ms Lydia Lim (left), Head of Training and Talent Development at The Straits Times moderates a Question & Answer session following Prof Tan's lecture

Throughout its history, Singapore has continuously evolved, taking on different forms: it was an emporium, a cosmopolis, a colonial port city, a crown colony and then a city within a larger Malaysian Federation before becoming a nation-state. Singapore’s complex trajectory to independence was the subject of Professor Tan Tai Yong’s fourth lecture in the IPS-Nathan Lecture Series, in his capacity as the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) 6th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore. Prof Tan, a respected historian, is the President of Yale-NUS College.

Building on his last lecture that discussed Singapore’s dependence on a hinterland for its economic viability and security, Prof Tan, who is also a Professor of Humanities (History) at Yale-NUS College, explained that the reason Singapore did not seek to become a nation-state was “borne out of a conviction that Singapore had no economic future if it were not re-integrated with the Malayan hinterland”. “From a political and security standpoint, Singapore would be too vulnerable on its own, and would succumb to radical left-wing takeover unless it was fortified by the bulwark of the right-wing Malayan state,” he said.

Singapore did not aspire towards sovereignty, said Prof Tan. However, when the merger project failed, and Singapore gained independence in August 1965, “it had sovereignty thrust upon it”.

In my mind, the idea of Singapore can be best encapsulated in the concept of ‘smallness unconstrained’. Smallness is a constant and reality in Singapore’s history, but that smallness has never constrained the evolution of Singapore as a city, country and nation state.

Without the usual recipe of indigenous rootedness, civilizational lineage, cultural commonalities or religious, ethnic and linguistic homogeneity to fall back on, Singapore had to begin its nation-building efforts from scratch, said Prof Tan. In order to inculcate a sense of community and belief in the nation’s viability, the government adopted a narrative of survivalism, emphasising the principles of meritocracy and multiculturalism.

“The state would use a combination of economic and social development, in the context of political stability, to build belief in the new nation state. Development and growth would be undergirded by shared values and beliefs that promised every citizen a chance to progress and prosper in a country of their own, regardless of race, religion and socioeconomic status,” said Prof Tan.

The education system and National Service became key vehicles for creating and sustaining national identity; and a successful public housing scheme and growing economy provided stability and belief in the nation, allowing Singapore to establish itself as a viable nation-state with territory, sovereignty, citizens and a legitimate government after decades of state- and nation-building. However, the inherent dilemmas of a new nation-state that grew out of an old commercial city have not gone away, Prof Tan opined.

“Global competition has generated tensions that are innate in a country that is a city,” explained Prof Tan, “As a consequence of this dual personality, Singapore has had to actively and continuously connect with the wider world, while taking care of a local citizenry and building national identity within its shores at the same time.”


Around 300 people attended Prof Tan's lecture

Using immigration and the development of the arts as examples, Prof Tan said Singapore has had to constantly calibrate the fine line between being a city and a country; to be on the winning side of globalisation while maintaining its viability as a nation-state. Through it all, however, Prof Tan postulated that an underlying spirit that is the essence of Singapore has stayed consistent.

“For me, the idea of Singapore must refer to the meaning and significance of Singapore; it must be larger than the island itself and must extend beyond its relatively brief existence as a nation state. So, in my mind, the idea of Singapore can be best encapsulated in the concept of ‘smallness unconstrained’. Smallness is a constant and reality in Singapore’s history, but that smallness has never constrained the evolution of Singapore as a city, country and nation-state,” said Prof Tan.

The IPS-Nathan Lecture Series comprises six lectures that seek to explain how Singapore has evolved over a period of 700 years, as the country commemorates the bicentennial of the establishment of a British trading settlement in Singapore in 1819. Prof Tan’s earlier lectures focused on the phases of Singapore’s history, starting with its early globalisation and the making of its cosmopolitan culture.