- Singapore: Unlikely Power by John Curtis Perry
There are a number of outstanding general histories of Singapore. They include studies that focus on the period after the British founded a trading post on the island in 1819.1 Others offer a brief survey of Singapore under British colonialism, turning their attention to how Singaporean leaders advanced the economic, political, and social development of the city-state after 1945.2 Still others, informed by new archaeological findings and textual records from China and Europe, promote a Singapore- and-the-world narrative that starts in the thirteenth century.3 All these approaches serve their respective ends. The first closely links contemporary Singapore's development to British colonialism; the second celebrates the roles of local actors and postcolonial nationalism; and the third accentuates the island's cosmopolitanism and identity as a global city over the long duration of time.4 John Curtis Perry's masterful study adds to the growing body of works that see merit in viewing Singapore's history from a global and long-term perspective.
Perry is writing for multiple audiences. To Americans, he thinks it is important that they appreciate Singapore's strategic and economic significance to Washington. The Singaporean government hosts an American logistics command post (since 1992) on the island, and US military assets deployed to the region regularly call at Singapore's port. [End Page 386] US investors, moreover, have channeled more money to the city-state than investors from the People's Republic of China have. To a broader audience, Perry contends that Singapore's history is instructive. He adjudges Singapore to be a well-designed and well-run cosmopolitan city-state that is economically successful, environmentally friendly, financially prudent, politically stable, and socially harmonious. Since much of the world's population will be living in cities in the decades to come, Perry submits that planners will be able to draw useful lessons from the city-state's development experience.
Perry terms Singapore a "power" for several reasons. Like New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Paris, Singapore is regarded as one of the cities that possess significant global economic influence. It ranks high among cities worldwide regarded to be the easiest for global elites to congregate and do business. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world. Its citizens, many of whom are highly educated, have access to excellent health care. It is a model city—especially in terms of its economic and public policies—to leaders in China, Georgia, Panama, Rwanda, and the United Arab Emirates. It is also a significant military power in Southeast Asia, possessing modern and sophisticated defense assets.
Perry's use of the adjective "unlikely" to modify the noun stems from his observation that the city-state possesses few of the attributes that would make it an influential global and regional actor. It does not possess significant natural or demographic resources. It has a relatively small domestic market. It is one of the most trade-dependent states in the world. Relations among its ethnically diverse population were tense and marked by violent clashes in the past. For centuries, Singapore has remained physically, politically, and economically vulnerable to the vagaries of international and regional politics as well as the global market. Yet Singapore has prevailed and prospered. What Perry seeks to explain is how the city-state managed to overcome challenges, recover from setbacks, and flourish.
According to Perry, Singapore owes its success to a number of factors. Chief among them is its geographical location. Singapore is positioned at the point where the waters from the Malacca Strait and South China Sea meet, allowing regional and global sea traffic to converge onto the area off the island. The Malay Peninsula and island of Sumatra also shelter its deepwater harbor from harsh weather. [End Page 387] Drawing business travelers, migrants, ships, and traders from all over the world to the island are visionary and decisive officials and entrepreneurs. Officials have implemented public policies, built infrastructure and schools, and maintained...