The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
SINGAPORE – DIPLOMACY
On this page:
- Government and Politics
- Foreign Relations
A Malay trading port known as Temasek existed on the island of Singapore by the 14th century. It was under the influence of both the Majapahit Empire and the Siamese kingdoms. These Indianised kingdoms were characterised by surprising resilience, political integrity, and administrative stability. The settlement changed hands several times in the ensuing centuries and was eventually burned down by Portuguese raiders in the 17th century and fell into obscurity. In 1819, British statesman Stamford Raffles manipulated underlying factional divisions and instated a new Sultan of Johor who granted the British Empire the right to establish a trading post and crown colony. A formal treaty was later negotiated and signed in 1824 which placed the island of Singapore under total British possession. In the 1890s, when the rubber industry became established in Malaya and Singapore, the island became a global centre for rubber sorting and export. This marks the start of Singapore's future as a hub for the international shipping industry. To learn about the mythical origins of Singapura, check out the following video.
After World War I, the British built the large Singapore Naval Base as part of the defensive Singapore Strategy. While being the largest dry dock in the world at the time, and holding enough fuel tanks to support the entire British navy for six months, the British Home Fleet was stationed in Europe. Since the British could not afford to build a second fleet to protect their interests in Asia, the plan was for the Home Fleet to sail quickly to Singapore in the event of an emergency. As a consequence, after World War II broke out in 1939, the fleet was fully occupied with defending Britain, leaving Singapore vulnerable to Japanese invasion. The island fell with the rest of Malaya in 1942. To learn more about the Fall of Singapore and the heavy British and Empire losses (of which Australians made up the majority) access the #KYR: Singapore - Special Issues.
The occupation by the Japanese Empire ended in 1945 when Tokyo surrendered. Singapore reverted to British control, with increasing levels of self-government being granted, resulting in Singapore's merger with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963. There was division in political circles about the future of Singapore: some thought it lay with Malaya due to strong ties and economic benefit; others were strongly opposed to any merger for fear of loss of influence. Tensions were amplified by social unrest, race riots, and disputes between Singapore's ruling People's Action Party and Malaysia's Alliance Party – culminating in Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia. The island became independent as the Republic of Singapore on 9 August 1965, with Lee Kuan Yew (often referred to by his initials LKY) and Yusof bin Ishak as the first Prime Minister and President respectively. For more information about Singapore’s independence, watch the video below.
Lee Kuan Yew's emphasis on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, and limitations on internal democracy shaped Singapore's policies for the next half-century. Economic growth continued throughout the 1980s, with the unemployment rate falling to 3% and real gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging at about 8% up until 1999. During this same period, Singapore began to shift towards high-tech industries in order to remain competitive as neighbouring countries began manufacturing with cheaper labour. Singapore subsequently became one of the world's most prosperous countries with a highly developed free market economy and strong international trading links. It now has the highest GDP per capita in Asia (and is in the top ten globally) and its port is one of the world's busiest in terms of tonnage handled. Watch the next video to get a broad overview of Singapore’s history.
Access the following resources to learn more about Singapore’s colonial roots, sudden independence, and rapid development.
- Roots Sg | Roots.sg Presents: The Jackson Plan
- Roots Sg | Roots.sg Presents: The Story of Raffles
- CNA Insider | A Thriving Singapore Before Stamford Raffles, From Orang Laut To Craftsmen
- History Matters | Why Was Singapore Kicked Out of Malaysia? (Short Animated Documentary)
- Think School | The Story Rebuilding of Singapore: Part 1
- Lowy Institute: The Interpreter | Singapore’s quarrel over colonialism
- BBC News | Singapore profile - Timeline
- The Singapore Law Gazette | The British Rule of Singapore: An Evaluation
- The Straits Times | Mr Lee Kuan Yew's reading of the Proclamation of Independence kicks off National Day celebrations, Singapore News & Top Stories
Government and Politics
Singapore is the only true sovereign city state in the world, and the island is a parliamentary republic based on the Westminster system. The Constitution is the supreme law of the country, establishing the structure and responsibility of Government, and was last updated in August 1965. The Government of Singapore is separated into three branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary. The president is head of state and exercises executive power on the advice of their ministers. The prime minister is head of government and is appointed by the president as the person most likely to command the confidence of a majority of Parliament. Cabinet is chosen by the prime minister and formally appointed by the president.
The President is directly elected by popular vote for a renewable six-year term, but requirements for this position are extremely stringent. To be qualified, a candidate needs to be a person at least 45 years of age who is no longer a member of a political party, to have held office for at least three years in a number of specific public service roles, have three years of experience as chief executive of a private sector company – with rules limiting which roles and companies qualify – and more. The Constitution requires that presidential elections be 'reserved' for a racial community if no one from that ethnic group has been elected to the presidency in the five most recent terms. Thus, only members of that community may qualify as candidates in a reserved presidential election. In the 2017 presidential election, this combination of strict requirements and a reserved election that required the candidate to be of the Malay ethnic group led to a single person being qualified for the office; the country's first female President, Halimah Yacob, won in an uncontested election. To learn about the different powers of the three branches of Singaporean Government, check out the next video.
The current Prime Minister is the son of LKY, Hsien Loong Lee, and he has served since 2004 and was re-elected last year. All elections are held using first-past-the-post voting, and the next legislative elections for the unicameral Parliament will be held in 2025. The People's Action Party (PAP) occupies a dominant position in Singaporean politics, having won large parliamentary majorities in every election since self-governance was granted in 1959. Even its candidates who lose elections are often turned to by constituency residents for assistance. The most effective opposition party is the Workers' Party. For more information about Singapore’s political and governing structures, watch the following video.
The judicial system is based on English common law, continuing the legal tradition established during British colonial rule while integrating substantial local differences. Criminal law is based on the Indian Penal Code originally intended for British India, but was introduced by crown authorities to the island where it remains the basis of the criminal code with a few exceptions, amendments, and repeals since it came into force. Trial by jury was abolished in 1970 and replaced by judicial assessment performed by judges. Penalties include judicial corporal punishment in the form of caning for rape, rioting, vandalism and some immigration offences. There’s a mandatory death penalty for murder and certain drug-trafficking and firearms offences. To learn more about Singapore’s unique legislation system, watch the video below.
The Government is generally perceived to be competent in managing the country's economy and largely free from political corruption. Yet, it has been criticised for using unbalanced election tactics, violating freedom of speech, and its use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Explore the resources below to learn more about Singapore’s political model.
- SBS News | More countries are scrapping the death penalty, but Singapore isn't one of them
- Lowy Institute: The Interpreter | Singapore’s election: Why aren’t the winners smiling?
- Financial Review | The ‘Singapore model’ is impossible to replicate
- Reuters | Explainer: Why one party dominates Singapore politics
- Council on Foreign Relations | Elections Have Consequences in Singapore Too
- The Straits Times | Singapore Parliament repeals Sedition Act after 83 years
Singapore's foreign policy priority is maintaining security in Southeast Asia and surrounding territories. An underlying principle is political and economic stability in the region. It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 sovereign states, although it does not maintain a high commission or embassy in many of these countries.
Singapore's leaders are political realists; they perceive a Hobbesian world where might makes right. The resultant siege mentality is due to Singapore's geographical weaknesses, mistrust of Malaysia and Indonesia due to historical baggage, and from how it stands out as a "little red dot in a sea of green", as former President Habibie of Indonesia once put it. This informed Singapore's former Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam’s strategic outlook and the island's international framework continues his diplomatic style. Rajaratnam took into account "the jungle of international politics" and was wary of perceiving permanent enemies. In 1966, Rajaratnam identified Singapore's challenge as ensuring its sustained survival, peace, and prosperity in a region suffering from mutual jealousies, internal violence, economic disintegration, and great power conflicts. In accordance with this worldview, Singapore's foreign policy is aimed at maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as ensuring that its actions do not exacerbate its neighbours' insecurities. In 1972, Rajaratnam envisioned the world being Singapore's hinterland: integration into the world economy would ameliorate Singapore's inherent lack of natural resources.
Thus, Rajaratnam's vision remains true for Singapore's contemporary foreign relations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to be the main agent of the island's global relations, achieving key histories and milestones to raise Singapore's global status. Major foreign policy issues are listed as: climate change, counter terrorism, disarmament, cybersecurity, international peacekeeping, small states, and sustainable development. To hear more about Singapore’s careful balancing act on foreign relations, check out the following video.
Singapore supports platforms that allow small states to discuss and foster common positions on issues of mutual concern, thereby giving them a bigger voice in the United Nations (UN). In 1992, Singapore established in New York an informal and non-ideological grouping of small states known as the Forum of Small States (FOSS). Since then, Singapore has served as Chair of FOSS. It now comprises 108 countries across all geographical regions and at all levels of development and meets several times a year to discuss issues of concern to small states. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of FOSS in 2022, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan launched the “FOSS for Good” technical assistance package at the 76th UNGA in September 2021. The package will run from 2022 to 2023 under the Singapore Cooperation Programme. It will provide a peer-learning platform for FOSS states to share experiences, best practices and solutions to tackle the unique development needs and challenges of small countries, such as COVID-19 recovery and digital transformation. Watch the report below by CNA Insider to learn more about Singapore’s leadership amongst small states.
The Republic of Singapore is a member of the UN, the Commonwealth, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Also, the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) opened its Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore in 2016.
As one of the five founding members of ASEAN, Singapore is a strong supporter of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area (AIA) as its economy is closely linked to that of the region as a whole.
The Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) was launched during Singapore’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2000 with the aim to coordinate ASEAN’s efforts to narrow the development gap within the region, enhance the overall competitiveness of ASEAN as a region and accelerate regional integration. Singapore is an active contributor to the IAI, having pledged a total of $170 million since its inception. Under the IAI, Singapore established training centres in Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Yangon, and Hanoi. Over 43,000 officials from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam have participated in IAI courses at the training centres on topics such as English language, economic development, trade and investments promotion, food safety and security, and civil aviation. These are priority areas of the IAI Workplans, and essential building blocks in ASEAN’s community building efforts. In 2018, the IAI training centres were rebranded as Singapore Cooperation Centres (SCCs) to support the expansion of capacity-building activities in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. The SCCs now collaborate with partner countries, NGOs and private sector entities to offer development and humanitarian assistance, as well as customised training courses. For more information on Singapore’s role inside ASEAN, watch the following video.
Singapore enjoys good relations with the United Kingdom which shares ties in the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) along with Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. Constructive engagement is also maintained with the United States. In general, bilateral relations with neighbours and ASEAN members are strong; however, disagreements have still arisen.
Due to obvious geographical reasons, relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are most important. Historical baggage, including the traumatic separation from Malaysia, and Konfrontasi with Indonesia, have caused a siege mentality on the island. When it comes to relations with Kuala Lumpur, there remains a high degree of economic and social inter-dependence between the two countries. For example, Singapore imports the vast majority of fresh meat and vegetables from Malaysia, and Malaysia supplies a large fraction of Singapore's fresh water according to two treaties. Many Malaysians work in Singapore, some living in Singapore as permanent residents, while many also commute from Johor Bahru daily. Bilateral relations are complex and have experienced many highs and lows over the last 40 years. Some previous disputes, such as the Pedra Branca (Pulau Batu Puteh/Horsburgh Island) dispute, have been mostly resolved by the International Court of Justice. The ruling awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore and Middle Rocks to Malaysia, but did not decide on maritime regimes, boundaries, or disposition of South Ledge. Border and air space issues exist with Malaysia and Indonesia, and both have banned the sale of marine sand to Singapore over disputes about the island’s extensive land reclamation works. Also, piracy in the Strait of Malacca is a cause of concern for all three countries.
Watch the following video to learn about Singapore's management of relations with both China and the United States.
For more information about Singapore's stance on foreign policy, access the resources below.
- CNA Insider | Singapore must continue to maintain consistent, principled foreign policy: Vivian Balakrishnan
- CNA Insider | Full interview: Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on US-Singapore relations
- CNA | A Little Red Dot Diplomacy: Malaysia
- CNA Insider | Singapore's Place In The World Stage - In Conversation - Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Foreign Minister
- The Straits Times | Singapore to upgrade three cooperation centres in region
- Brookings | Singapore sounds an optimistic note but eyes tough year ahead as ASEAN chair
- Council on Foreign Relations | Singapore: A Small Asian Heavyweight
- The Straits Times | Full speech: Five core principles of Singapore's foreign policy
- Reuters | Singapore has financial leverage to pressure Myanmar - U.S. official
- The Straits Times | Singapore takes principled positions, not sides in US-China rivalry: Chan Chun Sing
- ASPI: The Strategist | ASEAN at 50: a view from Singapore
- Despite numerous ethnic differences within its population, Singapore has managed to maintain significant internal harmony, and has constitutional rules about representation at a political level. How does Singapore utilise its multiculturalism to benefit it with international relationships? What lessons could Australia learn from this considering the ethnic diversity of our own population in conducting joint and combined activities with Singaporean Defence Force?
- Singapore’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia remain cordial but often frosty, stemming from post-war conflicts regarding independence and territorial disputes. How should Australia manage its relationship with these three nations considering this? What opportunities and threats are in the region that require a solid relationship between the four nations?