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 – INFORMATION
On this page:
- People and Society
- National Identity
Singapore is an island country located off the coast of the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, sitting between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, making it a focal point for Southeast Asian sea routes. It is located in both Northern and Eastern hemispheres of the Earth. In fact, Singapore is just one degree of latitude above the Equator. The country borders the South China Sea to the east, the Strait of Malacca to the west, and the Riau Islands lie to the south. It is a very small country, only measuring 26 kilometres north to south and 50 kilometres east to west, yet it hosts over five million people. This makes it the second most densely populated sovereign state in the world.
The current 719 square kilometres is divided across 60 islands, by far the largest of which is Pulau Ujong, followed by Sentosa, Jurong, Tekong, and Senang. Extensive land reclamation efforts have removed many former islands and created a number of new ones. The country is projected to reclaim another 56 square kilometres. The type of sand used in reclamation is found in rivers and beaches, rather than deserts, and is in great demand worldwide forcing Singapore to switch to the Polder Process, a Dutch technique where tracts of land are enclosed by dykes. There are two human-made connections to Johor, Malaysia: the Johor-Singapore Causeway in the north and the Tuas Second Link in the west. Under British rule, Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands were part of Singapore, and both were transferred to Australia in 1957. The highest natural point is Bukit Timah Hill at 166 metres, but most of Singapore stands no more than five metres above sea level and is described as being 'flat as a pancake'. Singapore is drained by a large number of narrow and short streams, some of which flow into the sea through mangrove swamps or estuaries. Water reservoirs cover parts of the central area, only 10 square kilometres, as there are no significant lakes or rivers. To learn more, check out Singapore's profile on the CIA's World Factbook and this video demonstrating Singapore’s land expansion over the years.
Singapore's urbanisation means that it has lost 95% of its historical forests. Now over half of the naturally occurring fauna and flora in Singapore is only present in nature reserves, such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, which comprise only 0.25% of Singapore's land area. In 1967, to combat this decline in natural space, the Government introduced the vision of making Singapore a 'garden city', aiming to improve quality of life. Since then, nearly 10% of the country's land has been set aside for parks and nature reserves. Singapore's well-known gardens include the Singapore Botanic Gardens – a 161-year-old tropical garden and Singapore's first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Local wildlife is surprisingly diverse despite the island's rapid urbanisation. To combat habitat loss and establish sustainability measures, the Singaporean Government made the Singapore Green Plan in 1992, supplemented in 2012, and continued under the Green Plan 2030 (or the Green Plan). It is a whole-of-nation movement to advance Singapore's national agenda on sustainable development. The Green Plan charts ambitious and concrete targets over the next 10 years, strengthening Singapore’s commitments under the United Nation's (UN's) 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and Paris Agreement, and positioning the island to achieve a long-term net zero emissions aspiration as soon as viable. As part of the 'City in Nature' programme, 50% more land (around 200 hectares) will be set aside for nature parks so that every household will live within a ten-minute walk of a park. The increase in green spaces will increase the habitat for migratory birds and hornbills, otters and mousedeers. The 'Energy Reset' aims for energy efficiency by quadrupling solar energy development and shifting to electric vehicles. Viewing climate change is a global challenge, the Singaporean Government is taking firm actions to build a sustainable future. The video below provides more information on this holistic policy approach.
Singapore has a tropical rainforest climate with no distinctive seasons, uniform temperature (from 23 to 32 °C) and pressure, high humidity, and abundant rainfall. Singapore experiences smoke haze from time to time. Normally from July to October, there is haze caused by regional forest fires when open burning is carried out to clear land for agricultural uses. The solution to the haze issue is to end the practice of forest burning through sustained international efforts. Meanwhile, Singapore is taking steps to ensure its population is equipped to deal with haze when it occurs. The National Environment Agency constantly monitors smoke haze using hotspot satellite imagery and air quality using the Pollutant Standards Index readings across the island.
Singapore recognises that climate change and rising sea levels in the decades ahead will have major implications for its low-lying coastline. It estimates that the nation will need to spend $100 billion over the course of the next century to address the issue. To reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels, it has ramped up deployment of solar panels on rooftops and vertical surfaces of buildings, and other initiatives such as building one of the world's largest floating solar farms at Tengeh Reservoir in Tuas. A significant percentage of climate change impact can be viewed through the lens of water and this is particularly the case in Singapore. Where the island country is susceptible to water shortages and acute drought but also flash floods. In its 2020 budget, the Government set aside an initial $5 billion towards a Coastline and Flood Protection Fund. Singapore is the first country in Southeast Asia to levy a carbon tax on its largest carbon-emitting corporations producing more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, at $5 per ton. For more information on Singapore’s journey to water self-sufficiency, read the report by The Straits Times below.
Access the following resources to learn more about the city-state's geography, natural resources, and climate change challenges.
- Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment | Farm to Fork: BBQ Sea Bass in the Wild - How to Cook with Local Fish by Chef Bob and Charlotte Mei
- govsg | The Singapore Water Story
- Roots Sg | Sembawang Heritage Trail
- Roots Sg | People in Peril, Environments at Risk: The History of Tigers in Singapore
- CNA Insider | Why Singapore Is Heating Up 2x Faster Than The Planet
- Geography Now | Geography Now! SINGAPORE
- Polder Development at Pulau Tekong
- TODAY | A burning issue: Calculating the cost of the haze
- South China Morning Post | Nature enthusiast’s viral images of Singapore forest encourage residents to rediscover city’s great outdoors
- Mothership SG | Brief 100-year history of how native S'pore otters vanished, returned & became a national icon
People and Society
Singapore served as a central point of trade between the East and West in the 19th century, coming under British colonial rule in 1826 until coming under the Federation of Malaya in 1963 for two tense years. Today, it is independent of Britain and Malaysia; however, the influence of its roots in the British Empire means that it is one of the most Westernised countries in Asia. Lifestyles are quite cosmopolitan and English (also referred to as the adapted ‘Singlish’) is the common language spoken among all ethnicities. Singapore’s economic positioning as one of the four Asian Dragons of the global economy has also made it a big expatriate hot spot. There are so many foreigners in Singapore that only about 60% of the population has citizenship.
The permanent citizens of Singapore are also diverse. The official data representing population is by self-identification broken down into four available categories, being: Chinese, Malay (includes indigenous Malays and Indonesians), Indian (includes Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan), and other ethnic groups (such as Eurasians, Caucasians, Japanese, Filipino, or Vietnamese). While 74.3% are Chinese Singaporeans, there are also large populations of Malay at 13.3%, Indians sitting at 9%, and 'other' makes up the remaining 3.2%.
During their rule, the British maintained and emphasised racial divides among the three biggest ethnic groups – Chinese, Malays and Indians – for political reasons. Subsequent Singaporean Governments tried to dissipate these attitudes in the hope of creating a truly multiracial society. Singaporean culture is heavily influenced by Chinese values and one’s ethnicity is a strong social identifier. Singaporeans often attribute social behaviour and characteristics (that extend beyond religious or cultural customs) to people’s race as well. For example, Chinese and Indian Singaporeans are generally regarded as business-savvy ethnic groups as they tend to be profit-oriented, dominating the political and economic facets of society. The Malay population are often considered to be less economically competitive and more content with making ends meet. These stereotypes continue to shape Singaporean society today, watch this report by VICE Asia for one example.
Singapore has four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin (other dialects include Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, and Hakka). English is the lingua franca and the main language used in business, government, law, and education. The Constitution of Singapore and all legislation is written in English and interpreters are required if a language other than English is used in the Singaporean courts. Statutory corporations conduct their businesses in English, while any official documents written in a non-English official language such as Malay, Mandarin, or Tamil are typically translated into English to be accepted for use. Malay was designated as a national language by the Singaporean government after independence from Britain in the 1960s, to avoid friction with Singapore's Malay-speaking neighbours of Malaysia and Indonesia. It has a symbolic, rather than functional purpose. It is used in the national anthem, 'Majulah Singapura' (translates as 'Onward Singapore'), in citations of Singaporean orders and decorations, and in military commands. Singaporean Malay is officially written in the Latin-based Rumi script, though some Singaporean Malays also learn the Arabic-based Jawi script.
Singaporeans are relatively spiritual people. The 2010 Census showed that 33.9% of Singaporeans are Buddhist, 18.1% are Christian (with 7.1% being Catholic), 14.3% are Muslim, 11.3% are Taoist, 5.2% are Hindu, and 0.7% belong to a different religion. Additionally, 16.4% of all Singaporeans do not affiliate with a religion. There are monasteries and Dharma centres from all three major traditions of Buddhism in Singapore: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The younger generations of Singapore tend to blend the older traditions of their religions into more contemporary practices to realistically suit the modern world. To learn more about religions in Singapore, watch the next video.
Singapore has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world – an average of 1.15 children born per woman – and a rapidly aging population. Women’s expanded educations, widened aspirations, and a desire to establish careers has contributed to delayed marriage and smaller families. Most married couples have only one or two children in order to invest more in each child, including the high costs of education. In addition, more and more Singaporeans, particularly women, are staying single. Factors contributing to this trend are a focus on careers, long working hours, the high cost of living, and long waits for public housing. With fertility at such a low rate and rising life expectancy, the proportion of the population aged 65 or over is growing and the youth population is shrinking. Singapore is projected to experience one of the largest percentage point increases in the elderly share of the population at 21% between 2019 and 2050, according to the UN. The working-age population (aged 15-64) will gradually decrease, leaving fewer workers to economically support the elderly population.
Singaporeans can be fiercely competitive. It is not unusual to see people endeavouring to get to the front of a crowd or determinedly queuing for great lengths to buy or see something. They attribute this to ‘kiasu’, the fear of losing. Kiasu motivates Singaporeans in other ways too, such as economically or academically. As a result, Singaporeans generally strive diligently to achieve what they want. Nevertheless, this does not see them to be boisterous necessarily. They generally maintain poise and courtesy as to be aggressive in one’s approach would be inharmonious, deplorable behaviour.
Singapore has many unique civil laws enforced to regulate behaviour. While Australia with its many regulations of social behaviour is seen as 'the nanny state', Singapore is 'the fine country'. The culture can seem obsessive about cleanliness. Gum and spitting are banned and there are fines for forgetting to flush public toilets. Other laws are more restrictive of personal behaviour and choices. Pornography and illicit drugs are strictly banned, and the death penalty is used to punish those who have drug or criminal offences.
To learn more about Singaporean people and society access the following resources.
- Roots | The Belly of A Nation: Singapore’s Hawker Centres
- Visit Singapore | Faces of Singapore
- AFAR | Wayang, Chinese Street Opera, Stages a Comeback in Singapore
- Asia News | Singapore facing a ’curry conundrum’
- TODAY | Understanding how Singapore’s youth feel about race and religion
- Foreign Policy | What Singapore's Egg Freezing Debate Says About the City-State
The English name of 'Singapore' is an anglicisation of the native Malay name for the country, Singapura, which was in turn derived from the Sanskrit word for 'lion city'. Leading to the city-state's leonine symbol.
Despite its small size, Singapore has a diversity of languages, religions, and cultures. Previous Prime Ministers of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have stated that Singapore did not fit the traditional description of a nation, labelling it a society-in-transition and pointing out the fact that Singaporeans do not all speak the same language, share the same religion, or have the same customs. Thus, each Singaporean's behaviours and attitudes are influenced by – among other things – their home language and religion. Racial and religious harmony is regarded by Singaporeans as a crucial part of Singapore's success, and played a part in building a Singaporean identity.
After independence, the Government began a deliberate process of crafting a Singaporean identity and culture. Generating emphasis on national symbols, complemented by the national colours of red and white, including: the lion, the merlion (a mythical half lion-half fish creature), and orchid. The national flower of Singapore is the hybrid orchid, Vanda 'Miss Joaquim', named in memory of a Singapore-born Armenian woman, who crossbred the flower in her garden at Tanjong Pagar in 1893. Watch the following video to learn more about the development of Singapore’s national symbols.
Core national concepts are efficiency, face, harmony, Confucianism, discipline, motivation, modesty, and cleanliness. Despite being socially organised to a degree by ethnicity, Singaporeans do not consider entitlement to be inheritable through family or ethnicity. They like to think of their culture as ‘meritocratic’ where people aren’t privileged over others due to their background. It is acknowledged that those who are academically qualified or well-educated loosely constitute an upper class, but status is thought to be merit-based as a result of work ethic.
That being said, Singaporean culture is still hierarchical, with Confucianism imported from China seen as a heavy influence. The Confucian way of thinking puts emphasis on the importance of healthy human interactions by promoting the idea that relationships between people should be unequal with defined hierarchical roles (e.g. ruler and subject, husband and wife, parent and child). It is said that when this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations among individuals and, therefore in society as a whole. Everyone has a role to fill and for superiors, that role is to protect and be compassionate to those subordinate to them.
Confucian concepts can explain, in part, why Singaporeans are so efficient and successful – duty, moderation and work ethic are all emphasised in the Confucian teachings. Many Chinese Singaporeans particularly follow the principle of Li: ‘doing what we are supposed to do’. Confucianism also stresses the importance of age. Singaporeans are expected to give their parents and elders utter respect and devotion under the cultural concept of ‘filial piety’. Its value is akin to reverence of one’s ancestors and means that most social organisation respects an age hierarchy. Filial piety also sometimes involves being unconditionally obedient of seniors.
Harmony is also a guiding philosophy in Singapore. It affects many facets of society, particularly those of family and business. Working in harmony is viewed as the crucial element for productivity; thus, the Singaporeans have a predisposition to be indirect, gentle and courteous – even if they disagree with what you are saying. Consensus is sought over conflict in all aspects of decision-making. Racial Harmony Day is celebrated on the 21st of July each year. For more information on Singaporean culture, such as naming practices and gift giving, see the SBS Cultural Atlas. Then explore the following resources to learn more about Singapore’s national identity.
- AsiaOne | Built to last: This exhibition spotlights Singapore’s awesome national monuments, Lifestyle News
- The Straits Times | Govt to look into easing rules on when S'pore flag can be displayed, artistic use of symbols
- CNA | Five things you didn’t know about these symbols of Singaporean nationhood
- The Straits Times | Forging common national identity is key even as bilingual policy helps people appreciate cultural roots: DPM Heng
- Today | Why do some Singaporeans treat security officers and maids badly?
- Singapore is a small city state, yet it is heavily focusing on sustainable and environmentally friendly development to be integrated among its urban spaces, such as ensuring a nature park or reserve is within a ten-minute walk of any residential location, and the planned introduction and prevalence of electric vehicles. Are there lessons for Australia regarding our involvement in the region and training if these are the environments we might need to work and operate with partners?
- Singapore has many laws regarding social norms and behaviours that might be considered in Australia as excessive governance. However, this assists Singapore to be one of the cleanest, least corrupt and well-regarded countries in the world. How does this impact the preparation of our people to work with the SDF in Singapore and the cultural understanding they must have?
- Singapore is a highly diverse country, being one of the most multi-racial and multi-religious nations globally. It promotes a national value that the nation comes before individuals. How does this promote national unity and assist Singapore with its national security requirements? What lessons are there for Australia in this ‘nation first’ approach?