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Even islands aren’t islands

Updated On: Jun 06, 2009

FIFTY years after achieving self-rule, questions remain about how Singapore relates to the world andhow the state relates to citizens. These are not just remnants of history. These questions are emergingbecause of global trends.

How much is a country free to rule itself as compared to universal rules agreed by the globalcommunity? And how can we be Singaporean while also being more and more part of the world?

At junctures of history, Singapore was imagined as different but not as a fully independent unit. Rafflesidentified the island as a site but at first limited it to a “factory”. When the entire island was ceded, it wasdesigned to be different from the Dutch monopoly in the East Indies (now Indonesia), a free port open toall goods and traders.

In 1959, even as the People’s Action Party (PAP) led Singapore into self-rule from the British, theybattled for merger with Malaya. The preferred status was to be part of that Federation, but with a specialstatus.

Singapore has been an island in an archipelago and an island to a peninsula. Now trends are making itan island in the world.

These trends are opening up economies and societies to outside connections and influences. Somemay say Singapore has always been this way. True, our island has never been a hermit kingdom. Butglobalisation has increased dramatically in speed and force, and spread more widely than ever before,for better or worse.

In the early 1990s, Singapore dealt mainly with the United States and developed economies. We had,for example, only just opened up the growth triangle with Malaysia and Indonesia. Speed forward to2009, and witness the growth in trade and investment in China, India and the region around us.This is not just a business trend. It is also a social phenomenon.

I see this when I think of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF), which I helped start up in theearly 1990s to encourage Singaporeans to go global while staying centred. At that time, for example,few schools, polytechnics or universities had exchanges and attachments abroad to expose theirstudents to the West or Asia.

Today, almost every educational institute has put such programmes in place. The National University ofSingapore, where I now teach, has many students from other countries, as well as overseas campusesand exchange universities that Singaporean students can attend.

So many more people are moving in and out of Singapore, whether as citizens, residents or visitors.But the numbers of people moving are only the physical aspect of globalisation, just as the goods andmonies are only the economic markers. Together, they point to a deeper question about globalisation forSingaporeans: The mental and psychological make-up of an island in the world.

When we move into other countries and engage with other peoples, it is too easy to assert that our wayof doing things is better and correct.

After all, Singaporeans are bred to have pride in our achievements,with certain habits and expectations ingrained into us. Singapore hasbeen through decades of nation-building, and we have more incommon as a people than we did before.


Conversely, however, some may look abroad and feel that so many things are better there than here.We are, after all, extolled to be “world class”, and in many cases, this is taken to ape examples fromNew York, London or some other metropolis.

Singapore has been through decades of tutelage as we climbed up from poverty, and we have not fullyappreciated what is unique or best in us.

Thus Singaporeans tend to a certain schism about foreign things and people, and swing from disdain toidolatory. We eagerly accept global economic practices as a condition of connecting with the world. Butwe question mark certain notions of democracy, human rights and personal freedoms as being“Western”.

So how do we celebrate half a century of self-rule? Self-rule originally meant that the Singapore peoplewere internally empowered to decide for ourselves, through our own representatives, free from Britishcolonial rule.

Today, with globalisation, self-rule might come to a more complex meaning.It is not just freedom from outside rules, but also a question of adapting and adopting universal normsand values. Self-rule can also mean making citizens freer to decide things for themselves, without toomuch interference from the government.

A third dimension of self-rule is to make the government and Parliament more representative of a morediverse society. The recent changes in parliamentary system announced by the PAP, which hasgoverned Singapore in these past 50 years of self- rule, are a small nod in this direction.Singaporeans should be freer to select what we think suitable from elsewhere, and better able torecognise what is special and worth keeping here at home. This requires more and more Singaporeansto come to appreciate what is happening outside, not simply as “foreign” news but a kind of mirror thatreflects back on our society and ways.

The old English poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” With globalisation, evenislands are not islands. We may live on an island. But the people of an island in the world cannot beinsular.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the USA.

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