Now Singapore seeks soft power

Tags: Op-ed
Now Singapore seeks soft power
SINGAPORE SLING: In a bid to promote its soft power, Singapore is busy opening museums and galleries. It is already attracting top global universities who are making it a regional hub for their presence in Asia
Singapore is one of the most economically successful countries in the world. The launch into national independence almost 50 years ago was fraught with peril. Then nobody would dare to predict a glorious future for a city state without hinterland, with a weak economy and with serious ethnic and social disturbances. One has to read the memoirs of Singapore’s senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew, “The Singapore Story”, to recall those dangerous days and to understand the difficult and persistent struggle to the top.

The wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew rests in the recognition that Singapore has no other resource than its people and that with a territory of merely 276 square miles the island state can never stand on its own. This destiny is exemplified by the proud story of Singapore Airlines. This airline, which has been repeatedly ranked amongst the world’s best, has no domestic flights and is entirely dependent on international and intercontinental travel. Like Singapore itself, Singapore Airlines knows that it can only survive and thrive if it is better than its competitors.

Early on after independence, Singapore started to develop as a regional service centre, the focus of which ranges from shipping to finance, refineries to tourism. With the spread of globalisation in the financial sector, Singapore became attractive also for banks and insurance companies from the industrialised countries in the west. Of course, it was Hong Kong that was to profit most from the opening up of China, not only because of its geographic proximity but also because of its very strong Chinese identity.

The rise of China and the dawn of the Asian century are the most significant challenges to the dominance of western values that had been the hallmark of the past three centuries. Soft power has been a useful tool to spread western consumption patterns and western ways of life. The Chinese leadership has realised that if its country wants to be a true world power it must project its soft power around the globe. Some years ago, Beijing launched the so-called “Confucius institutes” that are to promote Chinese culture and Chinese language far beyond the shores of the Middle Kingdom. Since some time, Hong Kong makes great efforts to get away from the image of being exclusively a commercial hub. Every year, the city is host to an impressive international cultural festival as well as to an extensive film festival at the entry to the Pearl River delta. Hong Kong is also promoting itself as a city of museums and modern art. It has linked up with the Basel Art Fair and is — after Tokyo — presently Asia’s main centre for art auctions.

Singapore has been observing these developments and is now also embarking on promoting its soft power. In 2015, Singapore will open its National Art Gallery, an ambitious new visual arts museum right in the centre of the city. One of the most emblematic building complexes from colonial times, the City Hall and the former Supreme Court, will house this new museum with which Singapore wants to put itself firmly on the global map of important visual arts venues.

In addition, Singapore has been attracting well-known universities from around the world to open research facilities and contact offices in the city and make it their regional hub for their presence and outreach in Asia. The goal is to participate in the most advanced fields of not only natural science research, but also of architecture, city planning and social sciences. Rightly these fields are seen as important manifestations of soft power.

It is, however, not only the external image about which Singapore is concerned. The city state wants to gain attraction for the numerous well-educated and ambitious young Singaporeans who have left their home to study, work and do research abroad. Many of the most talented people have been complaining that life in Singapore is dull and that the city lacks intellectual stimulation. The Singaporean government knows that to attract these people it is not enough to offer shopping malls and excellent dining facilities, two attractions that have long been on the priority list of foreign tourists.

Soft power has also to do with conceptualising one’s own future. At present, Singapore is a popular destination for investors from mainland China which has led to a rapid increase in the cost of living in the city. Ever more young Singaporeans find themselves crowded out of a real estate market, which is in the advanced stage of a speculative bubble. Naturally, these developments cause resentment and anguish. They are also a challenge to the identity which Singapore sees as desirable.

Finally, when Singapore joined the ranks of independent nations, the region was in turmoil. Between 1963 and 1966, Indonesia and Malaysia fought an undeclared war and subversive movements were active in many parts of southeast Asia. Not too distant from Singapore Indochina was in the throes of the Vietnam War. Today, things are much calmer. However, there is no guarantee that this will continue for all future to come. To prepare for all eventualities Singapore is, therefore, well advised also to strengthen its soft power.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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