Notes From an Even Smaller Island

Singapore Athletes
Team Singapore at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow by Kua Chee Siong [Source]


A Brief History of Singapore


The circumstances of Singapore’s sudden independence forty nine years ago are worlds different from those facing Scotland now. Years of colonial rule by Britain, starting in the early 1800s, was interupted by Japanese occupation during the second world war but in 1945 the British were back in control. 1955 saw Singapore demanding full soverignty from the UK, but they were politely declined, instead more powers were ceded and by 1959 it had become a self governing state controlling all internal matters, somewhat like the Devo Max Scotland can’t have, leaving only defence and foreign policy remained under the rule of the British Crown.


There were two further hops to be made before full independence which in fact was never a stated goal of the ruling People’s Action Party; as a small island with no natural resources, a major industry of rubber production and only its fortuitous place on the world’s shipping lanes as a major asset, Singapore felt like a small boat in a very big ocean with much stronger powers and forces threatening her on all sides. The fear of potential oppression or adverse influence by stronger neighbours remains a feature of the Singaporean outlook to this day. The next step in 1963 was to sever itself from the United Kingdom, not for independence but to join the Federation of Malaysia.


The relationship with the federal government in Kuala Lumpur was fractuous from the start. Article 153 of the constitution, which remains highly contentious to this day, guaranteed extra rights to some groups of ethnic Malay’s. Although intended to protect and develop a vulnerable community, it effectively institutionalised discrimination against other races including those from a Chinese background which make up a majority in Singapore. Singapore’s efforts to change this and aim for a more inclusive Malaysian Malaysia, as opposed to a Malay one. This and other reforms were roundly rejected by the federal government who also feared the growing influence of Singapore with its expanding economy creating a source of wealth for the federation but also a threat to the primacy of Kuala Lumpur.


Just two years later, on 9 August 1965, Singapore made the last step to independence when it was ejected from the Federation and formed an independent sovereign state, adrift from colonial and federal powers alike and trusting only to the bonds of relationship as a commonwealth member and her own tenacity to make her way in the world.


Wee Red Dot


Singapore is just a wee red dot on the map; it has about the same total land area as Glasgow, Edinburgh plus a narrow column around the M8 in between but with 5.3 million people, the population size is much the same as Scotland. Even before independence, it had the third highest GDP in South East Asia but in the nearly fifty years since independence it has become the third richest nation (by GDP per capita) in the world with enormous monetary reserves and no sign of slowing down anytime soon.


That has not been a journey without uncertainties or problems. The currency used by Singapore was at first a formal union with Malaysia remaining from their membership of the federation. This broke down not long after independence leading to an informal union which was in place for many years after. In the mid seventies it switched to pegging its currency to the British Pound and then slowly transitioned over the following decade to pegging it against a weighted basket of goods. Today the currency is still pegged to an undisclosed basket of goods and is fully backed by her foreign reserves. None of these transitions caused little Singapore to sink beneath the waves – currency is just a way of measuring wealth, it is not wealth in and of itself.


Of course there were fears that Singapore would land outside of all sorts of other economic and political systems and be rendered a sort of pariah on the edges of true national legitimacy. No such thing happened, it maintained membership of the commonwealth, joined the United Nations within a month and helped found the ASEAN group of nations within two years as part of its drive to improve economic and political relations across the region.


Wee Blue Dod


The history and circumstances were very different, but the parallels for Scotland are there to be seen. Rather than being ejected from wider political communities, we should look to become leaders in Europe. Rather than being scared about the exact nature of our currency, we should look to our people and our wealth not the stick with which it is measured. Rather than fearing the great unknown, we can be confident that the problems we’ll innevitably have to face out on our own can be overcome and leave us stronger.


We’d be starting from a much stronger position than Singapore ever did, the ocean’s just as big but we can trust our wee boat to weather any storm. I look forward to being the son of one and resident of another country, both of whom can compete for the title of “best wee country in the world”.



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