Singapore and its relations with a new South-east Asia

21 October, 2019

In an editorial in The Straits Times, University Professor Wang Gungwu (NUS Department of History) discusses the historical Singapore psyche, which encompasses feelings of separation from its Malay hinterland and connection to the more distant China, and suggests that a rethinking is needed to facilitate the strengthening of Singapore’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The story of Singapore’s independence, through its separation from Malaysia in 1965, is only one of the many instances where Singapore’s relationships with its neighbouring Malay states had felt uncomfortable. British colonial presence, established in 1819, had essentially separated Singapore from the larger Malay world controlled by the Dutch. After the 1850s, Singapore’s increasing links to the China trade and its reliance on its Chinese population to improve its relations with China did little to foster closer relations with nearby Malay states. Further divisions between Malays and Chinese arose during the Japanese occupation as the Japanese sought the trust of Malay-Indonesian world while viewing the Chinese as the enemy.

Prof Wang writes that the generations of people in Singapore who lived through these experiences embraced the idea of being connected to the distant and separate from the near. By 1965, Singapore had internalised the objective of building a global city and doing so required “leapfrogging” the Southeast Asian region to reach world markets.

However, Prof Wang remarks that now, Singapore has to rebuild connections with its ASEAN neighbours to enable ASEAN to deal with the rivalries involving new great powers. Such a move would require a revision of Singapore’s separations and connections to its region and beyond.

Read the article here.