26 October 2016
Barack Obama and Lee Hsien Loong shake hands at a White House arrival ceremony. Photo: White House
Barack Obama and Lee Hsien Loong shake hands at a White House arrival ceremony. Photo: White House

How Singapore became a US anchor in the region

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong got the red-carpet treatment during a state visit to Washington earlier this month.

He was in the US capital to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between Singapore and the United States.

The last time the city state’s leader was in the US was three decades ago.

President Barack Obama hailed the “rock-solid” partnership and described Singapore as an anchor of US presence in the region.

“We stand together for a regional order where every nation, large and small, plays and trades by the same rules,” Obama said.

In turn, Lee said Washington’s rebalancing in Asia underpins the region’s stability.

As early as 2011, Lee Kwan Yew, the prime minister’s father and the nation’s founder, had called on the US “not to give up on Asia” while expressing concern about Beijing’s growing clout.

Throughout the early days of independence, Singapore found itself embroiled in racial, religious and political tensions and facing threats from communists and from its larger neighbors.

In order to survive, Singapore adopted policies that remain the bedrock of its success.

English advantage

Singapore’s first official language is Malay, although English is widely used.

Mandarin is not as widely spoken despite the fact that 75 percent of its nationals are Chinese.

Quite the opposite, schools and big institutions like Nanyang University that used Mandarin as a medium of instruction now use English.

The language policy was aimed at warning off neighboring countries like Malaysia and at thwarting local leftists.

English has also brought Singapore closer to the West in ideology and commerce.

Military engagement

Washington’s presence in the region guarantees Singapore’s peace of mind.

In 1965, when the British army pulled out, US troops filled the vacuum. 

During the Vietnam war, Singapore acted as a vital re-supply port for US troops.

Singapore built a port for US warships and submarines and its airport is also open to US aircraft. These are allowed to call without prior notice.

The Seventh Fleet’s logistics force is based in Singapore.

In 2012, Singapore agreed to a US request to be a staging point for four littoral combat ships at its Changi Naval Base.

Economic ties

The US has substantial investment in Singapore, the latest being a Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine plant.

In recent years, Singapore has been an advocate for the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative.

Singapore is also tapping into China’s rapid growth, making it the second largest foreign investor in the mainland after Hong Kong.

But Singapore does not think Beijing can guarantee its security if Washington were to forsake Asia.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 23. AKIT, a Malaysia-based think tank, contributed to this article. 

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Lee Hsien Loong chats with President Barack Obama at a state banquet in the White House. Photo: White House

In this 2013 file photo, US Vice President Joe Biden inspects a US warship at Singapore’s Changi Naval base. Photo: White House

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