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Singapore in Transition: Changing City-State in 2010s

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Singapore in Transition: Changing City-State in 2010s


Publication date

January 2021



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About this book

About this book

Singapore is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, enabled by a unique system based on authoritarianism and developmental dictatorship. This book examines the limits that Singapore confronts in the 21st century, and the transformation of the national-social model of the 2010s at the heart of the "transition," and presents a view of the city-state as it moves towards the future.




Chapter 1 Limits of the "Lee Kuan Yew model"


Chapter 2 The transition of 2011 and the demise of the "Lee Kuan Yew model"


Chapter 3 Inside the rise of the Fourth Generation


Chapter 4 The direction of economic structural reforms


Chapter 5 Destabilized foreign relations due to an intensified U.S–China rivalry


Chapter 6 A complicated regional environment


Conclusion Singapore’s future






The Republic of Singapore is a city-state on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. An island nation with an area a bit larger than the 23 wards of Tokyo, it has a total population of approximately 5.69 million people (mid-2020). Despite this, the per capita GDP is about USD 65,000 (2019), which greatly exceeds that of Japan.

The small nation of Singapore is known by many Japanese for its business and tourism.

Long an area of strategic importance for trade, since its founding Singapore has served as an economic center connecting the world to regional markets and has consolidated its position as a base for R&D and manufacturing focused on active economic development, particularly futuristic and advanced innovative industries in recent years. In addition to its lively economic activity, the city itself boasts a wide range of attractions. So abundantly green as to be called a "garden city", it is also one of the safest places in the world. Its tourism facilities include the massive rooftop pool at one of its casino hotels and the colonial-style Raffles Hotel. It boasts unique local cuisine such as chicken rice and laksa, and abounds with rich Peranakan culture, a mix of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indonesian heritage. All of these combine to leave visitors with a particularly strong impression of Singapore.

However, this city-state has "realities" that few foreign visitors experience directly. For example, strict rules and fines as well as strong limitations on politics, human rights, and freedom of speech and expression. The suburbs, where 80% of the population lives, are a landscape of inhuman public housing (HDB flats), which stretches far into the distance. There is fierce educational competition and elitism from childhood. This type of managed and regulated social-national living is a topic of discussion in Japan as well. However, the historical context that created this Singapore is not well understood.

The term "bright North Korea" is sometimes used to describe Singapore, based on what is effectively a one-party system dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP), the relentless politics of founding father and former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and the patrimony extended to his eldest son, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

However, one must understand the origin of the circumstances that led to this. At the same time, the national and social conditions change constantly with the current of the times. Thinking about it in this way, the Singapore referred to as a "bright North Korea" also has its origins, so isn’t this changing along with it?

In fact, the change has already begun. The Singapore of the last 10 years or so has witnessed the emergence of many new – although moderate – movements. Singapore has shaken free of the former "Lee Kuan Yew model" in search of a new model designed for national survival in the new era.

For example, on the political front, despite modest gains, the opposition party has had a presence in Parliament since the 2011 election. Meanwhile, the ruling PAP has been systematically planning their transition to a new generation of leaders, many in their 40s (collectively referred to as the Fourth Generation), who are actively pursuing a transfer of authority. As a result, they have informally decided that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the leader of the Fourth Generation, will be the next prime minister. This is also evidence that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself is indeed moving Singapore away from the influence and patrimony of the Lee family.

On the social front, to the extent that political and social stability is an absolute necessity for the state to exist in a society with multiple ethnicities and religions, social freedoms are still limited and many restrictions remain. Despite this, actively sharing information and expressing views through social media have become part of people’s daily lives. In this context, the government has had no choice but to seriously consider public trends and opinions in a way it did not in the past, forcing it to improve the redistribution of social security to the people.

It is not only politics and society that are changing. For example, in terms of the economy, rather than a simple recipient of foreign capital investment as in the past, Singapore is strategically amassing a range of high-value added and emerging new industries of the highest global standard, which are drawn to the city-state’s speedy, flexible, receptive, and experimental system. Furthermore, the synergistic effects of organically linking these industries to create new industries are entirely by design. Thus, economic structural reforms are constantly being undertaken to develop Singapore into the future in a sustained way.

On the diplomatic front, even though Singapore in principle has long prioritized an all-around balanced diplomacy while relying on a U.S.-centric security framework in the Asia Pacific, more situations are arising of late in which Singapore is struggling to strike a balance with the rapid rise of China, which is ramping up pressure. Meanwhile, at home and abroad, it is compelled to respond to non-traditional national security threats such as terrorist and cyber-attacks.

As described above, rather than continue with the tried-and-true "Lee Kuan Yew model," Singapore is strategically transitioning to a new model in order to adapt to the constantly and rapidly changing environment of the 21st century.

This is an urgent "act of survival" precisely because it is a city-state. This book describes how the state of Singapore confronts the limits of its origins and history and—under pressure to change—has been tracing a path to the future throughout the 2010s in an effort to transition yet continuing to search. I sincerely hope that this book serves as an impetus for readers to better understand and gain a deeper familiarity with the "present progressive tense" of Singapore.


November 2020