An Island Unto Itself: Singapore’s Contentious Relationship with its Geography

Yu Xuan Chia - Singapore

Singapore is frequently praised for overcoming a lack of natural resources—but what do we miss with such a simplistic storyline? For a more nuanced view, I sat down with Professor Derek Heng, an Associate Professor of History at Yale-NUS College who specialises in the trans-regional history (pre-modern) of Maritime Asia. A Singaporean by birth, he also maintains a keen interest in the historiography of Singapore’s past and the internationalisation of Singapore’s history.

What do you see as the major elements of the Singapore narrative as it stands now?

Obviously, the first one is no natural resources. And so because of that, manpower, at least the way the narrative goes, is the resource that you can actually develop. And not just any resource, I think, but increasingly a very selectively high value-added resource. It is also a resource that could, in principle, be a very elastic supply if you are able to manage it politically—because then you can encourage certain types of inward migratory flow, through managing the length of validity of PR status, for example. And I think that has been done to tremendous finesse. Obviously, it has all sorts of political implications. But just from a sort of economic resource point of view, that’s one of the things that’s happening.

We’ve always been an immigrant city and have brought people in. If you look at the history of this region over the last one thousand years, that is consistently true, because it’s not a region like Java or Cambodia that has large agrarian bases where you can grow huge numbers of population bases. So that’s always been the historical pattern. The big difference, of course, comes the moment you put in a nation-state calculus and nationalism into the whole thing. Before that, you never had to deal with those issues. But with all the challenges that come along with nationalism and the building of nation-state, the integrity of the nation-state becomes very important, and that is not something that you can just think about from an economic point of view.

In the context of that narrative—lack of resources, importing people, and being an immigrant city—how do you study its formation?

I look at some of the broader patterns of economic resources and how they are surmounted. In the distant past, part of those challenges were actually surmounted by having access to and relationships with groups that inhabited the inland areas of the coastal parts of Southeast Asia. Those relationships allowed you to tap into the natural resources that were available in these places, and Southeast Asia is very rich in natural resources. But coastal societies don’t often have the ability to tap into these things directly because they don’t have the manpower, nor necessarily the knowledge to harvest them. So instead, these societies need to rely on groups that live in these environments in order to actually gain access to these products. So it’s not that there are no resources, it’s just that they are not directly available. And so the need to develop networks in order to tap into these resources becomes very, very important.

However in contemporary times, while it is true that Singapore does not have any resources, it does have the largest natural gas processing plants in Asia. It has, if I’m not wrong, the 3rd largest storage bunkers for natural gas and crude oil. We have established international flows of crude oil and liquefied natural gas to Singapore, which are then deposited and processed here before being shipped out as different types of petroleum-based products. So what you do have, actually, is a very large resource base that is based on fossil fuels. It’s true that you don’t produce them because they’re not in your ground, but by being one of the most important centres for storage and processing of these things, you immediately have these resources directly under your jurisdiction. Part of that is obviously a diplomatic strategy. If you ever got to a point where such supplies are cut off, you actually have the equivalent of what is sufficient to run for about 2-3 months.

That brings to mind Singapore’s insistence on being a proponent of international law in order to maintain its place in the world, because it is built on those kinds of relationships.

Yes, and that is true in the first instance, right? You want to make sure that the rule of law internationally protects you and your sovereignty, and your ability to engage in the international world and the economy outside of Singapore, because it really is necessary. But there’s always the Plan B, and the Plan B is to create vested interest in Singapore to the extent that it only makes sense for the major players to ensure that the rule of law is upheld internationally. And so building these storage capacities just offshore, with these islands going down about 300 metres deep into the bedrock, holding huge storage facilities ensure that strategy’s feasibility. So if two or three of the largest oil companies in the world, for example, Shell and ExxonMobil, use these facilities to the full extent, you basically then oblige everybody to observe the rules of the game. And of course you have Plan C: if all else fails, these resources are here. It’s not as if ships could just come and take everything away. It’s a multi-pronged approach to ensuring that resources are effectively present, even though the rhetoric and “reality” is that we don’t have any.

And that’s deliberately not communicated to people?

Yes.

In light of that, how do you see the rhetoric of a lack of resources being maintained?

At least in my view, the rhetoric that is out there for public consumption really exists to motivate the population to continue to accept the notion that you cannot rest, and that you have to constantly improve, and that these are the only ways you can do it because you have to run doubly hard or just stay exactly where you are, and those sorts of things on and on.  

Everybody knows, if you’ve read the newspapers in the last 10 years, that we have those facilities. But why exactly we have those facilities from a strategic point of view is usually not discussed. Now that does not mean that anybody who actually understands energy security will not see it for what it is. So it’s interesting that you don’t actually have to articulate these arguments and that the correct audience that would choose or need to see certain things will actually see it.

The bunkers for liquefied natural gas issue were only built in the last 10 years. About 15 to 20 years ago – nobody really knows, the information is not freely available – , when Singapore had been relying on Indonesia for natural gas to run its power plants, there was an incident. For some reason, a valve exploded, not in Singapore but over on the other side, and the gas supply in Singapore was shut off. I remember that very, very well because it happened at about 8 o’clock in the night and about a third of the island was plunged into darkness. It took quite a number of hours before power was restored. I know that the armed force, the air defence, the so-called main missile defence of Singapore went on high alert, because that would’ve been the perfect scenario if anybody… I don’t think anybody would’ve been so stupid to do that… but all these things kick in anyways. And it’s really immediately after that that you actually had these storage bunkers being built.

That’s quite a unique vulnerability.

Exactly. And we always used to talk about that from the perspective of water. It’s always been, always been an issue, in terms of the supply of water from Malaysia. Which is also the reason why, about twenty years ago, the Singapore government pumped a huge amount of money into R&D for industrial scale reverse osmosis systems. If you look at it today, the top three companies in the world, producers or manufacturers of reverse osmosis systems, are designed for countries – so these are big systems, not your little thing. The real money is in building plants that recapture huge amounts of water, particularly in places in deserts like in Saudi Arabia. Those three companies are actually Singapore-based companies. So, it’s become an economic resource that is exportable, but that has come out from a strategic imperative.

So they export that technology? To what extent does it exist in Singapore as a source of water?

At least 30% of the water supply in Singapore now is our old water – everything from water that you recycle after you’ve used, to clean water that is extracted from seawater. That’s what we’re looking at right now. A few years ago, it was actually announced in parliament as part of the debate – obviously they knew that the news would get out and that’s why they said it then – that Singapore is now effectively self-sufficient in terms of its water needs. We don’t really need the Malaysians anymore. That’s a tremendous about-turn, because it used to be the case that we had to press for the legal right to have water, and that we would sue the Malaysian government at the Hague if they ever reneged on their agreements. But the agreements don’t last forever — one has lapsed already and another goes out in 2065. We still insist on collecting water from them because of the legal issue that we had an agreement. But the reality is that a good five years or so ago, the announcement was made in parliament that we are effectively self-sufficient when it comes to water. And for a country that, prior to that, has only been able to supply about 20-30% of its own water needs, that is a development of an economic resource that previously was not there.

How has that impacted Singapore’s relationships with its neighbours? Do you think it’s impacted Singaporeans’ perception of how they must relate to their neighbours?

I don’t know if that actually changes the way people look at their relations with Malaysia, or with Malaysians, partly because in terms of the national rhetoric we are not like places like China where politically the government ramps it all up and gets everybody upset for whatever political reasons; it’s actually quite mild up here. But from a state-to-state relationship perspective, it’s changed a lot. Take, for example, the railway lines and railway lands that formerly were under the management and ownership of Malaysia. It’s a railway line that comes down from Johor, cuts through Woodlands and ends at a train station down near VivoCity. That train station was managed by the Malaysians. The land that it sits on and the railway lines all the way up to Johor belonged to the Malaysians – it was a legal title that the British ceded to the Malaysian railway company. For the longest time, the Singapore government asked for that land back and was willing to pay, but never managed to get anywhere. And it was only in the last ten years that negotiation became successful. We had to pay a lot of money for it, it cost something like 4 billion dollars, or some ridiculous amount of money, and a lot of other commercial incentives. But I think the reason why that became feasible was because there was very little on the Malaysian side to lock Singapore into a disadvantageous position from a negotiation point of view.

We were also very fortunate. In 1963, when Singapore was given independence by the British, it was given independence as part of Malaysia. The plan was actually to create a common market across the whole of Malaysia, so that Singapore businesses could capitalise on the natural resources of Malaysia and continue to grow their businesses linked to the Malay Peninsula. On the Malaysian side, the Finance Minister at that time – who happened to be a cousin of the Finance Minister of Singapore at that point in time too, but they never got along – refused to create that common market. So in 1965, Singapore left without a common market with Malaysia and, in hindsight, that actually worked out really well. If we had a common market that intricately tied our economy to a bad hinterland and political fortunes that turned out the way that they did, I think we would probably not have survived politically. So it’s interesting – you can actually create the notion of an economic resource, when previously we always thought of it as a finite box of a range of things.

Singapore has essentially engineered its resources.

Not everything, of course, but there are many things that you can do with applied science that allow you to create natural resources or at least industrial resources which you wouldn’t have been able to do even just 30, 40 or 50 years ago.

My perspective as a foreigner always comes into play here because I’m aware that I only know so much, which indicates to me the things that are most talked about. So the fact that I don’t know anything about natural resources like those in Singapore is interesting. I was reading that another way it could have been spun is that being a port city is in and of itself a resource—but that’s never been something that’s been discussed. So, where do you see these ideas influencing society? Do we see them outside of political rhetoric for Singaporeans?

The short answer is no. And I think the reason for that is because, as a society, we don’t talk about it in positive ways; the rhetoric is always veering towards the negative and the imperative. You have a whole set of issues, but you can either look at it as a challenge or you can look at it as a problem. And I think instinctively it’s always seen as a problem, so we always try to solve the problem, as opposed to saying, “Hey, this is a challenge that we can actually try to handle,” and seeing the opportunities that can come out of that. So the reality is in many ways a lot more positive than the rhetoric ever sort of indicates. But because the rhetoric tends to be veering towards the negative, you don’t really think about it in those positive ways until the powers that be decide it might be a good idea for them to mention some of these things — and then it gets taken as propaganda. So the challenges for trying to articulate the rhetoric for these sorts of things in a positive spin are unfortunately also quite significant because for the longest time we’ve talked about it in a particular way, and then if suddenly we had to think about it in a completely different way, it raises a lot of suspicions among the population. This is very unfortunate. So why we’ve tried very hard to write scholarship, and particularly scholarship that is accessible at the lower level the way that we did, is because I think there’s a need to recognise some of these opportunities that have come from being able to surmount certain challenges that we used to assume were economically fixed and finite but that actually are not. And of course one of the things that came out of that – particularly I think of a book that we wrote on the history of Singapore which had a couple of chapters at the end on Singapore in the post-1965 era –the one criticism was that we were trying to push propaganda, which was really interesting.

Since you’re the scholars and not the government.

Yes, and I don’t think we even mentioned LKY more than twice – and in half-sentences. So that’s very interesting, I think, from a social point of view.

And education comes into the picture, especially with your discipline as a historian as opposed to, say, a political scientist, because you’re very much looking at how do we approach history, how do we retell history, to teach people what their history is.

Right. It’s a long process. So when I read things like that, I don’t get upset and think “why don’t they get it?” At the end of the day, if you’re trying to change mindsets, it’s going to take a while. So because of that, we’re just plugging along and trying to draw attention to some of the longer-term recurring and repeating patterns of history because of the nature of our geographical location, for example. And at the same time, we’re highlighting some of the major points of ingenuity that have allowed us to break away from these larger historical patterns that have been, as it were, determined by fixed factors like geography.

The one thing for which I’m still at least somewhat of a self-sceptic is that we know our own more recent history, as with any society, much more intimately and in greater detail than any other period in history. And I sometimes wonder what was the nature of the ingenuity to break out of these constraints of geography – the absence of resources immediately at hand, the absence of agrarian land, the absence of a large population base, and so on and so forth. Some of these challenges have clearly been around for a very long time and must have bugged whoever was in charge for a long time. And we just don’t have any materials to work with to try to be able to ascertain or even elucidate what were some of the adaptive strategies that they may have developed, say, 700 years ago in Singapore, in order to surmount some of these major challenges. The other thing, of course, is the fact that city-states don’t last very long. In the case of an island in Southeast Asia, maybe about 200 years at the very most is the maximum lifespan of any major settlement. That’s depressing. We are still in the first half of the trajectory. It makes you wonder where the limits are and how the fixed finite factors will weigh back in, right?

Where that balances with the ability to design your way out of the challenges?

Exactly. And you could do that to some extent in the beginning, but eventually, all these sorts of challenges are inevitable. I can think of one very simple one. All it takes is for the world temperature to go up by three degrees and that’s the end of it. It doesn’t matter what you do.

So I think one could argue for all these great things that we can do, but there is still that at the end at the back of my mind. I wonder what it’ll be like. How much are we really able to surmount these in the long-term as opposed to in the very short-term?