Singapore's journey from 'little red dot' to gateway to Southeast Asia

Few cities or countries can make the statement that they are the continent's financial and trade hub as boldly or as with much justification as Singapore

SINGAPORE - JUNE 08:  The Singapore skyline is seen at sunset on June 8, 2018 in Singapore. The historic meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been scheduled in Singapore for June 12 as a small circle of experts have already been involved in talks towards the landmark summit in the city-state.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It is not only the wide range of trade agreements to which the tiny island state is signed up. Inhabitants of the “little red dot” – an initially disparaging term that has been adopted with pride by Singaporeans – can also point to laurels awarded by an array of international institutions.

They are first in the world for human capital, a measure of the economic worth of a person’s skills, according to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index 2018, and top in Asia for effective government and enforcement of the rule of law, according to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2018. Singapore also placed second in the World’s Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index 2019.

The country’s real strength is that the business of Singapore has always been business, and not only in the past 50 years or so when its speedy development led China to see what lessons it could learn from the state.

Leaders including Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama have sought out the counsel of Singapore’s long-time prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew.

“Raffles did not ‘discover’ Singapore, any more than Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America.

“By the time Raffles arrived in 1819, Singapore already had hundreds of years of history,” said Lee’s son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a speech to mark the bicentenary of Sir Stamford Raffles founding a British trading port on the island in 1819.

He pointed to the existence of a thriving seaport in the 14th century, and how the European traders who arrived in later centuries reported on its strategic location to their masters back home.

This was a historical legacy that had to be turbo-charged when Singapore became independent in 1965.

The country had to look inward and outward to trade with the world.

A former provost of United Arab Emirates University, Wyatt Hume, later observed: “No one has ever done state-guided capitalism better.”

GDP per capita increased from just over $500 (Dh1,836) in 1965 to nearly $58,000 in 2017, and however the figures are measured, Singapore regularly makes lists of the wealthiest countries in the world.

As a small country that punches well above its weight internationally, and with its status as a regional financial and innovation centre with a multicultural population, it is no wonder that Arabian Gulf states have long taken an interest in Singapore’s experience.

Its long-term stability, low levels of corruption, highly skilled workforce and good government continue to earn it a competitive edge.

In geopolitical terms, Singapore has also played an astute game. In 1967, it was one of the founding members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. There have been bumps along the way in relations with China, however – Beijing is said to be unhappy about Singapore’s defence ties with the US. But overall, Singapore will aim to continue to pursue a policy of strategic balance. Its success in doing so means it was chosen as the site for the first summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The country remains a leading partner in the region and beyond, and a natural ally of the UAE thanks to its similar views on stability, moderation and tolerance.