By Crescencia Chay
30 March 2018
Bring up the concept of Singapore’s hinterland during conversation with friends and you will probably be met with bemused glances and a thick, confused silence.
But during the annual NTUSU-organised Ministerial Forum on 27 March, esteemed guest-of-honour and Foreign Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, positioned the idea of a hinterland as the central grounding point in a discussion on foreign policy and free trade.
Urging the audience of students in attendance of the need to be razor-sharp and robust, Dr Balakrishnan thentook the opportunity to ‘take a few steps back’ to probe the topic of a national identity and idealism.
“The first thing that comes to mind, the question you need to ask yourselves, is who are we? What are our ideals?”
The Singapore independence story, while marked by periods of upheaval and strife post-World War II, did not come to be because of a war for independence.
“[Singapore did not have a war for independence], because nobody believed that an island which at that point in time, was just 500-plus square kilometres, with less than two million people, with no natural resources, would be viable.”
For a small, fledgling nation-state with no hinterland, the only viable option at the time was merger with Malaysia.
But the tenuous peace quickly turned into a political disagreement fought along the lines of race, language, and religion.
Amidst the unrest at the time, Singapore held fast to her ideals of a ‘fair and just society’. After independence in 1965, the implications of this became clear.
Emphasising the difficult position Singapore and her leadership was in during the 1960s, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated the catch-22 that awaited the leadership:
“Now I say this so that you all understand that we became a ‘little red dot’ without a hinterland. Not because we thought it was such a great idea, or such a great economic strategy. We lost our hinterland because we fought and stood for an ideal.”
“I want to put this thesis to you: that we exist, and we have no hinterland, because we believed in an ideal.”
Another challenge awaited Singapore – the ‘foundational challenges’ and pragmatic issues of survival: “It’s nice to talk about ideals to mobilise and rouse your people. But after having done so, you have a responsibility for your people. How are you going to live, how are you going to make a living, how are you going to feed our people?
Faced with the constraints of the time, Singapore eschewed the inward-looking trends of import-substitution and xenophobia by choosing capitalism and free trade to become ‘a leading example of a globalised city, before it was fashionable.’
These values behind Singapore’s independence story – a narrative borne out of idealism, pragmatism, and a shrewd anticipation of future trends – is one that is still relevant in today’s tumultuous global landscape.
These are traits also touted by Dr Balakrishnan as skills that Singapore’s youth must adopt to stay afloat in today’s digital revolution. And just as in ‘the human art’ of diplomacy, the Foreign Minister emphasised the need to ‘smile but hold your ground’, explaining the need for Singapore’s youth to be steadfast and unwavering in one’s ideals, but respectful of difference:
“Please believe in something, agitate if need be for what you stand for – but I also want you to understand that in a world of diversity, not everyone will accept your perspective.”
“The most important question for us, then, is ‘how do we live with each other despite our differences?”
“And if we can do this in Singapore, and if we can expand that circle to ASEAN and beyond, then I think the world will be a better place.”