The history of Singapore’s improbable path to becoming an economically powerful city-state.
Perry (Facing West: Americans and the Opening of the Pacific, 1995, etc.), a former professor of maritime history, offers an admiring portrait of Singapore, a tiny island nation that has overcome enormous obstacles in order to wield global influence from its perch on the commercially and strategically vital Melaka Straits. The author’s first item on the agenda is to debunk the myth of “mudflatism,” the idea that “Singapore was entirely a nineteenth-century creation rising from the marshes, virtually nothing.” Those who perpetuate that myth are “unmindful of a past reaching back seven hundred years in all.” Still, Perry acknowledges that Singapore’s founding by the legendary Thomas Stamford Raffles as a British port established the unique constraints that would shape the maritime city-state’s history. Because the island “could boast no resources not readily available elsewhere,” sea-borne trade became Singapore’s lifeline and raison d'être. “By the end of the nineteenth century,” writes the author, “maritime activities and networks defined Singapore’s economic, social, and cultural space.” Perry often takes an outside-in approach, focusing on the foreign powers that played such a dominant role in Singapore’s history. While he is undoubtedly correct that Singapore’s unique circumstances often left it “more acted upon than actor,” his big-picture approach sometimes neglects the lives and contributions of Singaporeans in favor of lengthy discussions on topics such as European rivalries, canal building, and developments in shipping technology. Post-independence, Perry’s narrative focuses more on Singaporean initiative, in particular on the technocratic brilliance of Lee Kuan Yew and his peers among Singapore’s ruling elite. However, the author’s praise for Singapore’s miraculous economic transformation is scarcely tempered by concern over human rights abuses, for example. In his enthusiasm for Singapore’s underdog successes, Perry comes uncomfortably close to triumphalism.
A brief, affectionate history of Singapore that provides a compelling but incomplete and surprisingly discursive portrait of the island nation.