First World Nation, Third World Anxieties

Not along ago, I observed a group of Singaporeans excitedly debate whether a certain urban legend might be true. The legend: hidden in an underground bunker, the Singaporean government carefully maintains a large stash of weapons (indeed, enough to arm every man, woman, and child on the island within a matter of hours). These are kept on hand, the legend says, in case of invasion from Malaysia or Indonesia.

This is funny on several fronts. It suggests that the ruling government is subject to a kind of mad paranoia or obsession. Quickly arming an entire populace — at least half of which have never touched a firearm before — is a zany idea. And it’s one that only someone deeply (and probably irrationally) concerned with an invasion would implement.

But the urban legend gestures at a truth, and one worth reflecting on.

Singapore has come a long way. Just sixty years ago, Singapore was — the standard story goes — a sleepy fishing village that happened to host a historically important (but more or less sleepy) port. Now, Singapore is unquestionably one of the most developed nations in the world: wealthy, diverse, and cosmopolitan. Most wealthy, diverse, cosmopolitan, and highly-developed nations do not worry much about existential threats. But underneath Singapore’s shiny First World exterior, there are a host of Third World anxieties clustering around the threat of annihilation (or annexation, or invasion, or…). Consider:

  • Singapore is a young secular state populated mostly by ethnically Chinese people, flanked by Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim states populated mostly be ethnically Malay and Javanese people.
  • Singapore is overwhelmingly outmanned by its neighbors (5.3 million people in Singapore, compared to 29.2 million in Malaysia and 246.9 million in Indonesia).
  • There is virtually no agriculture on the island. Accordingly, for most of its history, Singapore has relied on Malaysia and Indonesia for most of its bare necessities —  food and water.
  • Worse, relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are often strained. Singapore feels bullied by its larger neighbors, and they feel snubbed by the tiny but rich city state that doesn’t even have the courtesy to speak a local language (neither Mandarin nor English, the dominant languages of Singapore, are native to Southeast Asia).
  • Should Malaysia and Indonesia integrate (an unlikely event, but not wholly off the radar), Singapore would be entirely at the mercy of that (comparatively) large and powerful Islamic state

These factors alone are enough to foster some real anxiety. Now add to the mix this historical context: more than once in its short history, Singapore has approached the brink of non-existence. In those early decades, things were touch-and-go. It wasn’t always obvious that Singapore would thrive or even survive. Older Singaporeans know this. They feel it in their bones. They remember what it was like when the island was ruled by gangs and loan sharks. They remember the dismay they felt when Singapore was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation and, more or less against its will, forced to become an independent city-state. They remember that sense that the brink of national disaster wasn’t too far off. And seeing the meteoric rise of Singapore’s economic fate only inspires in them a deep conviction that these matters are contingent and capricious; if a country can rise in a few decades, surely it can fall in that time too.

My hypothesis, then, is that anxieties in this neighborhood run fairly deep in Singapore. Existential threats and the like are present in the minds of Singaporeans. They are not endorsed in public, of course (that’s not how anxieties work). But they are nonetheless operative in both individual and collective action. There’s a vague sense of unease and vulnerability, especially amongst folks who were around for Singapore’s birth and early history.

In a previous post, I suggested that Singapore’s success is not explained by the industry of ethnically Chinese people. Rather, it’s a particular view about the value of work and what outcomes one can expect from hard labor (viz., good ones!) that prevails in Singapore. And these views about work and its consequences don’t operate in a vacuum. They combine potently with the anxieties I’ve outlined here, I think, to create an environment particularly conducive to development. Singaporeans (especially the older ones) are gifted both with a deep disposition to value labor and with a deep sense that a national disaster isn’t that far off the radar. No surprise, then, that so many Singaporeans place such a premium on economic development. One of the more obvious ways to acquire stability and peace is to buy them, after all — and that is, more or less, what Singapore has done.

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