Daily Archives: 8 February 2015

Deng Xiaoping in Singapore

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1569-1586:

In the heart of Singapore, along the Singapore River, near to the perfectly engineered design statement that is the Asian Civilizations Museum, stands a diminutive and elegant monument to the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng was arguably among the greatest men of the twentieth century, because he dramatically lifted the living standards of close to a billion people throughout East Asia by introducing a version of capitalism to the Chinese economy. No man in history improved the quality of life for more people in a shorter time than Deng. But Deng elicits mixed feelings in the West. He was a ruthless authoritarian, who was the driving force behind the massacre of perhaps thousands of protesting students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Only in Singapore would he be so openly honored—at so appropriate a measured level, and for the right reasons. “Singapore has raised pragmatism to the level of a philosophy,” explained retired local diplomat Tommy Koh, whose idea it was to erect the monument to Deng. Singapore, he told me, stands against the beauty of ideas in favor of what works.

Standing next to the monument to Deng, I looked out at downtown Singapore: a dull grayish and blue-slate corporate park built on the scale of a megacity, the product of a meticulous mind, with sharp puzzle pieces of skyscrapers all neatly fitting together, maddening in their mathematical logic. At work was the abstract genius of the Chinese, who understand the conceptual utility of empty spaces; as opposed to the Indianized Malay mind, which is more at home in the world of thickly colored and deliciously cluttered textiles, with their floral and cartouche patterns (as evidenced by the displays in the nearby museum). But to call Singapore cold and impersonal is too easy a judgment. For everywhere there is civilizing greenery, starting with the dazzling bougainvillea bushes that line the road from the airport. Singapore is the only place in the Indo-Pacific, other than Japan, where traffic stops voluntarily for pedestrians.

At the end of history there is somnolence: that is the lesson of Singapore. Pragmatism carried to the furthest degree may not inspire the Western humanist mind, but it has been the only way for Singapore to survive as a physical speck of a city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, whose location is coveted by the great powers. Singapore’s inner logic follows from its geographical vulnerability.

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Filed under China, economics, nationalism, philosophy, Southeast Asia, U.S.

Singapore’s Formidable Military

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1619-1641:

Singapore’s independence began less with a declaration of such than with the building of a formidable military. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million. “Like the Israelis, the Singaporeans believe in air superiority. They pay their pilots well. They have AWACS,” a defense official from a neighboring country told me. In addition to its one hundred or so fighter jets, Singapore has twenty missile-carrying ships, six frigates, and, notably, six submarines—an extraordinary number given that far more populous countries in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam each have fewer. “Nobody can squeeze us through a blockade.”

It is not enough that Singapore has these air and sea platforms. For it is deadly serious about using them effectively. Because Singapore lacks empty space for military training, it regularly has four air squadrons training in the United States, ground troops training in Taiwan, and helicopter crews training in Australia. It allots sixty-five days a year for army maneuvers with leopard tanks. “We will not be hemmed in by our neighbors.” Too, Singapore has a conscript military. Said the same defense official: “There are only three developed countries in the world that are very serious about national service—South Korea, Israel, and us.” But the vast latent power of China still unsettles the Singaporeans, so much so that they feel they have no choice but to rely directly on the United States. As another diplomat told me: “We see American hard power as benign. The U.S. Navy defends globalization by protecting the sea lanes, which we, more than any other people, benefit from. To us, there is nothing dark or conspiratorial about the United States and its vast security apparatus.”

In 1998, the Singaporeans built Changi Naval Base solely to host American nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. “We designed the piers to meet the dimensions of American warships,” a high-ranking military man here told me, in order to lure American naval platforms to Singaporean waters. “It’s kind of like, if you serve good coffee and tea, people will come.” Indeed, in 2011 there were 150 American warship visits to Singapore. Then there were the three American littoral combat ships that, it was announced in 2011, would be stationed in Singapore.

Finally, beyond military might, there is the power of diplomacy. Singapore externalizes its security not only through the American navy and air force, but through an alliance like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is about “socializing other states to a set of core values.” Those core values revolve around the independence of small and medium-sized states banding together in the face of a rising great power like China, even though no diplomat in the region will ever say that on the record.

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Filed under Australia, China, military, nationalism, Southeast Asia, U.S.