Asian Perspectives

Singapore Baffled by Brexit

SINGAPORE - JANUARY 01: School Children wave flags during a VIP visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Singapore.
School children wave flags during a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Singapore.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Singapore is an example of how a small country can thrive by being open to the world, but Singaporeans would be the first to say it would be much easier for them to be part of a large free trade area like the European Union.

  • Facts


    • Singapore is the third richest country in the world by per capita GDP, behind Qatar and Luxembourg.
    • The country has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, and a large foreign population.
    • Singapore is an enthusiastic member of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations.
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A small island, with a world class financial center, sense of superiority over its neighbors, that left an existing political and economic union. No, not Britain, but one of its former colonies: Singapore.

Some 10,000 kilometers away from Britain, Singaporeans are watching the debate over whether Britain should leave the European Union with some bafflement. Several people who argue that Britain should leave the European Union have used Singapore as an example of how a small country can thrive alone.

Peter Hargreaves, a British businessman who made his money with financial advisory firm Hargreaves Lansdown, and one of the biggest donors to the Vote Leave campaign in Britain, has said he believes Singapore provides the best business model for Britain outside the European Union.

In an interview with British newspaper, The Guardian, in May, he claimed Singapore is “a bit clinical, but it shows what a small country with limited resources can do.”

Singapore, which is indeed a bit of a clinical place with limited resources, has built itself up to be the third richest country in the world based on GDP per capita, behind Qatar and Luxembourg, But it has done this by striking up strong regional relationships with its neighbors, signing free trade agreements wherever possible, and crucially, accepting immigration. Singapore is tiny, with a population of just 5.6 million – smaller than London. But even within this, non-Singaporean citizens make one around one-quarter of Singapore’s total population, and this figure is set only to rise.

“We like to say we punch above our weight, but we know that it is always better to be part of a strong partnership,” Lional Tan, a Singaporean lawyer, who lived in Britain for six years, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.“ “We have managed to carve a niche for ourselves serving many parties, remaining neutral and relevant in the business ecosystem. But Britain is a very different kind of country.”

Indeed most Singaporeans are bemused at the idea that Britain may want to copy it.

The British essentially created modern Singapore, when they took control of the rather swampy island of Singapura in the Malay peninsula in 1819. Its first governer, Sir Stamford Raffles, built it up as a multi-ethnic city serving a modern trading port. The white colonial Raffles Hotel, serving Singapore Sling cocktails it claims to have created, is still a favorite place for visitors to stop.

It became a major port under British rule, but was always considered part of an administrative block that included what is now Malaysia. When the British began to retreat from the empire, it granted independence in 1963 to the Federation of Malaysia, made up Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore.

But after two years of tensions between Chinese-dominated Singapore and the rest of the Malay-dominated federation, Singapore was ordered to leave Malaysia. Modern Singapore’s founding story begins with tales of how its first prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, wept as he broke the news of Singapore’s expulsion at a press conference.

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