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City, State and More: Singapore’s Experiment in Contemporary Sovereignty
Barry Scott Zellen, 4/1/2012

Early this winter, I met with Singapore’s Peter Ho, who long served as head of Singapore’s civil service before retiring last year and who is one of the city-state’s most eloquent and influential intellectual architects. Our meeting came about as part of my new research project on the endurance and evolution of sovereign cities across history, culminating in Singapore’s extraordinary experiment in contemporary sovereignty - modernizing one of mankind's most ancient of sovereign forms and in so doing helping to redefine what sovereignty means in the contemporary world. 

My interest in sovereign cities and the vision required to catapult an urban entity into the exclusive club of sovereign states, complete with standing army, national treasury and UN seat, is in part academic, the current phase in a long theoretical and historical journey called the States of Mind project that explores the roots of sovereignty and the evolutionary journey of the state from classical times to the nuclear age. And it’s part personal: in January, I relocated to Singapore, and while my stay here is finite, it is for the moment the place that I call home, increasing my curiosity about what makes this place tick.

And just as I arrived, my newest book to emanate from the States of Mind project was approved and quickly moved into production for a June release. Its the sixth volume thus far from this project to head to press, and its working title while in development was State of Complexity, a post-Cold War analysis of sovereignty in the complicated and messy world that emerged after the sudden collapse of that era’s bipolar international structure. Renamed The Art of War in an Asymmetric World, it examines the strategic, doctrinal and theoretical response to several neotribal movements that erupted after the Cold War ended but which, particularly since 9/11, have been overshadowed by the global jihad, which is really just one variant of an ongoing anticolonial struggle against western power that has been festering for generations. Along the way, the battle between tribe and state (or the alliance of tribe and state against other tribes) became virtualized and globalized, migrating from the physical battlefield onto the new network-connected informational battle space.

The cyber realm is an intriguing battlespace, since it helps equalize asymmetrical opponents and enables smart-power and innovation-capacity to emerge as viable counterweights to traditional hard-power assets. Early analysts of netwar believed the leveling effect largely favored the offensive, such as the indigenous Zapatistas in their armed rebellion against the Mexican state (and its embrace of a globalized economy). But the state proved a quick study, whether the Mexicans in their protracted struggle against the rebels in Chiapas, or later the Americans in their protracted struggle against the jihadists in Iraq: information operations in the cyber realm would ultimately provide the modern state with new, and for the large part successful, defensive tools in its continuing fight against the many neotribal movements that emerged since the Cold War’s end to challenge state power, and would further enable it to reclaim information dominance with a cyber-counteroffensive upon the opponent's culmination. 

As these re-emergent tribal forces, whose long-suppressed but nonetheless potent centrifugal forces were unlocked with the collapse of bipolarity in world politics, collided with modern armies in their asymmetrical, and increasingly global, civilizational clash against the West, modern armies were forced to quickly adapt to the new, networked landscape of modern war, as the center of gravity shifted from kinetic operations on the battlefield to this new virtual cyber domain. It was no coincidence that one of the very first post-cold war rebellions, that of the indigenous Zapatistas against the modern Mexican state, was both an indigenous tribal rebellion and a contemporary netwar, or that it was launched on the very day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, marking the formal economic integration of Mexico with the wider North American economy, but jeopardizing traditional indigenous land use as globalization spread to Mexico's hinterland.

What became clear as the post-Cold War era commenced -- and well before 9/11 shifted our attention to the Islamist threat -- was that sovereignty itself was in flux, with new threats emerging from a complex, substate stratum of world politics that appeared to be aligned around indigenous, often tribal, sovereign yearnings and which suggested a re-emergence (or at least the reawakened recognition) of the tribe as a fundamental building block of world order.

Sovereignty 2.0: The Next Phase

Upon arrival in the highly digitized city-state of Singapore, I was just starting to wonder if my prior theoretical work had perhaps focused too much on tribalism in the modern world, which may have defined the underlying fault line of our last great struggle but which might have much less to do with our next one. Realizing my attention to the primordial tribal underpinnings of world politics may have come at the expense of those more modern, and finding myself settling into life in one of the world’s few remaining (and by so many measures, most successful) city-states, I decided that the next phase of my project should examine these enduring diminutive sovereign structures, and how it came to be that this most contemporary of cities has embraced what is one of mankind’s most ancient forms of sovereign expression, the sovereign city.

Whether we think of it as a market state, a corporate state, a virtual state, or as many view Singapore today, an innovation state, Singapore presents us with a compelling sovereign model -- pioneering a more contemporary path to sovereignty than the many neotribal and neomedieval movements that would define the primary battlegrounds of the early post-Cold era and the Global War on Terror. Embracing the sovereign city as model reflects an intriguingly circular historical journey, one that restores political sovereignty to what we may think of as its very first form, the polis.

Despite its historical tendency toward fratricide and hubris, the polis has demonstrated remarkable - and, until Napoleon’s strategic revolution, largely unequaled - strength, as revealed at the Battle of Thermopylae, and again during the remarkable strategic withdrawal from Persia of “the 10,000” under Xenophon’s firm command, and even during Alexander’s lightning fast conquest of the Persian Empire a generation later - fueled in part by Aristotle’s philosophical vision (just revenge, perhaps, for the death of Socrates), and in part by the offensive deployment of the very same phalanx formation that had defended Greece so ably, and which had similarly protected the withdrawing Greek mercenary army from vastly superior Persian forces during Xenophon’s anabasis.

Applied offensively, Eurasia would witness a proliferation of Alexandria's, urban seeds that would, in essence, Hellenize the continent even after Alexander's own untimely death, and pave the way for the Leviathan of city-states, Rome, to erect an enduring global order. Singapore, as a modern-day re-articulation of the undiminished spirit of the polis might indeed present us with a compelling template for the future evolution of sovereignty. At the very least it will teach us about the very fundamental underpinnings of sovereignty in today’s world, and how best to understand and re-calibrate contemporary metrics of power with full appreciation of not just hard and soft power, but smart power as well.

And so when I met with Peter Ho, I very much had Athens on my mind -- the famed city-state whose glorious rise was eclipsed only by the speed and totality of its fall. I quickly discovered that he preferred (and quite logically so) as exemplar the medieval city-state of Venice, which dominated the global maritime economy for four centuries and even after its peak enjoyed another four more centuries of benign decline as a still beautiful, eminently livable, and culturally vibrant society, depending on tourism and not on its once unrivaled trading prowess -- but not a bad fate for so small an enclave, one that Singapore could embrace when compared to the fate of other fallen city-states like Athens itself.

But I would still keep returning to Athens, for many reasons: its democratic fighting spirit, its dependence on its maritime prowess to dominate the region, its relative weakness as a land power and its smart use of education to outsmart its rivals. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course but it is both the starting point of my new book on sovereign cities, and the end point of my conversation with Ho.

An Accidental Sovereignty

I caught up with Peter Ho on the seventh floor of The Treasury, in the welcoming ambiance of the Pistachio Room, where we quickly dived into the matter at hand: Singaporean sovereignty. He described Singapore’s birth as a sovereign state as “accidental sovereignty,” and event which in so many ways was really “not meant to be,” owing in part to “everything being absent” that is traditionally equated with sovereignty, with perhaps one exception, Singapore’s “good location.” He noted Singapore is often compared to Hong Kong, and a comparison of the differences and commonalities can be helpful. Both, he noted, were “relatively small,” with Singapore’s current population of 5.5 million somewhat shy of Hong Kong’s 6 to 7 million. While its population sizes are comparable, Ho noted that Singapore has been “independent all along” while Hong Kong started out as a colony and later evolved into a “Special Administrative Region.”

These distinct historical trajectories are not their only differentiator; they also have evolved distinct patterns of governance; Ho said Singapore’s style has been described in broad terms as “interventionist,” in contrast to Hong Kong’s more “laissez faire” approach cultivated under the British, who “never interfered,” but noted the interventionist label does “oversimplify things” since like Hong Kong, “we believe in the free market.” Ho describes the “big difference” between the two is in the area of defense, security, and diplomacy, noting in Singapore the government has to “worry about defense and foreign affairs” while Hong Kong “never had to worry about that.” And this is an expensive worry to have. Singapore spends some 4-5% of its GDP on defense, fully one third of the government budget. This, quite simply, is “huge.”  Further propelling Hong Kong and Singapore along different sovereign paths, Ho noted Hong Kong “always had an economic hinterland,” but that Singapore did not, and during early periods of tension with neighboring Malaysia and even “problems with Indonesia” that risked “confrontation,” access to neighboring rural territories “disappeared for a while,” forcing Singapore to confront the challenge of surviving and developing without a hinterland from the get-go. “It’s not something that we had at the beginning.”

“I wouldn’t describe us as a micro-state”

Recalling my description during preliminary correspondence of Singapore as a “microstate” offering a model of sovereignty quite distinct from the tribal-states I’d been writing about in my most recent work -- from the innovative tribe-state regulatory and constitutional structures that emerged in Arctic North America, to the strategic tribe-state partnerships that emerged during the War on Terror to pacify the restive tribal homelands of post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq (the focus of my newest book, The Art of War in an Asymmetric World) -- Ho cautioned me, “I don’t know if Singapore is really a microstate” and that it was by so many measures distinct from, and more successfully sovereign, than such island-states as the Maldives or the many South Pacific statelets, adding that there really were “not many countries like Singapore,” a point to which we both agreed. Because of these enormous qualitative distinctions, he gently reiterated: “I wouldn’t describe us as a microstate.”

It is true that most island-states are really statelets and not states-proper, not-quite sovereign entities like Greenland, still a colony though gingerly stepping toward more meaningful self-rule as the polar thaw promises to unlock its economic potential, or the South Pacific islands that still depend upon Australia for their defense protection, as Ho reminded me. And so the term “micro” in micro-state could be perceived to suggest an underwhelming assertion of sovereignty, in marked contrast to Singapore whose efforts are much more robust. Microstates do sound weaker than real states, and Singapore is very much a real state, that’s for sure. By contrast, the other island-states, even when considerably larger, were also considerably weaker when it came to self-defense -- a situation that differentiates these other island-states from Singapore. Ho reminded me of Singapore’s “big commitment to defense,” in the range of 4.5 to 5% of GDP, and earlier in history, closer to 7%. And on top of its substantial defense spending, Ho also noted Singapore’s rapid defense mobilization capabilities, and how “300,000 reservists can be called up fully equipped” at the first sign of trouble. This was a sharp contrast to the microstates of the South Pacific whose “safety net” is basically to “go to Australia” for assistance.

While Singapore has strong strategic partnerships, it’s such self-reliant defense capabilities that provide it with the ultimate safety-net to preserve its sovereignty. As Ho observed, “When crunch-time comes we only have ourselves to depend on.” He added that “we’ve got friends, that is true,” but Singapore would have to “wait a long time” before they could “come to our help,” and lacking strategic depth, time is one thing Singapore does not have to its strategic advantage. Other less self-reliant microstates like those he described in the South Pacific have “small chances of survival” and their odds “in the medium-term are not really good.” Singapore fares better in the medium-term, though longer than that is not clear: while “not sure about long-term,” Ho reflected that “it’s better than the microstates,” whether the small statelets of the South Pacific or even the larger island states in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, “each” of which, Ho noted, “has its own characteristics.” Most microstates are notably underdeveloped, owing in part to their remote locations and rurally-based populations. Not Singapore, which is a densely-populated urban city-state, with more in common with the rapidly industrialized trading nations of the Pacific Rim. It is its urban fabric, perhaps more than its sovereign fabric, that sustains its distinctiveness and fuels its continuing growth.

Ho pointed to China, and its rapid urbanization, noting that its population was now majority urban, having just crossed the 51% mark for the first time in history with more of its populace residing in cities than in the country. Ho added that China’s cities were fast developing into “huge urban spirals,” dominating the region’s -- and perhaps soon the world’s -- economic geography. These urban spirals were becoming dynamic “centers for innovation, and creativity,” though because of the speed of their growth, “also centers for world problems” as well. Whether the forces of innovation and creativity would offset the growing problems of these urban spirals remained to be seen, “so they can go either way,” Ho said.

A key point is that these urban spirals are generally not city-states or otherwise sovereign. In the case of China, the urban spirals that have been the engines of its recent growth are domestic urban centers. And so it is around the world, whether in Latin America, India or China. Asks Ho, “What is the meaning of these cities?” When I sought to re-introduce the classical example of Athens to our conversation, I was very gently but firmly reminded by Ho that it was “not the Athens model” at work here. These urban spirals are instead “hubs in a globalized world,” and are “huge, all connected to each other,” and the “best will be attractors of capital, talent, innovators.” But not all will succeed; and those that don’t “will be terrible places to live,” Ho said.

The Chinese, he noted, “see cities as a source of growth but also of social disharmony,” and the “Chinese leadership is not worried about the country, but the cities” since in a globalized world, the cities are where the power lies, Ho explained. “Wealth is now created in the cities, not the countryside.” The rapidly growing urban spirals are “connector hubs” for the globalized world, and are “important because we connect, not because we’re big.” It is these interconnections to the global economy that have fueled Singapore’s rise. That’s why, Ho noted, when European companies ship to Mumbai, they do so through Singapore. That’s because “Singapore has more shipping connections than Mumbai,” though he cautioned, “how long this will last, I don’t know.” For now, however, Singapore’s shipping connections position the city-state right at the center of international shipping, a global maritime crossroads, illustrating its role as a connector hub to the globalized economy. In order for Singapore to maintain this central position as a connector hub, it will have to continue to “attract talent, capital,” Ho said.

The Rise of the City

Ho suggests that Singapore’s economic integration, and vitality, has as much to do with its strength than the formality of its sovereignty, as most other urban spirals emerging as global economic engines lack formal sovereignty, as seen inside China. “As cities get more important,” Ho explained, “in this regard, it raises the question of sovereignty, what states look like.” Part of the answer, is that “real power emanates out of these cities.” When looking at the city as a political unit, sovereign or not, Ho explains that “the impulse for the development of cities is different, almost organic,” and this organic quality is important when thinking about sovereignty in the contemporary world, suggesting a boundary separating “organic versus artificial.” This got my pulse to quicken, since the conclusion of my newest book, due out in just a few short weeks, presented a theoretical discussion of the new foundations of world order, and presenting a new trinitarian structure (organic, synthetic/artificial, and ethereal) to replace earlier frameworks, including the predominant framework during the Cold War that was organized along three “classic” levels of analysis (individual, state, and global-systemic) whose interactions governed the complex flow of international politics, with some theorists (the neorealists) postulating an overarching influence of systemic forces over the subsystemic, guiding and thereby moderating their interactions.

Most famously articulated by Kenneth Waltz’s neorealist theory (in his 1979 Theory of International Politics), which evolved from his earlier and more interesting philosophical observations in his 1959 treatise Man, the State, and War, these three images or levels of analysis did not greatly differ from the classical realists, who have been misperceived to emphasize the power-political but who have in fact since classical times embraced a very similar trinitarian foundation, dating back to Plato’s effort to describe the just city, properly balanced between men of gold, silver and bronze (the ruling philosopher-kings, the men of commerce, and the city’s defenders (who in modern times comprised Clausewitz’s “trinity of war.”) That Ho embraced the organic/artificial distinction thus greatly intrigued me, since it largely matched my own neo-trinitarian framework of international order. What were the odds? And so I furiously scribbled notes, digesting every morsel, thinking here was a chance to test my own theoretical efforts with a reality-check from bona fide architect of contemporary sovereignty.

A problem for Singapore, and its effort to sustain its sovereign existence, Ho explained, is that “Singapore is an artificial construct,” and was “never meant to be something to survive on its own.” Had it not been for Stamford Raffles coming to shore, establishing an outpost and harbor here, Ho suggested, “Singapore could have gone over to the Dutch.” Its sovereign emergence was thus “not organic” but instead an “act of political will,” notably that of founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Founding visions can provide an enduring foundation for emerging sovereign expression. Ho explained “one of the things that makes us special” is the “founding vision of our founders.” This has been the case in other artificial sovereign experiments that gradually evolved into organic members of the world community, including the United States. Ho noted that “one of the things that makes the U.S. special” was the “founding vision of its founders” which has become “hugely attractive to people around the world,” and is “like a lighthouse for some reason. Sometimes ideas like that are enough to make a country.”

Ho agreed with my assessment of America’s transition to organic status: “You could say now it’s so entrenched that it’s become organic.” More so than a united Europe, which despite great strides in recent decades with the formation of the European Union, remains a “very artificial construct,” with “huge stresses and strains over the European project. We’re talking about a very long story,” in contrast to Singapore which by comparison is “one paragraph” long, a “very short history” of just 45 years -- younger than me by more than three years.

“Here, we started out with nothing”

Ho briefly expanded upon some of the more “superficial parts” of this brief history that are commonly observed – how Singapore is “well run” and now boasts a skyline with “dramatic architecture.” But as Ho took care to point out, “mind you, one difference between Singapore and many other cities and countries” is that its “dramatic architecture is not the result of the ambition of the political leadership to have ‘the tallest building’ or ‘the grandest building’. The government deliberately eschewed paying for aesthetics,” insisting instead on “strictly functional” buildings for civic purposes on the belief that there were “better things to do with the money.” So the many dramatic buildings that have emerged to define Singapore’s skyline are “all private sector, not government. We’ve avoided going the way of Dubai,” resisting the temptation of such “flash. If there is flash, it’s all private sector.” In Dubai, because of the vast amount of petrodollars in its treasury, there was no such resistance and the end result has been much government-funded flash, and a tendency to construct fancy “buildings that can be turned on their side and do pirouettes and the like.” But this was not the Singapore way; here, Ho recalled, “we started out with nothing.” And that is something that is never forgotten.

Here in Singapore, Ho explained, there is a greater commitment to “deeper meaning” and when looking beneath the surface at “what’s going on under all this efficiency,” it is important to remember that “I belong to a generation that feels all that can be achieved can be lost overnight. If lost, the idea of Singapore can be lost with it. I don’t feel that the roots are so deep that Singapore can survive a sustained calamity. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Singapore remains a young country, only three generations old. Among the first, Ho noted, “most were not born here,” as is also the case for the second; it’s only the third generation of Singaporeans that can claim to mostly Singapore-born. “There’s a certain concern among maybe the first and second generations that whatever we’ve gained can be lost if we haven’t done the right things.” Other countries, Ho added, “tend not to worry about these things,” and instead have a “sense of resilience” and a belief that they can weather the inevitable “ups and downs,” but this is not necessarily the case for Singapore. “Singapore has only known up. What happens when you hit a rough patch is a big unknown.”

Lessons from History: from Venice to Boston

When looking to history, there aren’t that many models of successful, enduring sovereign cities for Singapore to emulate. When I again try to steer the conversation to the Athenian model, famous across the West for the glory of its brief rise, and every bit as infamous for the rapidity of its decline (all in the same generation), it is understandable that Ho does not share my passion for classical Greece. In our short meeting, I lacked the time necessary to persuade him of why I find Athens so captivating, despite - or perhaps because - of its tragic decline. It was a maritime trading giant, living next door to a mighty land empire and upon a highly fragmented and restive peninsula, turning to the sea for its sustainment and deriving from it its great wealth; it strove for full civic engagement, empowering the demos with one of mankind’s first truly democratic constitutions; and despite the brevity of its reign, it made lasting contributions to philosophy, the arts, and the quest for human knowledge - laying the foundations for modern academic thought with its historically unprecedented commitment to literacy, the arts, and education.

It was in Athens that the concept of the “philosopher-king” was born, and where rulers were required to emanate from the most highly educated strata of society - a model for civic excellence fully embraced by Singapore today (another maritime trading city at the tip of a fragmented and restive peninsula.) Militarily, Athens leveraged the unrivaled passion of the demos, tactically organizing this popular spirit into the mighty phalanx, a self-protecting, self-renewing mobile unit that proved unbeatable on the battlefield - and even when outnumbered, its leadership decapitated, and surrounded by superior forces deep in the heart of the Persian empire, was able to withdraw intact under the able leadership of the warrior-philosopher Xenophon during his famous anabasis, one of history’s first and greatest historians and philosophers of war who finished Thucydides uncompleted history of the Peloponnesian War. Everywhere I look, I see a deep, powerful, and compelling parallel between the Athens of ancient days and Singapore of today. The question is: can Singapore avoid Athens’ fate by emulating its best practices, and avoiding its excesses, much like the Romans later did?

Ho instead provides an intriguing counterexample for me to consider; one I plan on exploring further as my research gains momentum: medieval Venice. Venice, Ho recounted, “did extremely well for 300 to 400 years,” and only then, after such a long reign, “went into terminal decline. Once new sea routes were discovered, they were bypassed,” yet while “not relevant, they survived,” albeit “nowhere near their peak.”

All said, the city survived for over 800 years and prospered during much of this time. As Ho describes Venice’s long run, and its decline upon being bypassed by new sea routes, I recall the parable of Buffalo, New York, once among America’s wealthiest cities and its most innovative, the first to be electrified once the enormous, untapped power of Niagara Falls was harnessed by none other than Nikola Tesla, turning the city into an economic crossroads that straddled a vital transportation gateway linking America’s heartland to its coastal cities. Buffalo could be described, for much of the first half of the twentieth century, as America’s premier “connector hub” to the world economy. But once the Saint Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959, the Erie Canal ceased to be a relevant trade route, and most Great Lake shipping was instead rerouted to the north. Buffalo never recovered.

Venice’s 800 year run, by comparison, is far more worthy of emulation. As Ho described, it’s “not the worst of fates.” The challenge, as Ho described, is that “cities need to constantly reinvent themselves.” One successful model for contemporary urban reinvention that Ho selects is that of Boston, Massachusetts - by coincidence, the city of my birth. Ho recounts how Boston, “as a city, has had two or three major incarnations, and successfully at that,” from its early days as a port city and trading center, followed by a period as a manufacturing powerhouse, followed by its most recent incarnation as an “educational hub, an intellectual hub.”

Along the way, Ho adds, Boston has nicely “gentrified,” enduring major construction mega-projects to bring its infrastructure up-to-date, including its long big-dig project that shifted its obsolete surface arteries underground, greatly alleviating its traffic congestion while enhancing the city’s appearance and reintroducing much-needed green space as old bridges and elevated roadways were torn down. Like Boston, Ho observed, “cities have the capacity to reinvent themselves,” but not all do.  Ho noted the case of Detroit, which experienced a decline as precipitous as Buffalo, perhaps more so.

As Ho put it, “some cities will do better than others,” and upon reflection suggested that “maybe it’s a question of luck” - if you “choose the right leaders, make the right decisions, make sure that luck continues after centuries.” This is no easy feat, one few cities have achieved -- one reason why, perhaps, Venice is such a good model for Singapore to follow.  Even after its long run as a major maritime hub, and several centuries into its decline, Venice is still one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a popular tourist destination, and a wonderful place to live -- something that’s much harder to say of Athens, or less well known cities like Detroit or Buffalo, whose rise to prominence would in the end be overshadowed by both the speed and depth of their fall -- providing today’s architects of city-state sovereignty with much sobering food for thought.