This semester, I took a Singapore Studies module that utilized a longue durée approach to understand our island-state’s history. This means looking beyond the conventional historical narratives that usually trace Singapore’s history back to 1819 after Raffles set foot on a ‘sleepy backwater that was almost uninhabited’. Instead, the lecturers attempted to examine older periods of Singapore’s history in order to challenge conventional lessons we learnt growing up in Singapore.
One of the most fascinating, and perhaps also most relevant, things the lecturer did was to challenge the idea that Singapore owes its economic prosperity largely to its naturally strategic geographical location. This is surely an argument that those who have taken History lessons in secondary schools encountered frequently. Perhaps many of us today probably still accept this as an unalterable fact.
However, to assume that Singapore’s location is inherently strategic would mean that Singapore has been thriving economically since time immemorial. Yet, the land Sir Stamford Raffles set foot upon in 1819 was a tranquil island with little human activity. During the 1600s, bustling trade activity shifted from the Melaka straits – the trade route Singapore is located along – to the Sunda straits, as the Dutch attempted to establish an economic stronghold in Batavia. If Singapore had always been in an economically strategic geographical position, this scenario would have been inconceivable. A similar instance can be found in Singapore’s history; before 600 CE, hardly any trade was even conducted on the Melaka straits.
In fact, what is considered strategic changed over time. When travelling on sea was both dangerous and inefficient, overland trade routes that involved camel-riding were perceived as a more optimal way to conduct trade. This led to the increasing strategicness of ancient inland cities such as Kashgar and Samarkand. Following the invention of the ship, traders started to prefer maritime trade routes, but the very first water-borne trade route comprised a mixture of land and sea routes as traders were afraid to move too far away from land. This mostly water-borne trade route only brought strategicness to Funan, rather than the Malay world. Although Singapore and the Melaka straits eventually gained economic strategicness as technological development progressed, the larger lesson is that strategicness has shifted, from one medium to another, from one region to another, over time and there is no guarantee that it will not happen again in the near future.
So, the next time you hear someone, whether in a class discussion, a debate, or a company meeting, citing natural strategic location as a reason for assured economic benefits, recall Singapore’s lesson on strategicness, and share with them that strategicness is inherently a dynamic quality that can be artificially engineered.