Recently, I flew to Singapore to participate in its Writers' Festival. The Lufthansa captain bade us goodbye, "We wish you a successful stay in Singapore." Heading downtown, I became reacquainted with the lush rain trees amply shading the highway for many miles. "Lee Kuan Yew picked these himself," the cheerful cabbie explained. "They aren't native. I think they're from Africa."
"So much landscaping!" I marveled. "It must be so expensive to maintain."
Plucking an unsightly pebble from the sea, Lee Kuan Yew blew his fragrant breath on it second by second, day by day and, wa lau!, it became not just a gleaming metropolis, but the world's most efficient, orderly and peaceful. Lee muscled Singapore into being, it is often sung. He turned a ramshackle, resourceless piece of real of estate into one of the most admired.
By the time of its independence in 1965, Singapore had long been a leading seaport, however, thanks to its strategic location and the stewardship of Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Its GDP ranked third in Asia, behind only Japan and Hong Kong and five times greater than South Korea. No fetid fishing village, Singapore was the gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's baffling that the Malaysians let it go. Maybe they thought they could snatch it back later?
Anticipating this likelihood, Lee Kuan Yew got surreptitious help from the Israelis to build up his army. Since British troops didn't leave town until 1971, it's not too farfetched to speculate that the UK had a hand in this Jewish wedding. It needed to maintain a friendly government at this most crucial spot. The US has also trained Singaporean soldiers and, today, 374 GIs are based here.
Browbeating Malaysia, Singapore showed off newly bought tanks during its 1969 National Day Parade. Remembering this in 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Yew's son, remarked, "In the mobile column, we had 18 AMX-13 tanks, which were appearing in public for the first time ["] Singaporeans cheered. Everyone understood what it meant, and it wasn't just Singaporeans who took note."
China's expanding encroachment into the South China Sea is often explained only in terms of oil, natural gas and fishing rights, but it's the sea lane next to Singapore that's most at stake. Without its navy nearby to contest that choke point, China is most vulnerable to disruption of oil deliveries from the Middle East. Trying to bypass, partially at least, the Strait of Malacca, China arranged to build energy pipelines through Myanmar but, guess what, Uncle Sam has managed to cozy up to the Burmese, so it's no coincidence that the Chinese oil pipeline, though completed, is still not functional.
Though often touting itself as a multicultural and multi-lingual society, Singapore had been essentially Chinese long before independence. The Chinese on the Malay Peninsula needed their own nation. It's perfectly understandable, for under the guise of anti-Communism, thousands of Chinese were rounded up and shot in Indonesia in 1965, and in 1969, nearly 600 Chinese were killed during a Kuala Lumpur riot. As recently as 1998, Indonesian mobs slaughtered thousands of Chinese and raped hundreds of Chinese women.