Stories > One For the Books

2019 • Issue 2

One For the Books

In light of Singapore’s bicentennial, Professor Tan Tai Yong, President and Professor of Humanities (History) at Yale-NUS College, gleans lessons from regional history to analyse the nation’s foreign policies.

BY Cara Yap


rofessor Tan Tai Yong believes in looking back at our collective past to move forward with greater cognizance.

The second President and Professor of Humanities (History) at YaleNUS College specialises in South and Southeast Asian history, and has authored and co-authored several books, including Singapore: a 700-Year History – From Early Emporium to World City.

He is also the Honorary Chairman of the National Museum of Singapore, and serves on the National Heritage Board as Chairman of the National Collection Advisory Panel.

With a deep understanding of local and regional history – gained partly through collaboration and engagement with fellow academics – Prof Tan has tracked Singapore’s journey as a trading port with long-established links to the rest of the world.

“Even as we write and make our national history, we should take into account our much longer and richer past, where we were a point of convergence for people from all over the world – a place that afforded them opportunities, vitality, interactions and cross-cultural encounters, and out of which grew a diverse, tolerant, multicultural population that went on to define modern Singapore,” he said in a speech he gave at National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2018.

By examining Singapore’s evolution over the years, Prof Tan has helped to influence public policy with social cohesion in mind. The historian, who has been a faculty member of the NUS Department of History since 1992, served as a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2014 to 2015.

Recently, he was appointed as a member of the Singapore Bicentennial Advisory Panel, which oversees the commemoration of the 200th anniversary this year of the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles. Contributing to the discourse on the event, he has written articles that explore how Singapore overcame its internal challenges to emerge as a wellconnected nation.

According to him, the Little Red Dot has managed to build strong international ties by being a consistent yet flexible trading partner with a global outlook.

Prof Tan Tai Yong opines that building better understanding with the international community will help Singaporeans to be more appreciative and less judgemental of our differences.

1  As we celebrate our bicentennial, what lessons from the past can we tap into when dealing with the unique challenges we face today? As a small nation, how can Singapore build strong international relations, trust and friendships with other countries without taking sides?

Our history shows quite clearly that because of its small size, Singapore’s ability to survive and thrive has depended on its connection with the region around it. Since the 14th century, Singapore’s fate and fortunes have been linked to regional developments revolving around trade, maritime connections and regional politics. As a small country, Singapore needs to be regarded as a trusted ally and friend. In regional and global affairs, it needs to show that it is a principled and independent sovereign state, capable of protecting its national interest without taking sides in the squabbles of the major powers. We need to stay consistent in our foreign policy and adhere to the principles that have served us well as a nation state, while staying nimble by adapting to changed realities where necessary.

2  What can future generations of Singaporeans do to preserve and strive for the same, if not better, relations with other nations?

Singapore must stay open and connected. Looking inward and being parochial in our concerns will not serve Singapore well. Of course, domestic well-being and a strong sense of rootedness are critical factors in ensuring the viability of Singapore as a nation state, but we are constrained by size and geography. Unless we can make Singapore relevant to the world around us, we might fade into oblivion.

3  In view of our multicultural history, what kind of global citizenry role do you envisage Singaporeans playing today and in the future?

Singaporeans are among the best travelled people in the world, with a cosmopolitan outlook and the ability to appreciate and engage with different cultures, while maintaining a deep sense of rooted identity to our country. As a small city-state that has been open and connected to the outside world for the better part of its long history, Singapore is well positioned to navigate that space between the global and the local. For instance, we can reach out to the wider community through education and humanitarian initiatives, using our knowledge and skilled resources. We should provide support not only on an ad-hoc basis, but as recurring programmes. At the same time, we should be open to learning from these experiences and strive to be better global citizens.

4  How can a maturing country like Singapore better encourage its citizens to be responsible global citizens?

Education and exposure would be key. Our education should emphasise openness, connectivity and diversity. Humanities and social sciences could play important roles here. For instance, studying the literatures, cultures and histories of other countries would enrich our understanding of humanity and the common challenges we all face in the world today. Exposure by travel and interaction with people from all over the world can be helpful. One of the most significant ways to impact society and be regarded as responsible global citizens is to get involved in volunteer work that can change people’s lives for the better.

5  From a historian’s perspective, how can reflecting on how Singapore has benefitted from the largesse and learnings of other countries enable the way we pay it forward in our interactions with other countries?

I would say that trade has always been Singapore’s lifeline. As long as we have something to offer in terms of economic growth and social well-being, we should be active participants. Singapore must also be a good neighbour and constructive member of ASEAN.

Take, for instance, our relations with Malaysia. We have had a chequered past with our northern neighbour, and were once part of the Federation. Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. It has been more than 50 years after the separation, but the economic, cultural and personal ties remain, realised through old and new networks, physical and virtual. Despite the occasional differences and tensions, working together has kept relations strong and mutually beneficial.

The lessons learnt from our relations with our immediate neighbours not only inform Singapore’s policies in the region but also provide the impetus to create commercial and cultural exchange opportunities with other countries in the wider area. For example, Singapore- based public and private organisations have provided expertise and resources towards infrastructure development in the region and beyond. There is also a growing volunteer culture among our populace, especially the youth, who actively and passionately offer their time towards such initiatives. This stems from our desire to engage internationally, and to embrace both the similarities and the diversity in our world view.

6  How does being a Singaporean affect the way you work, your ethics and perspectives through your extensive career in academia?

Singaporeans are reputed to be disciplined and hardworking, and I strive to embody those attributes in my approach to work and life. I have been fortunate to have built my career at NUS, which has always been ambitious while possessing an international outlook. This environment has influenced my perspectives. Being a citizen of a small country makes me more open-minded and less parochial, knowing that we are ever vulnerable to developments beyond our shores.

7  What are some of the key misperceptions/ misconceptions that international communities have of Singapore? How can we change/address that?

My foreign friends sometimes think that Singaporeans are too paranoid about survival. They see that Singapore has achieved success on many fronts, and is already a well-established country that, while small, punches above its weight. They don’t understand why Singapore needs to keep strict laws and always worry that the country will unravel once we liberalise. Linked to this is the perception that Singapore is too uptight, and that the government unnecessarily imposes tight controls on the media, arts and public discourses. These perceptions tend to be held by people who do not know Singapore well, and are likely to not have been to the country. There is nothing like personal experience to erase stereotypes, and I hope that more people will come and experience for themselves what Singapore is really like. On the other hand, we need to demonstrate that we are an open-minded society, and that we are able to debate contentious issues openly and respectfully for Singapore to shed its uptight image.

8  Recollecting the friendships you’ve forged with members of the international community, can you share how their impressions of Singapore have changed through these interactions? Correspondingly, how have your impressions of a specific community evolved?

My collaborations often offer opportunities for not just intellectual cross-fertilisation but also cultural sharing. My international colleagues sometimes come with preconceived stereotypes about Singapore, and I find that they invariably change their minds after they have had the opportunity to spend time in Singapore and interact with Singaporeans. I recall a senior academic whose first encounter with me was not very pleasant because he was disdainful of Singapore, seeing it as a small, young and authoritarian upstart of a country. But over the years, as we got to know each other better and after he spent a lot of time in Singapore, he is a complete convert.

He now admires Singapore as one of his favourite countries and has become a dear friend. The converse is also true. I remember making my first few visits to India for research, and being quite overwhelmed by the disorderliness of the places I visited. I was also bothered by the slow pace at which things move in some parts of the bureaucracy. But after more visits, and getting used to the way things work in India, I understood that the scale and culture of India is just so different, and despite what I perceived as disorder, things do have a way of getting resolved there. You just have to “go with the flow”.

“Singapore-based Public And Private Organisations Have Provided Expertise And Resources Towards Infrastructure Development In The Region And Beyond. There Is A Growing Volunteer Culture Among Our Populace, Especially The Youth, Who Actively And Passionately Offer Their Time Towards Such Initiatives.”

9  How has your work helped to further strengthen ties and friendships between Singaporeans and other Southeast Asian countries? What have you discovered about their cultures and way of life?

My interactions with individuals and institutions in Southeast Asia have given me deeper insights on the way different countries function. Building such understanding helps us to be more appreciative and less judgemental of our differences. I have always admired the resilient people in many parts of Southeast Asia, who may lead tough lives but soldier on. Much of it has to do with an attitude of self-help and a strong community spirit.

10  What lessons can Singaporeans and other countries in Southeast Asia share with and learn from each other?

Singapore has a good record of effective governance, and it could share its best practices in matters such as municipal management, housing, healthcare, education, as well as maintenance of law and order. Singaporeans tend to function well in organised and regulated environments. But diversity, complexity and messiness will come with a VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous] world. We can learn from our larger Southeast Asian neighbours how to function in less structured and more complicated situations. By relying less on the state, we can build self-confidence, resilience and problem- solving capacities.

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