The Idea of Singapore: Smallness Unconstrained

The story of Singapore did not start in 1965; it had been unfolding for centuries prior. The island evolved from a 14 century port polity and regional emporium to a major imperial port city, eventually becoming the sovereign city-state that it is today. (Forward)

The Idea of Singapore: Smallness Unconstrained is an edited collection of six IPS-Nathan Lectures delivered by Professor Tan Tai Yong between September 2018 and May 2019, and includes highlights of his dialogue with the audience. The IPS-Nathan Lecture series was launched in 2014 as part of the S R Nathan Fellowship for the Study of Singapore. It seeks to advance public understanding and discussion of issues of critical national interest for Singapore.

Image by Abiodun Ayobami.

Professor Tan, the President and Professor of Humanities (History) at Yale-NUS College, was the Institute of Policy Studies’ 6th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

He explained, “the idea of Singapore refers to the meaning and significance of Singapore; it must be larger than the island itself, and extend beyond its relatively brief existence as a nation state. This may best be encapsulated in the concept of ‘smallness unconstrained’. Smallness may be a central theme in Singapore’s history, but it has never constrained the evolution of Singapore as a city, country and nation state”. (p. 131)

In the lecture series, Professor Tan examines how Singapore has evolved over its 700-year history as a regional emporium, colonial port city and city-state. He shows that Singapore’s history is influenced by the recurring themes of geography (how location shaped the history of Singapore), networks (how Singapore was defined by the flows and interactions of people and ideas) and globalisation (how Singapore was and will continue to be shaped by the force of globalism). An understanding of the twists and turns of this long history, and the ways in which historical circumstances have shaped Singapore’s fate and fortunes, can offer important insights and a better appreciation of our strengths and challenges as a city-state.

He hopes, through his lectures and the publication of this volume, to contribute to an ongoing conversation about our history. These lectures were “not meant to be an academic course on the history of Singapore”. He will “not be describing what you should know of our history”, if he succeeds, these lectures “may perhaps suggest how we could think of our history”. (Forward, p. xii)

The then Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee, who graced the book launch on 8 November 2019 at National Museum of Singapore, remarked that Prof Tan’s approach to history is “accessible and easy to digest. He underscores the idea that history is all around us, not just an examinable subject to be learnt in classrooms”.

At the launch, Prof Tan stressed the importance of learning the lessons of Singapore’s history as the country moves forward. “There were ups and downs; there were cycles. And throughout, history presented opportunities and yet imposed limitations,” he said. “There were times when Singapore thrived and flourished, and periods where the island faded into oblivion. History may not tell us about the future, but knowing history can certainly help us as we think about the future, and make decisions that will shape the future.”

Other than this book, Professor Tan also co-authored these two books on history of Singapore.

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