Singapore (10/01)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Singapore

Area: 683 sq. km. (263sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Singapore (country is a city-state).
Terrain: Lowland.
Climate: Tropical.

Population (2001): 4.02 million (including resident foreigners).
Annual growth rate: 2.8% (total); 1.8% (residents).
Ethnic groups: Chinese 77%, Malays 14%, Indians 8%.
Religions: Buddhist Taoist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu.
Languages: English, Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil.
Education: Years compulsory--none now, six beginning 2003. Attendance--93%. Literacy--93%.
Health (2000): Infant mortality rate--2.5/1,000. Life expectancy--76 yrs. male, 80 yrs. female.
Work force (2000, 2.2 million): Industry and commerce--28%; services--72%.

Type: Parliamentary republic.
Constitution: June 3, 1959 (amended 1965 and 1991).
Independence: August 9, 1965.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state, 6-yr. term); prime minister (head of government). Legislative--unicameral 83-member parliament (maximum 5-yr. term). Judicial--High Court, Court of Appeal, subordinate courts.
Political parties: People's Action Party (PAP), Workers' Party (WP), Singapore's Peoples Party (SPP), Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
Suffrage: Universal and compulsory at 21.
Central government budget (FY 2001): $15.4 billion.
Defense (FY 2000): 4.9% of gross domestic product.
National holiday: August 9.
Flag: Two equal horizontal sections, red over white, with a white crescent and five stars in the upper left corner.

GDP (2000 nominal): $85 92 billion.
Annual real growth rate: 5.4% (1999); 9.9% (2000), -2.0% (2001 est.) Per capita GNP (1999--purchasing power parity): $24,400.
Natural resources: None.
Agriculture (under 0.5% of GDP): Products--poultry, orchids, vegetables, fruits.
Manufacturing (26% of real GDP): Types--electronic and electrical products and components, petroleum products, machinery and metal products, chemical and pharmaceutical products, transport equipment (mainly shipbuilding and repair), food and beverages, printing and publishing, textiles and garments, plastic products, instrumentation equipment.
Trade (2000): Exports--$138 billion: petroleum products, food/beverages, chemicals, textile/garments, electronic components, telecommunication apparatus, transport equipment. Major markets-- Malaysia (18%), U.S. (17 %), EU (13%), Hong Kong (8%) and Japan (7%). Imports--$135 billion: aircraft, crude oil and petroleum products, electronic components, radio and television receivers/parts, motor vehicles, chemicals, food/beverages, iron/steel, textile yarns/fabrics. Major suppliers--Malaysia (17%), Japan (17%), U.S. (15%) and EU (11%).

Singapore is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The annual growth rate for 2000 was 2.8% (including resident foreigners). Singapore has a varied linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage. Malay is the national language, but Chinese, English, and Tamil also are official languages. English is the language of administration and also is widely used in the professions, businesses, and schools.

The government has mandated that English be the primary language used at all levels of the school systems, and it aims to provide at least 10 years of education for every child. In 2000, primary and secondary school students totaled about 482,00, or 12% of the entire population. In 2000, enrollment at the universities was approximately 50,000 (full-time, part-time and postgraduate) and about 58,374 at the polytechnics. The Institute of Technical Education for basic technical and commerce skills has almost 16,000 students. The country's literacy rate is 93%.

Singapore generally allows religious freedom, although religious groups are subject to government scrutiny, and some religious sects are restricted or banned. Almost all Malays are Muslim; other Singaporeans are Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, Buddhists, Confucianists, or Christians.

Although Singapore's history dates from the 11th century, the island was little known to the West until the 19th century, when in 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived as an agent of the British East India Company. In 1824, the British purchased Singapore Island, and by 1825, the city of Singapore had become a major port, with trade exceeding that of Malaya's Malacca and Penang combined. In 1826, Singapore, Penang, and Malacca were combined as the Straits Settlements to form an outlying residency of the British East India Company; in 1867, the Straits Settlements were made a British Crown Colony, an arrangement that continued until 1946.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of steamships launched an era of prosperity for Singapore as transit trade expanded throughout Southeast Asia. In the 20th century, the automobile industry's demand for rubber from Southeast Asia and the packaging industry's need for tin helped make Singapore one of the world's major ports.

In 1921, the British constructed a naval base, which was soon supplemented by an air base. But the Japanese captured the island in February 1942, and it remained under their control until September 1945, when the British returned.

In 1946, the Straits Settlements was dissolved; Penang and Malacca became part of the Malayan Union, and Singapore became a separate British Crown Colony. In 1959, Singapore became self-governing, and, in 1963, it joined the newly independent Federation of Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak (the latter two former British Borneo territories) to form Malaysia.

Indonesia adopted a policy of "confrontation" against the new federation, charging that it was a "British colonial creation," and severed trade with Malaysia. The move particularly affected Singapore, since Indonesia had been the island's second-largest trading partner. The political dispute was resolved in 1966, and Indonesia resumed trade with Singapore.

After a period of friction between Singapore and the central government in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore separated from Malaysia on August 9, 1965, and became an independent republic.

According to the constitution, as amended in 1965, Singapore is a republic with a parliamentary system of government. Political authority rests with the prime minister and the cabinet. The prime minister is the leader of the political party or coalition of parties having the majority of seats in parliament. The president, who is chief of state, previously exercised only ceremonial duties. As a result of 1991 constitutional changes, the president is now elected and exercises expanded powers over legislative appointments, government budgetary affairs, and internal security matters.

The unicameral parliament currently consists of 83 members elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage, and nine Nominated members (NMPs). A constitutional provision assures at least three opposition members, even if fewer than three actually are elected. A "nonconstituency" seat held by the opposition under this provision since 1997 became vacant in 2001, when the incumbent was declared bankrupt. In the last general election, in January 1997, the governing People's Action Party (PAP) won 81 of the 83 seats. The president appoints nominated members of parliament (NMP) from among nominations by a special select committee. NMPs enjoy the same privileges as MPs but cannot vote on constitutional matters or expenditures of funds. The maximum term of any one parliament is 5 years. Voting has been compulsory since 1959.

Judicial power is vested in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. The High Court exercises original criminal and civil jurisdiction in serious cases as well as appellate jurisdiction from subordinate courts. Its chief justice, senior judge, and six judges are appointed by the president. Appeals from the High Court are heard by the Court of Appeal. The right of appeal to the Privy Council in London was abolished effective April 1994.

Principal Government Officials
President--S.R. Nathan
Prime Minister--Goh Chok Tong
Senior Minister--Lee Kuan Yew
Deputy Prime Minister--BG (NS) Lee Hsien Loong
Deputy Prime Minister--Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam

Communications--Yeo Cheow Tong
Community Development--Abdullah Tarmugi
Defense--Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam
Education--RAdm (NS) Teo Chee Hean
Environment--Lim Swee Say
Finance--Dr. Richard Hu Tsu Tau
Foreign Affairs--Prof. S. Jayakumar
Health--Lim Hng Kiang
Home Affairs--Wong Kan Seng
Information and the Arts--Lee Yock Suan
Manpower--Dr. Lee Boon Yang
Law--Prof. S. Jayakumar
National Development--Mah Bow Tan
Trade and Industry-BG (NS) George Yong-Boon Yeo
Ambassador to the United Nations--Kishore Mahbubani
Ambassador to the United States--Prof. Chan Heng Chee

Singapore maintains an embassy in the United States at 3501 International Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/537-3100, fax 202/537-0876).

The ruling political party in Singapore, reelected continuously since 1959, is the People's Action Party (PAP), now headed by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Goh succeeded Lee Kuan Yew, who served as Singapore's prime minister from independence through 1990. Since stepping down as prime minister, Lee has remained influential as Senior Minister.

The PAP has held the overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament since 1966, when the opposition Barisan Sosialis Party (Socialist Front), a left-wing group that split off from the PAP in 1961, resigned from Parliament, leaving the PAP as the sole representative party. In the general elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980, the PAP won all of the seats in an expanding parliament.

Workers' Party Secretary General J.B. Jeyaretnam became the first opposition party MP in 15 years when he won a 1981 by-election. Opposition parties gained small numbers of seats in the general elections of 1984 (2 seats out of a total of 79), 1988 (1 seat of 81), 1991 (4 seats of 81) and 1997 (2 seats of 83). Meanwhile, the PAP share of the popular vote in contested seats declined from 78% in 1980 to 65% in 1997. Since the opposition has contested less than half the seats in the last two elections, overall voter support for the PAP may be somewhat higher.

Singapore's strategic location on major sea lanes and industrious population have given the country an economic importance in Southeast Asia disproportionate to its small size. Upon independence in 1965, Singapore was faced with a lack of physical resources and a small domestic market. In response, the Singapore Government adopted a pro-business, pro-foreign investment, export-oriented economic policy framework, combined with state-directed investments in strategic government-owned corporations. Singapore's economic strategy proved a success, producing real growth that averaged 8.0% from 1960 to 1999. The economy picked up in 1999 after the regional financial crisis, with a growth rate of 5.4%, followed by 9.9% for 2000. However, the economic slowdown in the United States, Japan and the European Union, as well as the worldwide electronics slump, have put the estimated economic growth in 2001 to a negative 2.0%.

Singapore's largely corruption-free government, skilled work force, and advanced and efficient infrastructure have attracted investments from more than 3,000 multinational corporations (MNCs) from the United States, Japan, and Europe. Foreign firms are found in almost all sectors of the economy. MNCs account for more than two-thirds of manufacturing output and direct export sales, although certain services sectors remain dominated by government-linked corporations.

Manufacturing and financial/business services are the twin engines of the Singapore economy and accounted for 24 26% and 25 22%, respectively, of Singapore's gross domestic product in 2000 The electronics industry leads Singapore's manufacturing sector, accounting for 48% of Singapore's total industrial output, but the government also is prioritizing development of the chemicals and biotechnology industries.

To maintain its competitive position despite rising wages, the government seeks to promote higher value-added activities in the manufacturing and services sectors. It also has opened, or is in the process of opening, the financial services, telecommunications, and power generation and retailing sectors to foreign service providers and greater competition. The government has also pursued cost-cutting measures, including wage and rent reductions, to lower the cost of doing business in Singapore.

Trade, Investment, and Aid
Singapore's total trade in 2000 amounted to $273 billion, an increase of 21% from 1999. Despite its small size, Singapore is the tenth-largest trading partner of the United States. In 2000, Singapore's imports totaled $135 billion, and exports totaled $138 billion. Malaysia was Singapore's main import source, as well as its largest export market, absorbing 18% of Singapore's exports, with the United States close behind. Re-exports accounted for 43% of Singapore's total sales to other countries in 2000. Singapore's principal exports are petroleum products, food/beverages, chemicals, textile/garments, electronic components, telecommunication apparatus, transport equipment. Singapore's main imports are aircraft, crude oil and petroleum products, electronic components, radio and television receivers/parts, motor vehicles, chemicals, food/beverages, iron/steel, textile yarns/fabrics.

Singapore continues to attract investment funds on a largescale despite its relatively high-cost operating environment. The U.S. leads in foreign investment, accounting for 40% of new commitments to the manufacturing sector in 2000. As of 1999, cumulative investment for manufacturing and services by American companies in Singapore reached approximately $20 billion (total assets). The bulk of U.S. investment is in electronics manufacturing, oil refining and storage, and the chemical industry. More than 1,500 U.S. firms operate in Singapore.

The government also has encouraged firms to invest outside Singapore, with the country's total direct investments abroad reaching $39 billion by the end of 1998. China was the top destination, accounting for 14% of total overseas investments, followed by Malaysia (10 %), Hong Kong (8.0%), Indonesia (8.0%) and U.S. (4.0%). The United States provides no bilateral aid to Singapore.

In 2000, Singapore had a work force of about 2.2 million. The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the sole trade union federation, comprises almost 99% of total organized labor. Extensive legislation covers general labor and trade union matters. The Industrial Arbitration Court handles labor-management disputes that cannot be resolved informally through the Ministry of Labor. The Singapore Government has stressed the importance of cooperation between unions, management and government ("tripartism"), as well as the early resolution of disputes. There has been only one strike in the past 15 years.

Singapore has enjoyed virtually full employment for long periods of time. Amid an economic slump, the unemployment rate was expected to rise to 4.0% by the end of 2001, from 2.4% early in the year.

The Singapore Government and the NTUC have tried a range of programs to increase lagging productivity and boost the labor force participation rates of women and older workers. But labor shortages persist in the service sector and in many low-skilled positions in the construction and electronics industries. Foreign workers help make up this shortfall. In 2000, there were about 600,000 foreign workers in Singapore, constituting 27% of the total work force.

Transportation and Communications
Situated at the crossroads of international shipping and air routes, Singapore is a center for transportation and communication in Southeast Asia. Singapore Changi International Airport is a regional aviation hub served by 64 international airlines and is being expanded with the construction of a third terminal slated for completion in 2006. The Port of Singapore is the world's busiest and ranks in second place globally as a center for containerized transshipment traffic. The country also is linked by road and rail to Malaysia and Thailand.

Telecommunications and telephone facilities are state-of-the-art, providing high-quality communications with the rest of the world. Radio and television stations are all government-owned entities. The print media is dominated by a company with close ties to the government. Daily newspapers are published in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.

Singapore is nonaligned. It is a member of the United Nations--occupying a rotational seat on the Security Council 2001-02--and several of its specialized and related agencies, and also of the Commonwealth. Singapore has participated in UN peacekeeping/observer missions in Kuwait, Angola, Namibia, Cambodia, and East Timor. Singapore supports the concept of Southeast Asian regionalism and plays an active role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Singapore relies primarily on its own defense forces, which are continuously being modernized. The defense budget accounts for approximately 28% of government operating expenditures (or 5% of GDP). A career military force of 20,000 is supplemented by 55,000 persons on active National Service, which is compulsory for able-bodied young men, and another 225,000 reservists. Singapore defense forces engage in joint training with all the ASEAN nations and with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and India.

Singapore is a member of the Five Power Defense Arrangement together with the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia. Designed to replace the former defense role of the British in the Singapore-Malaysia area, the arrangement obligates members to consult in the event of external threat and provides for stationing Commonwealth forces in Singapore.

Singapore has consistently supported a strong U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1990, the U.S. and Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which allows the U.S. access to Singapore facilities at Paya Lebar Airbase and the Sembawang wharves. Under the MOU, a U.S. Navy logistics unit was established in Singapore in 1992; U.S. fighter aircraft deploy periodically to Singapore for exercises, and a number of U.S. military vessels visit Singapore. The MOU was amended in 1999 to permit U.S. naval vessels to berth at the Changi Naval Base, which was completed in early 2001.

The United States has maintained formal diplomatic relations with Singapore since that country became independent in 1965. Singapore's efforts to maintain economic growth and political stability and its support for regional cooperation harmonize with U.S. policy in the region and form a solid basis for amicable relations between the two countries. The growth of U.S. investment in Singapore and the large number of Americans living there enhance opportunities for contact between Singapore and the United States. Many Singaporeans visit and study in the United States.

The U.S. Government sponsors visitors from Singapore each year under the International Visitor Program. The U.S. Government provides Fulbright awards to enable selected American professors to teach or conduct research at the National University of Singapore and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. It awards scholarships to outstanding Singaporean students for graduate studies at American universities and to American students to study in Singapore. The U.S. Government also sponsors occasional cultural presentations in Singapore. The East-West Center and private American organizations, such as the Asia and Ford Foundations, also sponsor exchanges involving Singaporeans.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Franklin L. Lavin
Deputy Chief of Mission--John Medeiros
Economic/Political Counselor--Douglas Spelman
Senior Economic Officer--Paul A. Brown
Senior Political Officer--Patrick J. Freeman
Consul--Kevin Richardson
Public Affairs Counselor--Thomas Gradisher
Commercial Counselor--Jonathan Bensky
Administrative Counselor--An Le
Defense Attache--Capt. Carl Soderholm, USN

The U.S. Embassy in Singapore is located at 27 Napier Road, Singapore 258508 (tel. 65-476-9100, fax 65-476-9340). The embassy's website is at