At a length of just 63 pages, while Kenneth Paul Tan’s “Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power” is a succinct, critical, and balanced primer of Singapore’s development – thus far anchored by the country’s fundamental contradictions as “a small postcolonial multicultural nation-state and a cosmopolitan global city” – but in a similar critique of his “Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies and Futures after Lee Kuan Yew”, identification and evaluation of the challenges embedded in Singapore’s contradictions is not necessarily paired with policy predictions or the mapping of potential future trajectories. In particular since the exercise of smart power (“power”), the combination of hard and soft power, has been central to the government’s endeavours at domestic nation-building (“identity”), foreign geopolitics (“brand”), how viable will the strategy be in the years or decades to come?
And in the context of the commemoration of the bicentennial, even if it is seemingly a state-driven effort, it is important to add that the focus is on contemporary Singapore. This means that the use of history – especially the “fishing village” narrative – to legitimise the merits of the government as well as the influence or impact of British colonialism are not part of the discourse.
Tan spends only three pages documenting the future of the hegemonic state, noting that: “Professional branding exercises can only go so far before the gap between image and reality stretches too wide and the external face is uncoupled from the internal fabric” (61). And even if governance and policymaking are arguably more difficult now – an acknowledgement which is tied to his three recommendations at the very end of the book, for more redistributive policies to address income inequality and the class divide, for greater and more earnest public engagement, and for the use of “smart city” technology to facilitate collaboration and to foster co-creation – the implication is the aforementioned need for continued domestic nation-building and foreign geopolitics. In this vein, an evaluation of the threats (or opportunities) that Singapore is likely to face would provide a more complete evaluation.
Be that as it may, there is still plenty to consider in the preceding seven chapters. Having expounded upon the ideological and cultural sources of Singapore’s hegemonic state in the first three chapters – democratic mandate, performance legitimacy, and moral authority ideologically, and race, language, and religion culturally – “Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power” then moves on to some of the challenges (or contradictions) that the country faces: Inequality and poverty and the status of creative industries in Chapter Four, civil society and public engagement in Chapter Five, as well as nation and city branding in Chapter Six. The seventh chapter on “the soft power of a small state” is short, focuses disproportionately on Singapore’s relations with China and the United States, and does not offer adequate historical context, and therefore feels out of place as the second-to-last chapter.