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Photo illustration by John Lyman

Singapore proudly considers itself the ‘poisonous shrimp of Asia.’

Singapore stands as a beacon of prosperity and influence in Southeast Asia, known for its impressive economic achievements and strategic prowess. With one of the highest GDP per capita in the region and globally, Singapore’s education system is among the finest in Asia, and its military capabilities are unmatched in Southeast Asia. The possession of a number of American-made F-35 fighter jets underscores its commitment to defense.

These capabilities reflect Singapore’s strategic imperative: security and neutrality. Positioned at the critical Malacca Strait, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Singapore plays a pivotal role in global geopolitics. It boasts one of the world’s most crucial trading ports, serving as a major hub for international trade, finance, logistics, and innovation, thus becoming an essential part of the global supply chains.

Despite its small size, Singapore leverages its strategic location to wield significant influence in international relations. It exercises soft power through diplomacy, maintaining a neutral stance amid the U.S.-China rivalry over influence in the Asia-Pacific region and Southeast Asia. Singapore’s reliance on international trade underscores its interest in keeping global trade flows open and accessible, which remains its primary interest.

The ongoing trade war between Beijing and Washington highlights the delicate balance Singapore must maintain. The city-state has adopted a policy of strict neutrality, aiming to balance its relationships with both superpowers without choosing sides. This stance is critical in Southeast Asia’s political landscape, where Singapore’s influence can tip the balance of power in the area, which China and the U.S. have been learning carefully.

Singapore is often referred to as the “poisonous shrimp,” a metaphor for a small but formidable entity that is difficult to confront by other significant powers. Its substantial investments in defense and balanced engagement with major powers have fortified its position. Singapore’s ability to repurpose civilian infrastructure for military use in emergencies exemplifies its strategic foresight, making it a vocal power capable of guarding strategic seas for international trade.

Collaborating closely with the U.S. in military matters while engaging economically with China, Singapore embodies a modern-day Sparta. Its well-equipped armed forces and strategic partnerships have earned it respect and ensured its self-reliance, and independent from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.

Historically, Singapore’s rise from a seemingly weak position to a regional powerhouse is remarkable. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s vision in 1966, where he likened the world to a place where “big fish eat small fish; small fish eat shrimp,” underscores Singapore’s transformation into a “poisonous shrimp” that could survive and thrive against the odds. Earlier in its history, Singapore seemed destined to be the weakest country in the region, as it didn’t have anything to become a developing country except its position between the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait.

Singapore’s military is advanced and versatile, capable of conventional warfare, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, and counter-terrorism. Singapore’s military includes infantry battalions supported by artillery, engineering, and logistical units, with additional support from the People’s Defence Force and the National Cadet Corps. Domestic technology companies, such as the government-linked ST Engineering, play a crucial role in enhancing Singapore’s military capabilities by designing and creating a suite of defensive and offensive weapons, which may be expensive for foreign companies to adapt and produce.

Pride in its achievements and resilience defines Singapore’s national identity. As a formidable partner in diplomacy, Singapore has mediated significant international negotiations. The 2018 summit where U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un met, exemplifies its role as a diplomatic intermediary. While the summit initially led to agreements on security guarantees, peaceful relations, and denuclearization, relations between the two nuclear-armed powers again soured for a whole host of reasons.

Singapore has also hosted pivotal ASEAN gatherings, reinforcing its diplomatic stature. Summits to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the Asia-Middle East Dialogue in 2005 highlight its role in fostering regional cooperation and enhancing relations between significant powers.

Singapore’s blend of hard and soft power has cemented its position as a major player in Southeast Asia. Its strategic acumen and historical resilience have transformed the country into the “poisonous shrimp of Asia,” a nation capable of navigating complex geopolitical landscapes and emerging as a significant power in the region. The absolute hard power and soft power that Singapore has accumulated shows how Singapore can balance its position in Southeast Asia, which helped the country build a thriving city-state which enabled it to become a significant power in the region.

Mochammad Jose Akmal is currently an undergraduate student majoring in government science at Universitas Diponegoro. His academic pursuits centre around areas such as security, online extremism, cybersecurity, social media behaviour, history, and international policy.