Singapore: Unlikely Power is a very straightforward book, clear in presentation and digestible overall. While “unlikely power” is only a loose phrase to perhaps distinguish it from any number of other books on Singapore, the book was unapologetically a book about the city-state, beginning to end. It starts all the way back from its days as “Temasek” or “Singapura” and ends with the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the key leader who brought the city from independence to the thriving place that it is today. The book is especially thorough on the economic development of the city, from its early strength in fishing and trading to its modern economy set on a “three-legged stool embodying success in maritime affairs, manufacturing, and services,” through more short-term sectors such as tin and rubber. It highlights many key figures through the centuries, including native Singaporeans, immigrants, and even a few colonial figures. For a book about a country so affected by global forces, I was surprised about a lower relative focus on international relations, but that might have been just because of my personal preferences (I’ve never been especially interested in economics). It might also be in part because Singapore itself has recently been very heavily focused on economic development, sometimes to the detriment of other facets of its existence.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, especially East or South Asian, or the intersection of economics, history and culture. In the latter for example there are many significant threads that run through the book, such as Singapore’s longtime role as a trading center or how deeply immigration features in Singapore’s development. As with most historical books that span one area over centuries or millennia, this book slips quickly through the early years, progressively less speedy through the middle years, and then focuses heavily on the most recent past. Honestly while this book was interesting enough to read through, I’m finding as I write this that it didn’t particularly grab me, and so nothing really sticks out in my memory. As mentioned above that is likely in part because I’m less intrigued by economics; the book was certainly well written, well organized, full of great detail and insight. It was definitely a more factual and balanced introduction to the city-state than my previous one was (Crazy Rich Asians…), and I’m glad I read it.
In summary, it is exactly what it looks like — a digestible tale about a modern country and how it got to be that way. I feel quite a bit more informed, and I have a better basis to understand today’s news about Singapore than I did before. If you’re looking for a satisfying way to spend some time, consider dedicating it to these pages.