In Singapore, they say, there are two seasons: summer outdoors and winter indoors. On a hot and dangerously hazy night last week, the freezing-cold taxi cab from Changi Airport to my hotel proved that right. I had arrived on this tropical island nation to participate in a roundtable on the Arctic. My cab cruised past a Formula One racetrack set up for the weekend under the haze-shrouded lights of corporate regional headquarters and five-star hotels. Singapore is an anomaly even within its own region, with its futuristic skyscrapers and shipyards sandwiched between the palm oil plantations and azure waters of Malaysia and Indonesia. But it is even more of an anomaly in the context of the normal locales of Arctic discussions. These places are relatively remote and cold cities like Tromsø, Reykjavik, Fairbanks, or St. Petersburg, which have no small shortage of experiencing winter outdoors.
Despite being thousands of miles from the North Pole, Singapore has matured into a respected Arctic player in recent years. In 2013, it gained observer status in the Arctic Council alongside four other Asian countries: China, Japan, South Korea, and India. An increasing number of Arctic forums are being held in the city-state, with last week’s roundtable being a prime example. Arctic Deeply, the World Policy Institute, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and Guggenheim Partners sponsored the two-hour event, entitled “Asia in the Arctic: Where Things Stand.” Speakers included a representative from the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), a Chinese academic, a U.S. Coast guard, and an employee of the World Wildlife Foundation’s Global Arctic Program, among others. What’s notable, however, is that there were no representatives from the energy industry. Unlike at conferences in, Norway, Alaska, or Russia, exploiting Arctic oil and gas was not really a topic of much discussion – and in Singapore, there’s a reason for that.
A nation of capacity builders
Whereas China, Japan, and South Korea arguably desire to import Arctic oil and gas, Singapore is not as interested in importing the region’s natural resources as it is in exporting its own technologies to help develop them. Despite having no oil and gas resources of its own, the city-state has a highly developed, home-grown offshore oil and gas sector. Keppel Corporation, which the Singaporean state still influences through a state-owned investment company, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of offshore oil rigs. Keppel also has several subsidiaries engaged in Arctic research and development. Keppel Singmarine has manufactured ice-class vessels in the Arctic for Russian oil company Lukoil, while Keppel Offshore and Marine Technology is researching offshore rigs, ice-worthy jackups, and other ice-ready technology. All of this will likely keep Singapore at the edge of the Arctic resource frontier. Possessing the technology rather than the resources also endows Singapore with the flexibility to go wherever the resources are being developed – and indeed to help break open new frontiers – rather than, like many Arctic states, having to wait passively for the commodities cycles to tick back up while trying to lure investors.
One Singaporean official mentioned to me, “We’re capacity builders.” The country sees itself as providing services to other parts of the world rather than as having an interest in directly exploiting natural resources. (That said, Singapore does import almost all of its vital goods, from food to oil to even water, from Malaysia.) As the country only industrialized and modernized beginning in the 1960s following independence from Malaysia, Singapore sees itself as being able to offer its experience to other developing countries. To that end, the country recently welcomed several delegations from the Arctic. As Kamal Vaswani, Acting Director-General, Europe Directorate from the Singapore MFA, explained in his talk during the Arctic roundtable,
“Leaders of the Permanent Participants visited Singapore last November and had exchanges with our officials on various aspects of public policy, from sustainable development to cultural preservation. This included representatives from the Aleut International Association (AIA), Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), the Saami Council, and the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat. From 7 to 10 September 2015, members of the AAC also participated in a short course on climate change adaptation strategies in Singapore, conducted under the Singapore Cooperation Programme.”
Furthermore, in collaboration with the Arctic Council’s Permanent Participants (all of which represent indigenous peoples’ organizations), Singapore has also established a postgraduate scholarship program allowing students of indigenous descent from the Arctic to come to the Southeast Asian country to study public policy, public administration, and maritime studies. Such programs represent the new forms of knowledge exchange that can occur thanks to Asian involvement in the Arctic Council. These endeavors will also hopefully enable indigenous peoples to return home with the skills that will allow them to better manage and hold on to revenues from extraction and shipping instead of having to rely on managers from the outside.
Arctic shipping: a distant threat
The Arctic represents more than just opportunities for Singapore. The city-state’s government is watching developments in the region with a wary eye, for should the Northern Sea Route or other trans-Arctic passages become fully fledged shipping routes sometime this century, it could threaten Singapore’s position as a hub for Asia-Europe trade. Currently, some 70 to 80 percent of oil bound for China and Japan passes through the Strait of Malacca. If these countries were to turn to the Arctic for either its resources or as a shipping shortcut, Singapore could see a good portion of its business decline.
One doesn’t have to travel far to understand how port cities can swiftly fall from prominence. The city of Melaka (Malacca) is less than a three hours’ drive north of Singapore. Nearly six hundred years ago thanks to its position halfway between China and India near the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca, under the leadership of Hindu prince Parameswara, Melaka became one of the most important trading ports within the Asian shipping network. But in 1509, the Portuguese conquest disrupted Melaka’s position at the center of the Asian trading network. With the European conquerors focused on fortifying their new-found trading post and staving off attacks, ships moved to more peaceful ports along the Strait.
Now, Melaka is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site welcoming tourists rather than cargo ships. Ships never returned in their former numbers. Today, while they still pass through the Strait of Malacca, they make their ports of call at Singapore instead, and sometimes alternatively Kuala Lumpur (Klang) or Johore in Malaysia.
Singapore is hardly resting on its laurels, and the threat of outside invasion is presently negligible (though Malaysia and Indonesia, as relative giants compared to Singapore, still remain on the government’s radar). The success of its port is more than just an accident of geography. For decades, the government has made investments into its port to keep it world-class while promoting an extremely liberal trade regime. The government has also directed expansion into other transportation sectors like air travel and logistics, with Singapore Air and Changi Airport enjoying top-notch reputations within the industry. But should climate change melt away the ice cap at the top of the world – and, equally importantly – should Arctic states make the requisite investments in infrastructure, services, and logistics like Singapore has, then the equatorial city-state could see its central position within global shipping networks threatened. More seriously, of course, climate change also represents an existential threat to a low-lying island nation like Singapore, which officials have repeatedly stressed in speeches at Arctic conferences, as I’ve written before.
A more watery future still remains a long way away. For now, Singapore is keeping an eye on the North while welcoming its indigenous residents to its air-conditioned universities, board rooms, and government offices to learn the same skills that helped transform the sleeping fishing village into a modern port.