Technology, History, and Travel

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Marina Bay pan

How does Singapore work?

For several years, I was perplexed by a little place called Singapore. I had never been there myself, but I had read and heard that it is a completely independent city-state on an island in southeast Asia. The more I learned about technology and economics, the more I was baffled by Singapore. How could a single city on an island survive as an independent nation? To function, cities need hinterlands from which to draw resources. But how can a city’s hinterland be in another country?

I was fortunate to get the chance to visit Singapore for a conference earlier this year, the Society for the History of Technology’s annual meeting. Having visited Singapore, and read up on it during and after my visit, I think I have a better understanding of how Singapore can be a viable city-state on an island. Here are some things I’ve learned about how Singapore works.


It is true that Singapore is very small for a country, but it is large for a city-state. At 278 sq mi, it is much larger than the other two independent city-states, Vatican City and Monaco, both of which are smaller than a square mile. Singapore has room not only for urban areas, but also highways, parklands, reservoirs, military bases, and even some farms.

As Singapore’s population grows, land becomes ever more dear—a problem in dense urban areas around the world. One of Singapore’s solutions to the land crunch is buying sand from Indonesia and using it to reclaim land from the ocean. Another solution is particularly heavy-handed urban redevelopment: unilaterally replacing low-density neighborhoods with high-rise apartment blocks. This has created clean, healthy housing for the common man and woman, but it has also given most of Singapore a generic, characterless appearance.

Although Singapore is an island, it is separated from Malaysia (and the Asian mainland) only by the Straits of Johor, which is about as wide as the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan. There are two permanent above-water links between Singapore and Malaysia, the Johor Causeway and the Second Link. The Johor Causeway opened in 1923, was partially destroyed by retreating Allied troops in 1942, then repaired by the Japanese within days of their occupying the island. It has been in use ever since. The Second Link, a longer but less-interesting concrete bridge, opened in 1998.


Singapore has four sources of clean water, known as the National Taps: 1) rainwater collected in reservoirs, 2) desalinated seawater, 3) three pipelines from Malaysia that cross over to Singapore on the Johor Causeway, and 4) processed wastewater. The last of these, known as the Fourth National Tap or Newater, processes the water through multiple stages of filtration and irradiation. Most of this water is used by industry, but some of it is pumped up into the reservoirs, mixed with rainwater, processed again, and then delivered to the municipal water system. (One of the Newater plants is integrated into a visitor center. Like so much else in Singapore, it is a tourist attraction.)

The drainage of Singapore island has been engineered on a huge scale, to save as much rainwater as possible. Singapore’s planners have gone as far as damming the mouth of Marina Bay, adjacent to the downtown commercial district, to convert it into a freshwater lake.


A highly-industrialized, heavily-urbanized place, Singapore has high energy needs. The island has no petrochemical deposits. Fortunately for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia both have an abundance of petrochemicals. Singapore imports crude oil from its neighbors, processes it in refineries, and re-exports the refined products at a profit. The majority of Singapore’s electricity is generated from imported natural gas. I expected to find that Singapore also bought electricity from Malaysia’s electric grid, but it turns out that the opposite is the case: Singapore sells a little electricity back to its neighbor across the straits.


More than 90% of Singapore’s food is imported. Farms on the outskirts of the built-up area produce some eggs, fish, and leafy greens, but almost everything else needs to be imported. The top sources of fruits and vegetables are Malaysia (of course), China, Australia, and the USA.

Despite needing to import everything—or possibly because of this—Singaporeans have developed a strong and distinctive food culture. My favorite experience in Singapore was eating lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown—a food court for inexpensive, tasty street food. I got filled up on a mushroom-noodle dish for S$4.50.


Singapore has managed to stay independent and continue drawing resources from its hinterland in other countries because of its robust economy.1 Located strategically on the Straits of Melaka, Singapore has been an important free-trade port almost from its founding in 1819. The city-state’s industries include ship repair, electronics, and petroleum refining. Singapore is also a center of international banking, and its airport is a major hub in southeast Asia. Singapore has been able to sell itself as a clean, hassle-free (if generic) Asian travel experience, and tourism is thus a major part of the economy as well.

Singapore is an orderly, well-managed country. It is a demonstration that technocracy can work on a small scale—as long as you are able to banish your messy hinterland to another country.

  1. Malaysia is also politically invested in Singapore’s independence. Singapore was a part of Malaysia from 1963-1965, but the Malay States expelled Singapore because their leaders feared the ethnic Chinese of Singapore would dominate national politics. []

The cycle-taxis of Syonan

On a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia to attend the Society for the History of Technology’s first meeting in Asia, I came across a curious example of local technology, the trishaw. At first glance, trishaws looked like cycle rickshaws, common in India, but on closer inspection they turned out to be an ordinary bicycle with a sidecar clamped to one side.

The trishaws I saw were not regular taxis. Instead, like the pedicabs of New York City, they offered joy rides to tourists. In Singapore, I only saw a few forlorn trishaws parked opposite the Raffles Hotel, but in Malacca (Melaka) there were flocks of them congregating around the historic Dutch Square. The Singaporean trishaws were mostly unornamented, but the Malaccan ones were decked out elaborately. Most of the decorations featured children’s movie or TV characters, such as Doraemon, Minions, or the main characters of Frozen.

The history of trishaws in Southeast Asia began more than seventy years ago. According to C.M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore (Oxford, 1977), trishaws originated in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Syonan (“Light of the South,” the name given to Singapore by the Japanese). Singapore, an island state with few natural resources, had long been economically oriented toward the west. The Japanese occupation cut off Singapore’s western trade links, leading to severe resource shortages. Some enterprising Singaporeans found ways to create domestic import substitutes, such as banana-fiber ropes and bamboo paper. Trishaws were another such improvisation. Not only could they be readily adapted from existing bicycles, they also did not consume any gasoline, another scarce wartime commodity. After the end of the war, Singapore’s economy recovered, but trishaws continued to be used into the 1970s. More recently, they have made a comeback for tourists.

Gandhi, Nehru, and the Machine

At the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, a reconstruction of Mahatma Gandhi’s house at Sabarmati Ashram, Gujarat, shows visitors to the free museum how the Father of the Indian Nation chose to live. The room is empty but for a mattress, a writing table, and a spinning wheel. The emptiness of the room emphasizes the asceticism of Gandhi’s life. Although he had come from a middle class family and had a legal education from England, he chose to live like a peasant so the rural masses could associate with him.

Five miles away from the Gandhi museum is Teen Murti Bhawan, the house where Jawaharlal Nehru lived when he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India. It is also a museum, having been preserved in the condition that it was when Nehru lived there fifty years go. Although the house is not opulent by Indian or European standards (it was originally built in the colonial era as the commander-in-chief of the colonial military’s official residence), the contrast with Gandhi’s house is striking. Nehru was not an ascetic. His family started out better-off than Gandhi’s, and he did not give up as many of the trappings of the privileged life as Gandhi did. While Gandhi lived in poverty, Nehru lived in comfort, surrounded by his fine furniture and extensive collection of books.

Just as the ways they lived their lives were different, so were their approaches to industry and economics. Gandhi’s hope for independent India was that the country would develop its villages and emphasize small-scale, local economies. Nehru, on the other hand, believed in large-scale, modern industry, mechanization, big dams, steel mills, and the like. Gandhi wanted hand-spinning; Nehru wanted cotton mills. The two men’s visions for independent India were nearly compete opposites of each other.

Underlying their radically different visions, though, were markedly similar ideals. Gandhi disbelieved in modern industrial capitalism not because he thought that machines were inherently evil, but because he believed that machines’ potential to concentrate wealth and power in the owners’ hands outweighed any potential benefits that machinery might offer. Industrial capitalism enriched the bourgeois minority but left the proletariat poor. Gandhi felt that the inequality produced by modern industry was immoral and socially unacceptable.

Nehru was also alarmed by the inequalities inherent in modern industrial capitalism. Rather than rejecting modern machinery, as Gandhi did, Nehru took a different approach. He believed that industry could be tamed and turned to the benefit of all if it existed in the context of a socialistic command economy. Rather than permitting free-market capitalism, Nehru believed in nationalizing the most important industries and instituting economic planning to define the course of the entire economy. According to Nehru, state industries, economic planning, and the command economy would allow India to enjoy the material benefits of industrialization without suffering its social consequences. As chairman of the National Planning Commission, Nehru inaugurated India’s first three Five-Year Plans before his death in 1964.

The legacy of Nehru’s industrial-economic philosophy was mixed. Although the command economy prevented some of the worst abuses of power that other countries experienced under industrial capitalism, India’s predominantly rural population remained poor and subject to the interests of the urban elites. India’s command economy grew slowly during the four decades it existed. In 1991, the Indian government liberalized the economy. Since then, the Indian economy has grown more quickly, but this growth has been followed by an intensification of the inequality that both Gandhi and Nehru had feared.

Although the Indian command economy no longer exists, state industry is still common in India in the twenty-first century. Across India, factories, stores, power stations, agricultural research centers, and other institutions bearing the motto “A Government of India Enterprise” are glimmers of Nehru’s socialistic economic philosophy that persist in contemporary, free-market India.

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