The Other End of Empire

Back when the British Raj was at its greatest and one fifth of any self-respecting globe was painted pink, the entire “empire on which the sun never set” was held together by a series of bases from which redcoats and gunboats could be dispatched to quell whatever local insurrection dared question the Great White Queen. Prime among these because it held the key to the lucrative sea trade with Southeast Asia—whether silk, spices or opium—was the modest-sized island of Singapore.

At barely 760 sq. km. (not even twice the size of the Isle of Wight) it was recognised early on in European sea trade with the Far East to be a key holding. Though the Dutch and Portuguese fought for control they lost to the British who in 1819 established an entrepôt there which, by WW2, had become the largest and most important British base overseas, made all the more important by its Malay hinterland that was a huge and very lucrative rubber producer. However, un-awed by the might of Empire and its superior numbers, Lt. General Yamashita and his 25th Japanese Army brought two centuries of Empire  crashing down in a little over two months in the most humiliating surrender suffered by the British Army. Ever.

British prestige in the area never recovered and in 1963 the country of Malaysia which included Malaya proper, Singapore, plus Sabah and Sarawak (both parts of Borneo) was given its independence—not least to counter communist guerillas who had lurked in the jungles as part of the early Cold War. With massive resources of rubber, tin and hardwoods, with a mixed ethnic populations that included significant amounts of industrious chinese and sitting at the commercial crossroads of Southeast Asia, great things were expected of Malaysia.

For two years, the 1.6m largely Chinese and entrepreneurial Singaporeans tried to get along with the more passive 9m largely Malays who made up the bulk of the population, sharing a GDP of around $3bn per annum. But there were frictions. In an unexpected development rather stunning in its broadmindedness and foresight, they agreed their ways should diverge and in 1965 the small island state of Singapore left Malaysia to be recognised as an independent country.

While this example at the other end of empire of a large country separating into two unequal but much more culturally coherent parts may not translate exactly into the present question of whether the UK should be put out of its misery, there is certainly a tale of positive benefits to all concerned that is at serious odds of the Better Together scare stories of evaporating pensions and warts on all their first-born if the Scots dare to think that there is a better world than that which issues from the pens of Whitehall mandarins.

Such mandarins (or any unionists) never mention examples like Singapore/Malaysia. And, though there is no automatic correlation between that and the UK, I defy all the supposedly sincere unionists to deconstruct why Scots, if they were to recover the venturesome spirit of Adam Smith, James Watt, Mungo Park, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Keir Hardie and their ilk, would not create a situation in Britain similar to Malaya, where the smaller partner provides the commercial hub for the varied industries of the larger. London once did that for Victorian Britain but the docks are now yuppie playgrounds. Look at Malaya and ask why this can’t happen here…

…in 1965, their joint GDP was $3 bn per annum for 10.5m people—a modest $285 per capita. Regularly achieving 6% growth, Malaysia alone went on to achieve $21.8 bn by 1980 and $287bn for its 24.3m people by 2012. That’s a respectable $11,757 per capita, which places it around 50th ranking in the countries of the world. Not bad.

Meanwhile, Singapore, starting with little but the leavings of British bureaucracy and a fortunate location, embraced the world and the opportunities the late 20th century afforded it. Whether corporate HQ’s, offshore semiconductor production or becoming the regional hub for wealth management, they took their population to 4.3m in fifty years and—more impressively—their GDP from less than $1 bn through a growth that spurted to 8% on occasion to land at $245 bn in 2012—not far short that achieved by all the rest of Malaysia and landing them (along with Qatar, Luxembourg and Norway) among the richest countries in the world, boasting a $57,000 per capita GDP.

Often cited as a city of the future (and sometimes criticised for the resulting Orwellian feel), Singapore has spotless streets, modern buildings, an amazingly efficient public transport system and well paid employment for its citizens. Singapore now has a highly developed trade-oriented market economy that has been ranked as the most open in the world, the least corrupt, the most pro-business and offering low tax rates (14.2% of GDP). It is recognised as the world’s fourth leading financial centre, after New York, London and Hong Kong.

Singapore has the highest trade to GDP ratio in the world, averaging around 400% during 2008-11. The Port of Singapore is the second-busiest in the world by cargo tonnage with a modern port infrastructure. Its skilled workforce is attributed to the success of the country’s education policy in producing skilled workers and is fundamental in providing easier access to markets for both importing and exporting, and also provide the skill(s) needed to transform imports into exports.

There are no guarantees for any future but the unleashing of Singapore was an event that lies firmly on the plus side of the argument for Scottish independence. A country the size of Glasgow traded independence into making its people 200 times richer in half a century. If that’s too fanciful for your taste, pardon these imaginative proposals:

  • What if North America turns fracking into major oil exports? Already European energy capital exactly on the approach to Europe, Scotland could be Europe’s energy entrepôt, capitalising on both North Sea oil pipelines and those to the East, plus the international electricity grid being proposed.
  • What if the trend to Cape-size (~200,000 tons) and VLBC (~400,000 tons) continues? The Channel is already crowded and only 40m deep; much of the North Sea is shallow. Scotland has deep water access and is spoilt for choice in anchorages.
  • What if we invested in a major international airport hub near Falkirk? More than any other country, we lie on the great circle routes to North America. We would attract major US traffic from Schipol, Copenhagen and Heathrow with a web of feeder links all across Europe and cutting flight times by at least an hour.

The equivalent of Singapore’s story is for a swampy, tropical Isle of Wight with no oil, no minerals, indeed nothing but its people as an asset to  become both the hub of Western Europe’s trade and finance and fourth-richest country on the planet. If that is possible, what opportunities might hundred-times-bigger, more advanced, globally famous Scotland achieve? If England took a leaf out of Malaysia’s book—help its feisty go-getter  brother move from being a surly lodger to discover his métier in the world—the whole family of countries on the British Isles would benefit.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
This entry was posted in Commerce, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Other End of Empire

  1. Pingback: We Don’t Teach No Calculation | davidsberry

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