By Professor Tommy Koh: Is Singapore A Small Country?

August 05, 2017

As Singapore’s fifty second national day draws near, my thoughts have turned increasingly towards our beloved country, Singapore.  I have also been reflecting on the recent debate between two good friends, Kishore Mahbubani and Bilahari Kausikan, on the diplomacy of small states.

The question which I would like to answer in this essay is whether Singapore is a small country.  The answer may seem obvious but it is not.  It depends on the yardstick we use to measure Singapore’s size.  If we use the yardstick of size of territory or the size of population, then Singapore is certainly a small country.

Prosperity Yardstick

Let us use a different yardstick, the GDP per capita based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).  Qatar, Luxembourg, Macao, Singapore and Brunei are the top five, ranked in that order.  USA is ranked number 13 and China number 81.  By this yardstick, Singapore is the fourth richest country in the world.

Human Development Index

Many people have criticized the use of GDP per capita to assess a country’s prosperity.  The argument is that it is uni-dimensional and does not necessarily reflect the state of well-being of the people.  In response to such criticisms, the UN has created the Human Development Index.

In the 2016 Human Development Index, Singapore is ranked number 6, after Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark.  Singapore is the only Asian country in the top 10.

Power of Trade

With a population of only 5 million, Singapore has a small domestic market.  It has no choice but to be outward oriented and to uphold and practise free trade.  With such a small domestic market, we would not expect Singapore to rank very high in the WTO’s lists of the world’s leading exporters and importers.  Our readers would be surprised to learn that Singapore is the world’s 13th largest exporter and the world’s 15th largest importer.  In other words, Singapore is one of the world’s largest trading entities.  This gives us relevance and influence at the WTO.  This factor combined with the brilliance of our diplomats account for the fact that Singapore is regularly invited by the leaders of WTO to participate in the so-called Green Room negotiations.

Power of Money

It is a fact that in this money-loving world, money is power.  Let us look at the yardstick of the size of a country’s foreign exchange reserves.  Singapore has the world’s 11th largest foreign exchange reserves.  China and Japan are ranked 1 and 2 in that order.

Let us now turn to another yardstick, the size of a country’s foreign direct investment. It is not surprising that USA, UK, Germany, France and Switzerland are the top 5 investors.  I was not surprised that Singapore occupies the 10th position.  I am not surprised because, despite our small size, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China, India and Indonesia.

Another yardstick is the status of Singapore as a financial centre.  According to the Global Financial Centres Index (2017), Singapore is ranked number 3, after London and New York and ahead of Hong Kong and Tokyo.  According to the International Financial Centres Development Index, Singapore is ranked number 4, after New York, London and Tokyo and ahead of Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Power of Communications

The world is driven by international trade and international business.  Shipping and aviation play an essential role in facilitating trade.  Ships and aircraft need seaports and airports.  There is a global network of the leading seaports and airports.

How does Singapore rank among the world’s busiest seaports?  Singapore is ranked number 2 in the list of the world’s busiest seaports by cargo tonnage.  Shanghai is ranked number 1.  Singapore is also ranked number 2 in the list of the world busiest container ports.  Shanghai is again ranked number 1. 

What about Singapore’s Changi Airport.  By the yardstick of the number of passengers using the airports, the Changi Airport is ranked number 17 in the world.  The top 3 airports are Atlanta, Beijing and Dubai.  However, Skytrax has frequently ranked Changi as the best airport in the world.  Changi is therefore not the busiest but the best.

Power of Good Governance

A country’s good governance is also a source of power and influence in the world.  Singapore’s relative absence of corruption, its strong rule of law and the good balance between development and environment are much admired by the world.  The fact that the World Bank has ranked Singapore second in the list of countries for ease of doing business is an asset.  The fact that Singapore is a very liveable city and is clean and green is also an asset.  Foreigners also praise Singapore’s safety and envy the fact that in Singapore women can go out on their own at any time of the day and night.

Diplomatic Power

Singapore’s diplomats and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have generated diplomatic influence for Singapore.  For example, MFA administers a multi-million dollar programme to assist other developing countries called the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP).  Singapore does not give money to other countries because of the risk that it will be diverted.  However, Singapore has been extremely generous in sharing our experience, knowledge or expertise.  To-date, Singapore has trained over 100,000 officials from over 75 countries.

At the UN, Singapore had taken the initiative to establish the Forum of Small States consisting of 107 small countries.  Singapore had also taken the initiative to establish the Global Governance Group, consisting of 30 small and medium economies.  Our leadership of the two groups has contributed to our diplomatic power.

Brain Power

The world is going through a technological revolution which some have called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In the new economy, the most important resource of a country is not its natural resources but its people or brain power.  Singapore is doing a commendable job in educating and training its people.  Singapore’s primary and secondary school students have been ranked number 1 in the world for maths and science.  The National University of Singapore has been ranked as the best university in Asia.

Soft Power

A British Company, Portland, has published the world’s first index ranking countries for their soft power.  In the 2017 index, Singapore is ranked number 20.  Of the Asian countries only 4 make it to the list of the top 30.  Japan is ranked number 6, South Korea is ranked number 21 and China is ranked number 25.

Another reflection of the soft power of countries is to be found in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s where to be born index.  Switzerland is much admired by the world and occupies the top spot.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Singapore in the sixth spot.


My answer to the question whether Singapore is a small country is that it depends on the chosen yardstick.  In some respects, Singapore is a small country.  In other respects, Singapore has out-performed other bigger countries.  Singaporeans should be quietly proud of our achievements but they should remain humble and modest.  We must never become proud and arrogant.  In our relations with other countries, including the major powers, we should be respectful but not submissive.  We should never hesitate to defend our national interests.

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The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.