Smart City, Small State: Singapore's Ambitions and Contradictions in Digital Transnational Connectivity

This argument appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

By Alan Chong

Since the 1990s, Singapore has developed a steady reputation as a high technology and communications hub. Being 100 percent urbanized seems to have been an asset in the city-state’s top-down transformation from a diversified manufacturing and services economy to an increasingly digitally-oriented service node for the region and world economy.1 Indeed, Singapore has realized its digital ambition as a “Smart City” through dirigiste (interventionist) developmental policies, its authoritarian-technocratic democracy, and the strategic obsession with constructing hub capabilities where little or none existed before. This achievement is highly commendable but runs the risk of running up against contradictions in its soft power applications. Singapore is, after all, a small state with a population that is a fraction of the size of historic high technology centers such as San Francisco, Tokyo, and Shanghai, and this limits its pool of information technology talent. It has also demonstrated weaknesses in cybersecurity and experienced frustration with offline Asian regional geopolitics inimical to digital economic confluences. In sum, the Singapore experience in growing its digital hub offers lessons for other countries on leapfrogging an unfavorable offline local geography by leveraging global city status.[i]

Introduction: Reconciling Small and Smart

The state of Singapore exemplifies unusual challenges to the practice and study of international relations. With a land area of 725.7 square kilometers2 and population density of 7,180 persons per square kilometer,3 it is a veritably large city. This creates opportunities to account for the demographic, economic, and political challenges of Singapore’s survival as an urban entity, not unlike a Shanghai, Tokyo, or San Francisco. In terms of reputation, Singapore has been popularly described as a business center, an administrative capital, and a technological hub. Singapore combines a landscape of heavily built-up, high-rise housing—often co-located near industrial parks, creative industries, and financial institutions—with an efficient urban transportation infrastructure of road, rail, and ride-hailing services. Its spatial compactness is augmented by wide broadband electronic connectivity that government fiat regularly updates.

It is therefore unsurprising that the literature defining global cities connected to information technology (IT) matches Singapore’s profile. In sociologist Saskia Sassen’s formulation, the global city functions first as a “highly concentrated” command point of a global capitalist economy. Businesses want to operate in the global city to take advantage of its unparalleled connectivity across national jurisdictions to any constellation of dispersed production, assembly, marketing, and research facilities. Second, Sassen believes that such cities are “key locations for finance and for specialized service firms, which have replaced manufacturing as the leading economic sectors.” Third, a global city must encourage research and innovation as a mission unto itself. Finally, global cities must by themselves serve “as markets for the products and innovations produced.”4 This set of characteristics overlaps with what many sociologists, geographers, and technology scholars have termed the “postindustrial society,” “the modern surveillance state,” the “Third Wave” society, and “the informational city,” associated respectively with Daniel Bell, Anthony Giddens, Alvin Toffler, and Manuel Castells.5 All these ideas are surveyed in a book by sociologist Frank Webster, who argues that the global “informatized” or IT-savvy societies qua cities are culminations of long-term, profound transformations of industrial occupations toward work oriented around the manipulation of symbols.6 This is analogous to the emergence of IT professionals as a burgeoning part of the white-collar segment of urban workforces. Singapore’s latest statistical breakdown of sectoral contributions to the gross domestic product showed that “services,” encompassing IT, finance, businesses, and educational occupations, held the largest share, having overtaken manufacturing and real estate as major contributors as early as 1990.7 By 2018, services dwarfed the contribution of manufacturing by a factor of three. 8 This probably reflects the fact that service occupations both draw upon and enlarge the IT-related segments of the economy. Moreover, possessing a service-led economy effectively integrates the country into the global economy, exposing it to its downsides. I will employ the terms “smart city” and “smart global city” interchangeably, since the former is a popular term that emphasizes the transformation of the bulk of the economy toward intellectually-intensive work, as opposed to physically-intensive occupations popularly given the label “blue-collar occupations.” A global city, as Sassen elaborates, comes into existence because it strives to attract and direct flows of information technology and hence depends on the qualities of talent and creativity.9

Ironically, Singapore is considered a small state in mainstream international relations theory and foreign policy analysis.10 The definition of “smallness” remains highly contested in the literature, but there is sufficient consensus that it can be identified in relative terms. Singapore is small because its total land area conforms most closely to a handful of Asia’s major metropolises. It is bereft of significant physical mineral deposits. Additionally, as city-sized island, it enjoys no strategic depth in the event of a conventional military attack by land, air, or sea.11 Its trade-dependent economy is a direct legacy of 146 years of British colonialism straddling the preceding two centuries. While it boasts a high technology, Anglo-AmericanIsraeli-trained military dedicated to deterrence, Singapore heavily depends on a latticework of regional memberships and special overlapping relationships with China, the United States, Japan, and India for its sovereignty and prosperity.12 There is good reason for this intricate strategy of survival. Since gaining its independence in 1965, the city-state has endured pendulum-like relations with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, whose territories and populations dwarf Singapore’s by a factor of several hundred, even though the latter two economies suffer from structural underdevelopment and neglect.

Singapore, therefore, confronts a strategic irony in growing its status as a “smart global city.” On the one hand, it lacks a high technology ecosystem that is conducive to its neighboring region. Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam either prioritize hegemonic governmental controls on information or relegate techno-creativity considerations to the margins of public policy. These Southeast Asian states have yet to be categorizable as centers of integrated information or deeply invested data production. Instead, their economies hew toward more traditional brick-and-mortar, labor-intensive, heavy industrial and manufacturing priorities. Singapore is frequently regarded as the odd one out: a rare spot of well-managed, high-technology real estate in a Global South neighborhood that cannot keep up with it, but at the same time, depends on it for managerial expertise and connectivity to the world. Not surprisingly, Singapore’s government believes that it must develop technologically to the point where it can circumvent the region at will, especially during structural crises in the Southeast Asian political economy or natural disasters and pandemics like COVID-19. Therefore, Singapore’s pursuit of national security and prosperity occurs through embracing its position at the “commanding heights” of an IT-connected global economy. Unlike the economic drag of the regional economies’ brick-and-mortar woes, IT-oriented development is often closely connected to the fortunes of the city-state’s global scale networks. This strategy of circumvention allows the republic to bypass digitally underdeveloped neighbors mired in intractable, offline political snafus. This is the core contradiction that underscores Singapore’s global city foreign policy. As I have argued elsewhere, a global city’s foreign policy promotes and consolidates the city-state as a node in a planetary network of information and technological flows that deliberately transcends large swaths of underdeveloped territories.13 How this particular strategy is made possible will be the subject of the rest of this article. But I will also note that Singapore’s global city foreign policy reveals a number of drawbacks that must be considered seriously if it is to be treated as either a model to be emulated, or a case study in experimental digital aspirations in leapfrogging an unfavorable physical and political geography.

“Smart Nation” Through Dirigiste Developmental Policies

On the positive ledger of Singapore’s present status as a global city in the “Sassenian” meaning of the term, one must trace the evolution of the city-state’s IT ambitions through the prism of what I term its own version of dirigiste (economically interventionist) development. Incidentally, this is often admired by many governments looking to seed knowledge-based economies through top-down approaches. Singapore’s fundamental political foundation is the soft authoritarianism of a single party-dominated state. It is still a democracy that practices free and fair elections, and government officials remain mostly corruption-free. The democratically elected opposition parties continue to play, at most, a token role representing no more than 30 to 40 percent of the population in any given election year.14 Moreover, scandals of misappropriation are dealt with harshly in the public eye. This has produced 62 years of an almost textbook-like clean government manned by technocrats who have largely focused on growing the economy like a corporation. Hence, economists and political scientists have popularized the moniker “Singapore Incorporated.” Many IT development theorists often underestimate the importance of this foundation of Singapore as a global city.

Both local and foreign business interests have learned to trust the reliability and foresight of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) when making plans for investment and the sustainability of those very investments. The PAP state first propagated IT as the grease for an efficient private sector and a responsive government sector. Additionally, PAP technocrats believed that the redemption from Singapore’s physical limitations and potential urban limits was to leverage technology to virtually enlarge the country’s economic importance to the immediate region and ultimately the world. Both Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam of the first generation of PAP leaders articulated a strategic blueprint for a technologically-assisted breakout from the city-state’s physical geography. The twin ideas of the oasis and the global city were born into Singaporean official parlance.15 Singapore would become the oasis for talent, high-end manufacturing, communications centrality, and headquartering functions to both integrate with the most advanced economies and outpace Southeast Asia’s economic doldrums, if necessary.16 The global city was as much bold imagination as it was pure propaganda to raise the morale of a population that found itself managing an unexpected independence in August 1965: Singapore would aspire to become one of many apex cities in the world economy, drawing the business of oil tanker traffic, businesses operating throughout Asia, and stockbroking firms of global span to its shores and connecting through them to everywhere else. The breathtaking vision of a city with the world as its hinterland had indeed a local version before Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells, and Kenichi Ohmae popularized it in the 1990s.17

The key emphases of Singapore’s development strategy under the PAP governments have never deviated from the use of technology, human and financial capital, and the continuous upgrading of workers’ skills to compensate for the absence of land and natural resources. A “techno-anxiety”-driven socio-industrial culture is officially in play, and Singaporeans are socialized into it from a young age. It is within this context that we can appreciate the following analysis of IT planning and its contingencies.

The boldness of vision in embracing IT within the context of an oasis strategy and a global city was enacted through a technocratic, yet propagandistic, formulation known as global city foreign policy. Such a foreign policy distinctively referred “to the realm of promotional activity designed to attain for the city a significant degree of connectedness with cross-border flows of finance, production and information so as to achieve a commanding position in the global capitalist economy to extract surpluses from these very flows.”18 In other words, as much as Singapore’s foreign policy is conventionally analyzed between the opposing pulls of Realism and Liberalism, it is the soft power dimension that one should examine to appreciate how Singapore’s “Smart Nation” computerization initiatives were never completely domestically-oriented dirigiste policies. They were rather designed to attract IT-oriented foreign investors to Singapore’s shores by offering a greenfield site unlike anything seen in Asia, outside of Silicon Valley in California. In the minds of the PAP development planners, as long as IT delivers continuous economic expansion with few serious setbacks, all is well.19 Given the city-state’s unanticipated independence and existentially vulnerable economy, the fallout from a large-scale cyberattack could prove damaging to both its public morale and economic reputation, given the high hopes set upon technology as a multiplier for Singapore’s economic growth. 

The milestone-setting National IT Plan of 1985 listed seven targets for educating the local workforce and the population at large. Among the priorities was the creation of an ample supply of a new profession of IT workers. The latter should not only assist businesses to embrace IT in their commercial and industrial processes, but also act as agents for implementing cutting-edge IT products for their employers. An “IT culture” should be fostered nationally to the extent that an IT industry comes into its own.20 A National Committee on IT was established as a result to foster all these objectives, some of which required compulsory computer literacy courses to be conducted at high school, college, and polytechnic level institutions. Unsurprisingly, the number of school dropouts and job seekers with IT skills climbed exponentially within less than a decade. Between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of households with computer access at home jumped from 61 to 74 percent.21 In 2020, the internet penetration rate stood at 88 percent.22 If the IT Plan of 1985 demonstrated signs of pure dirigisme in socializing the Singaporean workforce for the IT era, the subsequent IT2000 Report published by the National Computer Board declared in unmistakable terms the city-state’s intention to be the quintessential global city integrated into multidimensional networks of the IT economy. Investors and factories were attracted to manufacture and research miniature IT devices and platforms, improve the speed and bandwidth of broadband connections, and explore all possibilities of applying multimedia formats to existing businesses. Even before “cloud computing” and the Internet of Things were popularized in the mid-2010s, the IT2000 vision steered Singapore towards integrating tetherless computing into transportation, work, and lifestyle dimensions.23

All of these developments culminated in 2018’s Smart Nation Initiative, whereby the PAP government finally took a step back and served as a facilitator to the visibly self-driven initiatives of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large multinational corporations, which have now developed core proficiencies in IT-dependent production processes and completely virtual design and build operations. The Smart Nation vision was mapped out in terms of 23 industrial transformation roadmaps that the PAP government declared in an unsubtle hint of how change was still being coaxed from the top, albeit in consultation with the private sector. Interestingly, the Smart Nation anticipated grooming “digital champions among us,” welcoming new talents and bringing firms and “Infocom Media Industry problem solvers together to address real business problems.”24 This is a clear statement of ambition to truly become a dynamic microcosm of Silicon Valley in Asia. Not surprisingly, the city-state welcomed Chinese IT giants Tencent Holdings, Alibaba Group, and Bytedance Limited to base their potentially global operations on the island after the latter encountered severe sanctions imposed by the United States and India on their business operations within their respective national territories.25 Moreover, Huawei has launched in Singapore Southeast Asia’s first open business IT laboratory to attract collaborations with SMEs to create tailor-made IT business platforms and solutions.26 In this sense, Singapore has seized unprecedented advantages in its global city foreign policy despite the lockdowns experienced globally under COVID-19 conditions.

Thus, Singapore began to thrive upon the top-down IT plan it instituted over 36 years. This form of directed digital development required a quiescent public and a compliant workforce. But one might equally argue that authoritarian developmentalism was always at work since Singapore’s independence in 1965. Creating an IT power by digitalizing economies is a feat that few countries except the United States, Scandinavian states, and China have been able to match.

Frictions of Cyber-Insecurity and Geopolitics

If the success of the computerization of Singapore is mostly attributable to diligently applied IT policies in a compact urban setting, the associated issue of cybersecurity opens a Pandora’s box for Singapore’s government and society. The main conundrum in managing cybersecurity lies in the flexible and highly chameleonic character of online hacking.27 One’s suffering from an unauthorized intrusion could well be perceived by the perpetrator as legitimate information gathering via a mostly undergoverned global information superhighway.28 There is no universally established indicator of tardiness in cybersecurity, except where governments and firms admit that it has cost them their reputations for confidentiality, trust, and resilience, plus considerable money, to repair breaches.29 The advent of internet-connected computers as well as other computer-related systems and machinery has made the Singaporean economy heavily reliant on the efficacy, accessibility, and speed of the internet. In January 2017, for instance, the corporate security firm Accenture reported that although 77 percent of its Singapore-based cybersecurity survey respondents expressed confidence in their firms’ ability to protect themselves. Accenture’s other findings revealed that the average organization in Singapore endured 138 cyberattacks per year.30 This exceeded the global average of 106. Between February and November 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore and the large-scale shift to remote working from home, six in ten organizations polled by the U.S. technology company Cisco reported that cyberattacks had increased by 25 percent, while a mere 42 percent of those polled indicated satisfaction with existing cyber defenses emplaced by their companies.31 Thus far, no report has revealed the frequency of cyberattacks on banks in Singapore. But in 2019, the Association of Banks in Singapore and Singapore’s Central Bank equivalent, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, have openly hinted that banks in Singapore stood to lose 20 to 65 percent of their quarterly profits in the event of a serious cyberattack.32

In short, cyberattacks reveal Singapore’s vulnerability to malicious designs emanating from a variety of both non-state and state actors. Three prominent cyberattacks in 2013, 2016, and 2017 illuminate the many sides of this frontier-less security risk. In November 2013, following the announcement of a new internet licensing law for new sites—including blogs—that recorded at least 50,000 unique visitors a month and published at least one local news article a week, a mysterious attacker codenamed “The Messiah” claimed the support of the notorious global hacker group Anonymous in sending warning signals to the Singapore government. Several major government websites including the generic Government of Singapore site, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Internal Security Department, the Singapore Police Force, the Central Narcotics Bureau, and the Ministry of Finance were taken down by “The Messiah” and their network. Initially, the government attempted to respond by denying the attack had happened and claimed that the sites were all taken down for “planned maintenance.” Within 24 hours, however, the Prime Minister openly declared his government would spare no effort to track down and prosecute the attackers. In an act of “sovereignizing” the policing effort, the Premier declared, “You may think you are anonymous. We will make that extra effort to find out who you are…And if we can find him, we will bring him to justice and he will be dealt with.”33 Six days later, the forensic trail pieced together by Singaporean police led to a joint operation with Malaysian police that nabbed a 35-year-old ex–drug offender and wanted man who admitted to using the moniker “The Messiah” to spite the Singaporean authorities.

While the Messiah case was a relatively straightforward one of crossborder police work and extradition of an identifiable culprit to Singapore, the next two serious breaches proved more nettlesome. In February 2017, unnamed hackers penetrated a Ministry of Defense personnel database and copied national identity numbers, telephone numbers, and birthdates of 854 uniformed staff. Although the ministry declared the breach unalarming and unlikely to lead to further hacking attempts, the second minister for Defense replied to parliamentary queries that “findings will be kept confidential for security reasons.”34 Simultaneously, the ministry publicly ruled out criminal groups, casual hackers, and insiders’ sabotage, leaving the state-run leading English daily to conclude that foreign governments were the probable suspects. The minister further hinted that the culprits in this attack “went through the window but couldn’t access the house because the house is separate.”35 In this way, the minister suggested that Singapore’s military cybersecurity was maintained by the traditional physical and online firewalls.36 “Sensitive military information” was protected by air gaps and standard password protection and encryption.

The next major cyberattack targeted the government agency SingHealth from May to July 2018. The medical records of 1.5 million patients, including those of the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, and several members of his cabinet, were taken. According to the findings of Singapore’s Committee of Inquiry, the attack played out over several months as the perpetrator “infected workstations with malware and moved laterally in the network.”37 The perpetrator escaped detection by exploiting “inactive administrator accounts to remotely log in to a server that was linked to another system containing the Electronic Medical Records database. The attacker also made multiple failed attempts to log in to the database.”38 It turned out that these inactive administrator accounts allowed access through an “open link, which had been set up temporarily for database migration to a new cloud-based system, [and] was slated to be disconnected only this month [September 2018]. Multiple attempts at accessing the Electronic Medical Records database to transfer information from June 27 to July 4 were then possible using this link.”39 Subsequent revelations also showed that the alert for the initial cyber intrusion in June was delayed or suppressed because the senior cybersecurity officer on duty was overwhelmed with work stress and family crises.

These are worrying signs that suggest all is not completely under control in growth-obsessed Smart City Singapore. Numerous cyberattacks occur on weekly and daily bases, and many are due to straightforward human negligence as much as determined attempts by the so-called Advanced Persistent Threat agents purported to be sponsored by foreign governments. Going forward, Singapore needs to be understood as the nearly unpoliceable global frontier of cybersecurity, given the plugged-in nature of the small state’s virtually enlarged economy.40

Singapore’s digital is most immediately connected to neighboring Southeast Asian economies, beyond its connections to the supply chains of the United States, European Union, Japan, and China. In Southeast Asia, significant problems stem from the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) inability to commit to eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers both within and without each national jurisdiction. In a 2018 interview with top executives of Singapore and Southeast Asia-based e-commerce companies such as Lazada (shopping), Shopee (shopping), Bukalapak (shopping and logistics), Ninja Van (logistics), Get Go Global (logistics) and Paypal (digital payments), the constant theme that emerged was one of frustration with red tape and protectionism practiced by governments for domestic producers.41 Remarks from the Lazada representative are demonstrative of this:

Harmonisation of rules on data flow and consumer protection— while appropriately protecting consumer privacy, national security and trade secrets—can promote rapid development of a data-based ASEAN economy. It will help reduce market barriers and costs for SMEs to enter e-commerce and ensure viability of e-commerce business. Besides, we suggest providing transparency of cross-border trade requirements including in product standards, licensing, registration, streamlining processes…[42]

Ironically, ASEAN governments have almost uniformly called on young entrepreneurs and start-up companies to innovate using e-commerce platforms to very incremental effect, except, perhaps, in Singapore.

At the end of 2018, the latest year in which Singapore held the chairmanship of ASEAN and pushed for digital integration across all its member economies, the senior director of policy in charge of the Asia-Pacific at BSA, the Software Alliance, commented that many ASEAN governments showed reluctance to involve corporate and non-governmental stakeholders in crafting appropriate legal regimes to assure producers, sellers, and consumers engaged in e-commerce. In particular, he singled out the following:

Vietnam’s efforts at establishing a legal framework for cyber and information security are also commendable. However, in implementing its recently enacted cyber security law, Vietnam will need to closely consult with the industry and all stakeholders to guard against the risks of overly rigid interpretations of the law. Other countries in the region, such as Thailand and Malaysia, are also working on comprehensive cyber security legislation.[43]

In short, despite Singapore’s earnest attempt to extend connectivity from its Smart Nation plan at home to its near abroad, its uneven policy and political terrain takes a toll on the promise of e-commerce acting as a quick formula for economic success. In this regard, e-commerce in Singapore will likely remain hitched to the more sophisticated digitized economies of the Global North for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asia will continue to frustrate Singapore’s best efforts at policing lawless elements within its smart city boundaries and across its networks to overseas markets and investments. For the past three years, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia have not appeared to treat computer hacking and “fake news” online as serious crimes despite putting in place legislation to that effect.44 Vietnam, for instance, has been reported by many private cybersecurity firms to have either condoned or encouraged hackers to pry into corporate data sites to obtain sensitive commercial information to strengthen the state’s bargaining position with foreign enterprises.45 Several computer viruses are documented to have been created by uncontrolled netizens in the Philippines with the central government appearing hapless or uninterested in enforcing the law against digital malfeasance. In both the Philippines and Indonesia, local political parties and their “armies” of provocateurs have openly engaged in partisan slander and propagandistic circulation of altered news streams online through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.46 Since 2020, Thailand, too, has witnessed large-scale youthful protests against the military-dominated government by manifesting an online presence that has expressed solidarity with their counterparts opposing similar authoritarian powers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Myanmar.47 These events are occurring despite anti-sedition laws and legislation governing the misuse of information technology.

Contrastingly, in 2019, Singapore passed the seemingly draconian Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA)—the so-called “anti–fake news law”—to protect against malign influences exerted through fabrications of information on the good standing of the sovereign government of Singapore as well as its foreign relations, or fabrications deemed prejudicial to social harmony within the population of the state.48 POFMA has been used thus far sparingly to stop the dissemination of misleading information about government finances published on opposition party websites and ancillary news forums operated by the government-linked Singapore Press Holdings group.49 In sum, Singapore’s punctiliousness in encouraging and sanitizing the commercial and information flows through its smart city hub stands at variance with its geographical and political neighborhood. This is significant considering that 28 percent of its export trade is conducted with Southeast Asia.50 Amongst the ASEAN economies, Malaysia ranked as Singapore’s second largest trading partner in terms of value, Indonesia seventh, and Thailand tenth in 2019. China, the United States, and the EU accounted for positions one, three, and four respectively. These figures include the all-important trade in services that are heavily dependent on Singapore being a digitally connected global city.51

Speed Limits for Singapore’s Smart City Ambitions?

By becoming a smart global city, Singapore has, to some measure, succeeded in mitigating the desolation of a small state constrained by conventional indices of national power. The IT characteristics of the global city enabled Singapore to facilitate its economic ascent into developed world status by being able to offer a myriad of hosting services for multinational corporations and the global economy at large. Currently, global city Singapore has been able to take advantage of the Sino-U.S. spat over 5G digital tech nologies and Chinese IT companies’ search for alternative hosting sites for research and business process operations. During Singapore’s chairmanship of the ASEAN regional organization, it has attempted to campaign for the deep digitalization of the grouping’s member economies to catalyze future long-term growth. In one dimension, this will place Singapore several economic paces ahead of its immediate neighborhood of Southeast Asia.

The ongoing trial of developing so-called eco-friendly cities with a light carbon footprint has also helped bolster the appeal of Singapore’s digitalization drive. In the ongoing Sino-Singapore collaboration in Tianjin Eco-City, residents living in dense high-rise complexes are co-located near the Central Business District or have almost driver-less mass rapid trains operating just steps away from their front doors. Each apartment offers remote control, voice-activated Artificial Intelligence systems that adjust window curtains, open and lock doors, and even assess the latest market prices for basic foods should one consider preparing a home-cooked meal.52 Even the library is automated, with robot servers responding to book search and retrieval requests through voice commands. Saudi Arabia’s ambitious The Line project situated within the Neom futuristic urban conurbation on its Red Sea coast promises similarly carbon-light living facilitated in large measure by touchless digital contact mechanisms and pedestrian-friendly traffic management.53 Any permutations of interest in developing global cities elsewhere will ensure Singapore will be regarded as an indispensable node in a global capitalism increasingly based on growing value from the manipulation of symbols. This is indeed a Singapore plugged into the global knowledge economy.

I have nonetheless identified caveats in Singapore’s ongoing learning trajectory when dealing with cyberattacks from both non-state and state actors. Moreover, in trying to live with and offer itself as a developmental example to Southeast Asia, Singapore is perhaps severely limited in its transformational soft power. The region needs to navigate its own political crosswinds and domestic resistance towards a collaborative and inclusive digital culture to evolve in a trajectory different from that envisaged by Singapore’s far-sighted planners.

Going forward, COVID-19’s economic impact may impart a next-level momentum to Singapore’s smart city planning. As 2020 and 2021 have panned out, the virus has compelled every aspect of human activity to adopt the principles of safe distancing and sanitization. By nature, digital technologies adapt readily to these principles. Firstly, digital businesses and store fronts allow employees and supervisors to interact remotely over large distances in physical geography. The same thing obtains between retailers and customers. Contaminating physical contact is eliminated while normal business carries on. Email is a basic tool that pioneered live real-time interaction, albeit without physical sighting between persons in correspondence. Today, there is social media and real time conferencing software of the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and Google Meet. These enable virtual, visual conferences in real time. Physical meetings are mediated completely.

Secondly, the requirements of business operations ride on the possibilities of utilizing the Internet as either a geographically limitless shopfront or the ultimate open access backbone for dispersing production and assembly functions. Open access does not necessarily mean no fees or barriers to internet access. It simply suggests that entities, including individuals, who are willing to be creative, to acquire or build new Internet applications, or rent existing applications, can adapt a piece of cyber territory for extending their economic activities. This is no different from the pre-COVID-19 offline business that disperses research, production, and assembly over distant locations, but significantly enhanced through cyberspace. Many corporations that offer “off the virtual shelf” products and services to Singaporean consumers like Lazada, Shopee, eBay, Taobao, and Aliexpress often allow manufacturers to directly customize products for buyers before they are shipped out by physical couriers. This multiplies the possibilities for both disintermediation of retailers and enables producers to take on retailing functions as well.

Finally, the COVID-19-induced need for sanitized human contact plays to the strengths of the smart global city. Digitalization encompasses touchless or contactless sensing technologies that are rapidly seeing deployment in many of Singapore’s automated immigration checkpoints, cleaning robots, experimental driverless mass transit vehicles, and semi-smart environmental survey drones. Singapore government websites already offer services to the public that provide elementary round-the-clock digital assistance. In this regard, smart global city Singapore is a genuine experiment in progress, capitalizing on COVID-19’s impact to drive a digitally connected mode of international relations or political economy. This could well upend the conventional understandings of international power emanating from small and highly urbanized jurisdictions.

i The author thanks Chua Kun Yang for his unstinting efforts in facilitating early library research for this piece. The eminent French cybersecurity expert Daniel Ventre also provided some extremely helpful suggestions. The two anonymous reviewers for this article provided the bulk of the critical reflection points, for which the author thanks them. All extant errors of interpretation are solely the responsibility of the author.

1 Trading Economics, “Singapore - Urban Population (% Of Total),” Trading Economics, accessed January 25, 2021, html.

2 Singapore Land Authority, “Total Land Area of Singapore,”, May 20, 2015, https://data.

3 Singapore Department of Statistics, “Population and Population Structure,” Singapore Department of Statistics, accessed January 25, 2021, population-and-population-structure/latest-data.

4 Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 3–4.

5 See for instance: Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (Harmondsworth: Penguin and Peregrine Books, 1976); Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence: Volume Two of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985); Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam Books, 1980); Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-Regional Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

6 Frank Webster, Theories of the Information Society (London: Routledge, 1995).

7 Ministry of Trade and Industry - Department of Statistics, “Gross Domestic Product at Current Prices, By Industry (SSIC 2015 Version 2018), Annual,”, August 18, 2019, sg/dataset/gross-domestic-product-at-current-market-prices-annual?resource_id=6eff271a-5452-4992- b32c-97e25a8290c8.

8 “Gross Domestic Product at Current Prices, By Industry,”

9 Sassen, The Global City.

10 Obaid Ul Haq, “Foreign Policy,” in Government and Politics of Singapore, eds. Jon S.T. Quah, Chan Heng Chee, and Seah Chee Meow (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985), 276–308; Bilveer Singh, Singapore: Foreign Policy Imperatives of a Small State (Singapore: Heinemann Publishers Asia, 1988); Michael Leifer, Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability (London: Routledge, 2000).

11 Tim Huxley, Defending the Lion City: The Armed Forces of Singapore (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 2000).

12 Huxley, Defending the Lion City.

13 Alan Chong, “‘Global City Foreign Policy’: The Propaganda of Enlargement and Integration of an IT-connected Asian City,” in State, Society and Information Technology in Asia: Alterity between Online and Offline Politics, ed. Alan Chong and Faizal Yahya (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 135–172.

14 Bilveer Singh, Is the People’s Action Party Here to Stay? Analysing The Resilience of the One-party Dominant State in Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2019), 191–212.

15 Alan Chong, “Singapore’s Foreign Policy Beliefs as ‘Abridged Realism’: Pragmatic and Liberal Prefixes in the Foreign Policy Thought of Rajaratnam, Lee, Koh and Mahbubani,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 6, no. 2 (2006): 269–306.

16 S. Rajaratnam, “3.5 (c) Singapore, Global City (1972),” in The Prophetic and the Political. Selected Speeches and Writings of S. Rajaratnam, eds. Chan Heng Chee and Obaid ul Haq (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1987), 224–300.

17 In addition to the work of Sassen and Castells mentioned earlier, see Kenichi Ohmae, The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy (New York: Harper Business, 1999).

18 Chong, “‘Global City Foreign Policy,’” 138.

19 Lawrence B. Krause, “Industrialization of an Advanced Global City,” in The Singapore Economy Reconsidered, eds. Lawrence B. Krause, Koh Ai Tee, and Lee Tsao Yuan (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), 54-77; Choy Keen Meng, “Singapore’s Changing Economic Model,” in Management of Success: Singapore Revisited, ed. Terence Chong (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 123–138.

20 Chong, “Global City Foreign Policy,” 162–163.

21 Chong, “Global City Foreign Policy,” 163.

22 Simon Kemp, “Digital 2020: Singapore,” DataReportal, February 13, 2020, reports/digital-2020-singapore.

23 Chong, “Global City Foreign Policy,” 164.

24 Infocomm Media Development Authority, “Digital Economy Framework for Action,” January 18, 2021,

25 Zheping Huang and Yoolim Lee, “Tencent Picks Singapore as Asia Hub After India, U.S. Bans,” Bloomberg, September 14, 2020,

26 GovInsider, “Inside Huawei’s new 5G AI lab in Singapore. Nicholas Ma, CEO of Huawei International, shares his vision for the multi-million dollar investment,” GovInsider, November 28, 2019,

27 Alan Chong, “Information Warfare? The Case for an Asian Perspective on Information Operations,” Armed Forces and Society 40, no. 4 (2014): 599–624.

28 Daniel Ventre, “Conclusion,” in Cyber Conflict: Competing National Perspectives, ed. Daniel Ventre (London: ISTE Limited and John Wiley and Sons Limited, 2012), 297–301.

29 Adam Segal, The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Manuever and Manipulate in the Digital Age (New York: Public Affairs, 2017), 1–29. See also, the more military-oriented vision offered by Chris C. Demchak, Wars of Disruption and Resilience: Cybered Conflict, Power, and National Security (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

30 Vivien Shiao, “S’pore firms remain sanguine despite frequency of cyberattacks: survey,” Business Times, January 19, 2017,

31 Wong Shiying, “Cyber Security Threats rise as more work from home: Poll,” Straits Times, October 23, 2020,

32 Jamie Lee, “20-65% of Banks’ Quarterly Profit at Risk from Full-blown Direct Cyberattacks: MAS Study,” Business Times, November 28, 2019,

33 Jermyn Chow, “PM: No effort spared to find hackers,” Straits Times, November 7, 2013.

34 Adrian Lim, “Hacking of MINDEF system a ‘covert’ attack,” Straits Times, April 4, 2017, https://www.

35 Lim, “Hacking of MINDEF system a ‘covert’ attack.”

36 Lim, “Hacking of MINDEF system a ‘covert’ attack.”

37 Irene Tham and Hariz Baharudin, “Tardy responses, security failings led to SingHealth breach,” Straits Times, September 22, 2018,

38 Tham and Baharudin, “Tardy responses, security failings led to SingHealth breach.”

39 Tham and Baharudin, “Tardy responses, security failings led to SingHealth breach.”

40 Segal, 97–206.

41 Gladys Chun et al., “E-Commerce in ASEAN: Views from the Businesses,” Interview by ASEANFocus, ASEAN Focus, March 2018,

42 Chun et al., “E-Commerce in ASEAN: Views from the Businesses.”

43 Jared Ragland, “ASEAN’s diversity creates cyber security hurdles,” Business Times, October 3, 2018,

44 Towards a Resilient Cyber Security: Perspectives and Challenges in Southeast Asia, eds. Christian Pareira Fitriani and Naufal Armia Arifin (Jakarta: Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 2019).

45 Jason Scott, “Vietnam-aligned Hackers Attack Foreign Firms, FireEye says,” Bloomberg, May 14, 2017,

46 Quinton Temby and Benjamin Hu, “Polarisation on- and off-line in Indonesia’s 2019 Presidential Elections,” ISEAS Perspective 26, No. 2019 (2019), Perspective_2019_26.pdf; Joshua Hammer, “The Journalist and the Autocrat,” New York Times (International Edition), October 29, 2019.

47 Jasmine Chia, “The Milk Tea Alliance: one year in, where is it now,” Thai Enquirer, April 23, 2021,

48 Republic of Singapore Government, “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019,” Government Gazette Acts Supplement, June 28, 2019, TransactionDate=20191001235959.

49 Aqil Haziq Mahmud, “IN FOCUS: Has POFMA been effective? A look at the fake news law, 1 year since it kicked in,” Channel News Asia, October 3, 2020,

50 ASEAN, “ASEAN Member States’ Exports of Goods by Destination, 2017 (%),” ASEAN Statistical Highlights 2018, October 2018,

51 Singapore Department of Statistics, “Merchandise Trade Performance with Major Trading Partners, 2019,” Singapore’s International Trade, accessed January 24, 2021, infographics/singapore-international-trade.

52 Olivia Siong, “Tianjin Eco-City enters next phase with green, smart estate goal [Video],” Channel News Asia, September 30, 2020,

53 “The Line in Saudi Arabia is an urbanist’s dream,” Economist, January 14, 2021,