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Do we think of Singapore as an island nation?

Singapore is an island nation, but how often do we think as an island people?

Do we think of Singapore as an island nation?

Most denizens of this island-city will only know the sea as a motif of the good life — we commodify seafront living, dining and sea-facing offices.

Singapore is an island nation, but how often do we think as an island people?

Most may imagine our hyper-modern metropolis far removed from the sooty colonial port that many of our great-grandparents arrived in, but even today, Singapore remains an island in the sea. Not just any sea, but some of the world’s most important sea lines of communication.

According to Reuters, more than 80 per cent of the world’s trade goes by sea, and half of that passes through the Malacca Strait and thereafter the Singapore Strait. It’s an international superhighway, the Pan-Island Expressway of Planet Earth.

But to think of Singapore as an island nation is also much more than that.

On a clear day, nature-lovers and exercise fanatics atop Mount Faber will be found savouring a view of green, undulating island chains and blue coves that stretch well beyond the horizon. Two centuries ago, a sailor would have gazed upon the same verdure with worry rather than abandon, seeing hideouts for pirates that threatened merchant shipping.

Counter-piracy missions introduced the first steam-powered gunboats to the Riau-Lingga archipelago, the Malacca Strait and beyond.

Closer to home, the southern islands, now known as resort enclaves, were once deadly and foreboding.

After all, one (Sentosa) was even named "death from behind" — Pulau Belakang Mati.

Today’s sea robbers eye oil tankers, bulk carriers or container vessels rather than galleons laden with spice and treasure, and the coast guards and navies of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia continue to mount 24/7 patrols.

In fact, I have penned these thoughts down whilst aboard the RSS Indomitable, a warship from Singapore’s Maritime Security Task Force.

According to the Maritime and Port Authority, Singapore’s maritime industry employs 170,000 people.

Day or night, the life of seafarers entails a keen, vigilant attention to the elements; navigation becomes more complicated the moment wind picks up, rain pours, or whenever the sun sets. Being keenly adaptive to prevailing conditions, especially in our exceptionally temperamental tropical equatorial context, seafarers are typically hardy people used to working with a sense of urgency and dynamism.

Out here in the Strait, it has been a long day’s patrol and several long nights to go yet.

Thinking of home, I am comforted by the sight of cotton candy clouds and orange-hued skies. It will be the same sight enjoyed by friends and family ashore — the same sunsets that will fill social media feeds of that Friday evening with captions welcoming the weekend.

Nearer to shore, a keen eye might notice an unrelenting stream of harbour launches, sampans and tugboats darting in-between these behemoths at anchor.

Tugboats and embarked pilots guide these merchantmen into our ports safely, bearing oil, cargo and precious minerals that are the lifeblood of our economy.

Singapore’s maritime sector is serious business — amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, shipping kept apace and international supply chains stayed (literally) afloat, bringing us essentials such as rice, masks and toilet rolls.

Most denizens of this island-city will only know the sea as a motif of the good life — we commodify seafront living, dining and sea-facing offices.

Apart from treating it as a picturesque backdrop for work and play, there is little else we would like to do with the sea.

Singaporeans are hyper-urbanites, more familiar with ERP timings than tropical monsoon seasons and treasuring air-conditioning more than a refreshing sea breeze. But can you blame us?

Our forebears came to this island from across the Indian Ocean, China Seas or nearer afield from the Nusantara.

Then as now, parents probably fussed over children in tow; but unlike family travels today, these pioneers journeyed not to satiate wanderlust during semester breaks but rather from want and desperation.

Along the way, they braved pirates and thunderstorms on dhows and sampans, before coming ashore to a Singapore river that for over 100 years reeked of rotting waste and human discharge.

Once ashore, they began the hard work of ensuring a secure and comfortable future whilst determined never to be cast out to sea by necessity again.

So, while there is little doubt that Singapore is an island, it is perhaps unsurprising that many would like little to do with the sea that surrounds us and its way of life.

The present pandemic provides a rare opportunity for us to consider what it really means to be an island nation.

Oceania historian Epeli Hau'ofa wrote a history of Pacific island-nations not merely as a peripheral addendum to adjourning continents but as a galaxy of islands unto themselves, informed by centuries of living and trading across a constellation of island-worlds.

During my undergraduate years at university, lively supervision with energetic historians like J.H. Gonzalez of the Caribbean and Sujit Sivasundaram of the Indian Ocean, challenged my historical perspective.

Slowly, I began to appreciate Singapore’s place as one of many bustling hubs, within a centuries-old transnational maritime world from Zanzibar to Hawaii.

In the summer of 2019, I undertook a marine conservation expedition in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

In the Wakatobi, I surveyed coral reefs alongside freediving Bajau sea nomads, lived and worked from a tiny island four hours from the nearest airport and saw this vibrant maritime world first-hand.

When we think as people from the sea, it becomes blindingly clear that the maritime realm is not just a highway — but a whole new world than the one we know ashore rife with lessons to be learnt.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, affluent Singaporeans accustomed to the jet-set holiday circuit have found themselves stranded for the time being on this humble island.

These successive coronavirus "waves'' are perhaps aptly named — for these disorienting years are not unlike the voyages our pioneers made in migrating to an uncertain future in Singapore.

“Are we there yet?”, their children would have asked.

Our ancestors who came from the sea were seafarers that braved uncertain, unpromising odds but yet believed nothing could stand in their way.

In times like these, perhaps it might help if we Singaporeans tried to think as an island-people — steadily steering our island-nation through a patch of rough seas towards calmer waters and a better tomorrow.



Shaun Seah is a naval combat officer with the Republic of Singapore Navy who holds History and East Asian Studies degrees from Cambridge University and Columbia University. This piece, written in his personal capacity, first appeared in The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?, a collection of 56 essays that tackle this question pertaining to Singapore.

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