Singapore: Is It a City or Country?

Singapore photo

Singapore. License: CC0 Public Domain

Is Singapore a city or a country? This question seems silly since Singapore is globally recognized as an independent state. But for Singapore Law Minister K. Shanmugam, Singapore should be treated as a city. This remark triggered a debate in the blogosphere.

In his lecture during a meeting of the New York State Bar Association International Section, Shanmugam observed that many people are criticizing the dominance of a single party in Singapore politics because they are comparing Singapore with other countries. He insisted that Singapore should be judged as a city.

“…nobody questions whether there is a democracy in New York…. This is where most people make a mistake. I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country.”

Cavalierio accused the Law Minister of “twisting logic” to justify authoritarian rule in Singapore:

And now, for all our efforts and sacrifices put into creating a precious piece of country, we are told that we are not a country after all. It sounded vulgar; sounded like a shirking of responsibility, like a dereliction of duty.

Singapore, if you are not my country, who is?

Shanmugam’s motive was less lofty: he was arguing that Singapore’s political system shouldn’t be measured against the yardsticks of ‘a normal country’, where Singapore would invariably appear undemocratic. Instead, he argued, Singapore should be compared to ‘cities’ like Chicago, San Fransisco, and New York City – cities that have enduring one-party rule. Cities that are democratic.

Sometimes when we reach into the crux of the matter, we find that it is the old chestnut again. The old self-serving chestnut of authoritarian rulers pretending to be a democracy, twisting logic to suit one’s power.

So in the end, the answers that Shanmugam provided to his American guests last week, about our press, our judiciary, our political system, were non-answers really. Pertinent questions explained away in a camouflage of rational non-responses.

Rachel Zeng wants Shanmugam to elaborate his point since she couldn’t understand that line of thinking

Personally, I find that a little difficult to swallow. If Singapore is not a country but a city, then which country is our city part of….

Well, I don’t get it. I will really appreciate it if our dear K Shanmugam will kindly enlighten us here since he has been paid so much to play a part in the governing of Singapore city.

Commenting on this blogpost, Anon clarified that critics should first read the full transcript of Shanmugam’s lecture to appreciate the context of his assertion that Singapore is a city, not a country

Read the transcript. When he spoke about Singapore being a ‘city’ rather than ‘country’ he was explaining why elections in Singapore were so lopsided despite us holding free and fair elections. He compared Singapore to cities in the USA, and how many cities in the US had a single party dominating elections for decades.

While he did say that Singapore “isn’t a country”, he certainly didn’t mean it that way!

Clement Tan is disappointed that Shanmugam, a leader from the new generation, would deliver a controversial argument like this:

I am very disturbed by what the Singapore Law Minister said… At least with Lee Kuan Yew and members of the older guard, I knew what I could expect from them- whether or not I actually agree with them, is another issue. But with K. Shanmugan, part of the newer generation of Singaporean political leaders, I'm not even sure if he actually believes, connects and knows what he's arguing for.

The Temasek Review dissects the loopholes of Shanmugam’s arguments

Did Mr Shanmugam make a “honest mistake” or a freudian slip? If Singapore is NOT a country, then are we still considered a sovereign and independent state? So which country owns the sovereign rights of the city of Singapore?

Singapore is unique in the sense that it is both a country and a city at the same time.

As an important minister in the Singapore cabinet, Mr Shanmugam’s words carry a lot of weight.

Why are Singapore males serving National Service when they are only defending a city and not their country? Who does our Prime Minister report to? What value does our pink IC have? Are we citizens of a country or residents of a city?

The Journey of a Decade believes that yes, Singapore is and has always been a city:

Not say I say what.. This sentence seems to have angered quite abit of Singaporeans…. Lets get this straight… no one said anything about Singapore being a country. We have always been a city.

We have always been an island city state. I can understand how we often we hear things like defending the country among others….it is not exactly correct. It should be defending the city.


  • Very good information about Singapore, it is not cleared that in which country Singapore is situated, following is an interesting information about singapore and the exact location of Singapore.

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  • bobby

    that doesnt answer my quesstion

  • Terry K Offord

    Singapore is neither City nor State, Singapore is Nirvana, Shangrila, Heaven on Earth,there is NOWHERE on this planet that begins to compare so,perhaps,we can forget the bland descriptives it’s a place to dream about and I attribute this to its Founder (in the modern socio-economic sense that is)Lee Kuan Yew. From the strike torn,poverty stricken Colony of the fifties to the glittering jewel it is today, The Island has the people, the purpose and the past which has made it what we see today. OK if you must measure it against other land masses, I guess you could say it’s an Island City Nation, II prefer the realistic ‘Heaven on Earth personally’ having lived and worked there from the mid fifties to 2010.

    • Nathan Ouedraogo

      Well, if you are LGBTQI (like myself) you wouldn’t think that Singapore would be such a Shangrila.

      • Wilhelm Jäger

        No one cares Nathan

      • Tucker Jones

        Singapore is amazing regardless.

  • Wendy Liles

    All very good, however if mailing something to Singapore the postal service does ask for a city and state. Will it get there if I put city: Singapore, state: Singapore. This is how I arrived at this discussion. I think if I put state: Heaven and country: on Earth, it might not arrive…

    • Abdul Hasiff

      When mailing to Singapore, you should go by:
      123 Street Address,
      #12-345 Building Name,
      Singapore (123456)

      Thats all. Having put City: Singapore, State: Singapore would work either way :)

    • Nathan Ouedraogo

      It’s only heaven if you are straight…

  • […] Singapore: Is it a city or country? · Global VoicesNov 30, 2009 – Is Singapore a city or a country? This question seems silly since Singapore is globally recognized as an independent state. But for Singapore … […]

  • dakota

    how would one identify Singapore in a news release? This is where I’m confused… For example, a news release would start off with city/state/country such as “Melbourne, Victoria, AU” How do you classify Singapore in the same format? Would it be “Singapore City, Singapore, SI”?

    • lavonche

      It is usually “Singapore, Singapore” when written or just “Singapore” when spoken. If there is a need for the country’s abbreviation, it will be SG instead of SI.

  • David Beck

    Thanks for the information!

    Unique Office

  • I am in New York City, and Republican Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg led from 1993 until 2013, and Mayor Lindsay in the 1960s (he switched parties halfway through). Perhaps the most famous mayor in the last 100 years was Fiorello LaGuardia, who was also Republican and led for 12 years. So that analogy has flaws in it. New York City, although primarily Democratic, is NOT a dictatorship!

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