Book Review, Singapore
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[Book Review] “Can Singapore Survive”?

“Let me say something provocative at this stage. National myths do not surface naturally. They are manufactured. And a nation that manufactures the right myths survives the longest. The US is exhibit A. Remarkably, Jefferson continues to be worshipped in modern times though he was a slave owners who fathered children with his female slaves. This is what national myth manufacturing can do.” (p. 256)

Today I will be writing a book review on “Can Singapore Survive?” by Kishore Mabubani.

I picked up this book because I had been thinking about the very same question: Will our little red dot country Singapore really survive in a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty?

I attended one conference in Helsinki in June last year, where Nassim Taleb–the author of Black Swan and Antifragility– appeared as a guest speaker. He spoke about Singapore no less than three times as an antifragile state, dear Lord!

What he meant by the term “antifragile” was that Singapore is a state which thrives on chaos, and will only get stronger and stronger, due to our fundamentals of meritocracy and a fixation on economic growth, or always putting economic growth as first priority.


Yet one might still approach his outlook with scepticism–was Taleb being too optimistic? The book offers three answers to the question of whether Singapore would survive: yes, no and maybe.

  • Yes, because Singapore is in good shape, and our policies are sound. We have good leaders thus far too!
  • Maybe, because nobody can say for sure what the future holds for all nations.
  • No, because Professor Kishore pointed out that many city-states have completely vanished from the face of the Earth, and we cannot accurately predict the future, or even human behaviour.

The vulnerability of Singapore is probably something that Singaporeans–past, present and future generations–should not be taking for granted. I particularly enjoyed the section on foreign policy of this book: “To do good, be shrewd”!

Very often, we think that being shrewd has negative connotations, so it was quite an eye-opener to find out that being shrewd actually makes a lot of sense if it is for a bigger picture of doing good. And it was even more surprising to find out that Machiavelli, the author of the classic political strategy “manual” The Prince, endorses this method too! 🙂

I thoroughly enjoyed Section III: Singapore’s heart. The sub-section on identity was particularly interesting, because it really made me think more about what constitutes the Singaporean identity. The concept of myth is also thought-provoking too; I used to REALLY think that myth is all about some voodoo story.

But perhaps, myth can represent truth too–a certain way of telling a story, a certain way of constructing beauty, or a certain way of representing hope, identity and optimism. Myth is certainly far more than what is commonly thought of as propaganda.

All in all, I would recommend this book to global Singaporeans. You may think of it as a diplomatic manual to introducing Singapore to your foreign friends. IT speaks of Singapore’s soft powers (7 ways to articulate it!) and I think it is a great book in describing the underlying and sometimes conflicting currents that shaped the Singapore state today.

Of course, Singapore isn’t a perfect nation but I do think we did an excellent job for the past 51 years. Moving forward, I think this book does give confidence as to how we, as one Singapore, can build our strengths together.

I hope all Singaporeans can dream even BIGGER for the next 49 years! 🙂 Because we are already pretty strong executors. Have a vision, think beyond yourself! 😉

Majulah Singapura SG100~


—Can Singapore Survive? Is an excellent social, political and cultural commentary by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore since August 2004. He was listed by Foreign Policy as one of the top 100 global thinkers in 2010 and 2011; and by Prospect magazine as one of the top 50 global thinkers for 2014. The book is available at all major bookstores at SGD$25, before GST.

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