Singapore, Unlikely Power by John Curtis Perry ’48?. A sweeping history of Singapore from its beginnings to the present, this book brings to life the vibrant city-state situated in the crossing paths of Asian cultures and, as time goes by, of European maritime exploration and exploitation. Singapore as we know it did not begin until the early nineteenth century, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles made it a colonial outpost of the British East India Company. Raffles’ time in Singapore was scant in proportion with his influence. Apparently there are as many places named Raffles in Singapore as there are Peach Trees in Atlanta.
During World War II, Japan outfoxed the seriously over-confident British and, for the war years, Japan ruled Singapore. It reverted to Britain and then in 1963, gained independence and united with Malaysia. After two years, in a surprise move, Malaysia separated from Singapore, leaving the city-state to forage for itself. Lee Kuan Yew came to the fore and held sway from 1965-1990. Ruling with an iron fist, he made the economy prosper, building on the great strength of Singapore – its port.
So that was a sketchy outline of what I learned. More fascinating were the personalities of these figures and others who played enormous roles behind the scenes. One that amazed me was Malcom Purcell McLean, a high school graduate from North Carolina, who started his own trucking business and then had a little idea that revolutionized shipping – the container vessel.
Though always anxious, Singapore has thrived and might even be a model for city-states of the future. Yale saw fit to establish the first Ivy League school in Asia at the university there. John Curtis Perry is an engaging writer; his sentences are elegantly crafted and though he is a professor of renown, he charms by recounting his fascination with the East when he was a small boy in Maplewood, New Jersey. Coming from Plainfield, I recognize those leafy streets.