The Singapore Bicentennial, with its focus on the country's indigenous history before colonial times, is an apt time for the Republic to rekindle its lost romance with the region. As a number of historians and diplomats noted during a recent conference on the bicentennial organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore had a long, rich, diverse history as a bustling port centuries before Stamford Raffles staked a claim on it for the East India Company in 1819, beginning a period of British colonisation that ended in independence. It was, at various times, an emporium city for jungle and marine produce for the Chinese market, a feeder port and naval base to Melaka during the sultanate, and a gatekeeper and naval base to the Johor sultanate in the early 16th century. In the 17th century, it was a strategic node in Portuguese-Dutch rivalry. Activity shifted to Bintan and Lingga in the 18th century, and Singapore lost its centrality till the British arrived.
Singapore's fortunes waxed and waned with the shifting power play of middle and big kingdoms in the region. Through it all, the people adapted and survived. Today's Singaporeans have capitalised on its colonial past and rich cultural DNA to build a metropolis city-state that tops global rankings in everything from competitiveness to education to readiness for disruption caused by the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence. As a young nation-state, as Professor Wang Gungwu notes in an essay for this newspaper, Singapore adopted a strategy of leapfrogging the region and forging linkages with faraway lands. That propensity to disdain the near and connect with the distant started in colonial times, but has to change today. At the bicentennial conference, veteran diplomat Tommy Koh called for "a whole-of-country reorientation to Asean", saying that the regional grouping is the one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy global economic outlook.