Marking the 200th anniversary of Stamford Raffles’ landing in Singapore is not only about commemorating long-ago colonial history. The occasion is also opportune to reflect on Singapore’s shifting geopolitical realities: How it entered and then exited the British Empire into the turbulence of the 20th century, and Singapore’s move to engage more deeply with the United States during the Cold War. Questions of geopolitics, alliances, rivalry and loyalty are alive again amid current Sino-American tensions. Great Power play is back with a vengeance and like it or not, Singapore has to play this new Great Game.
The broadest ambitions of empire led to the “founding” of modern Singapore by British East India Company officials in 1819. With the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Britain could look beyond Europe and bring new focus to ventures in Asia and the Americas. When Raffles landed, the British were yet to consolidate their empire in India and wage the Opium War against China for full trade access. They did not dominate the region.