George Yeo, until recently Singapore’s foreign minister, is a man given to thinking in profound historic terms. In a recent conversation, we asked him about the relevance of Venice’s maritime republic to today’s Singapore. To our surprise, he pulled out a speech from 1998, when he was Director of Joint Planning and Operation for the Singapore Armed Forces, in which he addressed that very topic. What follows is a condensed version of that speech.
ingapore is geographically very small. The Swiss think they are small, but those who come to Singapore realize how big Switzerland really is by comparison. We have very little land, we don’t have much air space, and even the seas are claimed by others. We are forced to plan and organize very carefully.
Life in Singapore is not easy. The truth is we have to work much harder than others to survive. But will hardship make us or break us? Are we strengthened or weakened in the process? Arnold J. Toynbee, in his massive Study of History, tells us that civilization is conceived not in ease, but in hardship. The greater the stimulus, the greater is the response.
Will we continue to succeed? We will fail if we are a house divided, if our leadership is weak, if we do not have a clear sense of what our essential interests are, and if we do not have the resolve to be the master of our own destiny?
Is there any example in history, then, of a small nation-state surviving any reasonable length of time? An example for us to take comfort in? A model to follow? There is such an example — and a brilliant one. It, too, had the lion as a symbol, the winged lion of the evangelist St. Mark. Venice — or the Most Serene Republic, as she called herself — lasted over a thousand years.
For much of this period, Venice flourished as the mistress of the Mediterranean. Her merchants were well-known throughout Europe and Asia for their business acumen, their industry and their sense of honor.
The exploits of Marco Polo are still familiar to us. In “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare provides a picture of the heights Venice reached in the development of law, government, art and culture. Until Napoleon arrived in 1797, Venice was never successfully invaded. She was never occupied, never ravaged.
Refuge from the mainland
How did a collection of small islands — much smaller than present-day Singapore — in a shallow lagoon, with a population never exceeding a few hundred thousand, come to leave such a mark on history? Why did sane men from the European mainland decide in the first place to cross the water to settle on these swampy, inhospitable and unpromising islands?
Like our forefathers from China and India, the first Venetians left the mainland because conditions there were intolerable. Those were dark days in Europe, when the Western Roman Empire was disintegrating, when successive waves of barbarians swept across the mainland, raping and pillaging, wreaking death and destruction wherever they went. Better the safety of these islands separated from the mainland by at least two to three miles of water than face the wrath of Alaric the Goth or Attila the Hun.
Under the pressure of hardship, Venice built up her defenses, her economy and her institutions. The similarities to Singapore are remarkable — and we do well to draw lessons from her experience.
The defense of Venice was founded on naval power. She had a mighty complex of naval dockyards and workshops which gave the Arabic word “arsenal” to the English language. At its peak, that arsenal had a workforce of over 16,000 with the capacity to launch fully equipped warships at the rate of one every few hours.
That military power was used, first, in the defense of the republic and, second, in opening up sea lanes, trading routes and markets for her merchants. Venetian participation in the Crusades were never borne of romance, but always motivated by economic advantage.
Hers was a wise foreign policy. Its goal was never to be involved unnecessarily in the politics and strife of her neighbors on the mainland. Genoa, a keen competitor to Venice, lacked that wisdom. Genoa entangled herself in the wars of northern Italy and lost her independence as a result.
Venice instead turned her insularity to advantage. Always sensitive to the requirements of trade, which was her lifeblood, the city-state established a system of administration founded on constitutional principles, the rule of law and the collective interests of her merchants.
Slowly but steadily, with each invasion successfully repelled, with each crisis successfully overcome, she developed in her people that famous Venetian spirit that bonded Venetians everywhere together. A tradition of public service supplied the men of ability she needed for effective governance.
But Venice never felt invulnerable. She never took her success for granted. It was this sense of insecurity that spurred her on, that kept her guard up, her citizens united and her institutions vital.
The achievement of Venice is an inspiration to us in Singapore — how a tiny republic can overcome the limitations of its size and build up an economic empire based not on territorial aggrandizement, but on defense, diplomacy and free trade.
Though our country may be small, our minds must never be. Like the merchants of Venice, we have to be both nationalistic and cosmopolitan at the same time. Our spirit, too, must be that of the lion.