Rule Britannia? The Past, Present and Future of Singapore – United Kingdom trade relations

There will always be affinity in Singapore, toward Britain

By Mark Matthews



On the surface, the subject of Singapore – United Kingdom economic relations does not appear to be one that can be further expanded upon.


Over 1,000 British companies conduct business in Singapore, with many choosing to operate their Asian or Southeast Asian headquarters here. British brands are by far one of the most visible international brands in Singapore. While the UK exports over S$10 billion into Singapore however, this number pales in comparison to its exports to Germany which are almost 60 times larger. In addition, the UK has a trade surplus with Singapore, a welcome but small offset to the country’s otherwise large current account deficit. 


In any relationship, including an economic one, there are both “hard” and “soft” dimensions. The hard ones, stated above, are the easy ones to quantify. The soft ones are much less so, but they are sometimes even more powerful and long-lasting. In the case of Singapore – UK relations, the “soft” dimension of the relationship is the legacy of 140 years of British rule.


First, there is the economic legacy. During most of the British time, Singapore’s largest partners were China and India, with the British in the middle. It can be said that the mercantile nature of the British East India Company lives on in Singapore.


Second, there is the institutional legacy. As Lee Kuan Yew said in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit in 2012: “On the whole, the British left institutions behind them, including in Singapore. We had the rule of law, we had statutes, we had the English language and we were wise enough not to change any of that. They have helped us to grow.”


A significant portion of Singaporeans have a strong affinity with Britain. Singaporeans deeply value the British education system. The educational aspect is the most important one, because when people spend time in a foreign country in their formative years, it tends to have a lifelong and positive impact on them. 


Of the roughly 200,000 Singaporeans who live abroad, over 40,000 are living in the UK. Only Australia has a larger number of Singaporean residents, at 50,000.


Despite the fact that China and the USA are the second and fourth largest trading partners of Singapore respectively, there are only 20,000 Singaporeans living in China, and 27,000 living in the USA.


This is what American political scientist Joseph Nye terms “soft power” – the ability to shape the preferences of others through attraction, rather than coercion. 

As a Canadian, I feel I can understand this. America is our largest trading partner. But the way our economy is run, our institutions and culture, are more British than American.


Although America, Japan and Korea may be important to Singapore from a trade, they do not have that special connection. In a way the relationship is has more longevity, because people who appreciate the benefits of British culture are likely to try to see that their children and grandchildren benefit from it too.


Whereas, who knows what the future will look like? We are probably only 3 or 4 years away from another major boost in technology, with implications as far or farther reaching than smartphones and apps. Electric cars may not be Japanese; the internet of things may not have a visible Korean component, etc.


It is also conceivable that as a result of technology, company-to-company relationships, or country-to-country ones, will not be as important as they are today. Instead, there will be much more emphasis on personal relationships.


In conclusion, we should not be nostalgic about a legacy. Culture runs deep, and is a vibrant and living thing. While trade is a fickle thing. There will always be affinity in Singapore, toward Britain.





Mark Matthews is Head of Research Asia for Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd., an appointment he has held since June 2011. With over 23 years of experience in finance and investment, Mark has held senior research and sales positions in various financial institutions, including ING Barings Securities, Standard & Poor’s and Merrill Lynch.  Currently based in Singapore, he has lived in Asia for most of his life, including in Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and Sri Lanka.


He is often quoted in the media and invited regularly by CNBC Asia and Bloomberg TV to appear on their programmes. Mark holds a Masters of Business Administration (Finance Major) from the Schulich School of Business, York University and a Bachelor of Arts (History Major) from Université Laval, Quebec City, Canada. He is fluent in French and Chinese. For more information visit