When the Merlion sups with the British lion

When the Merlion sups with the British lion
Queen Elizabeth II visiting Toa Payoh in 2006, accompanied by then Housing Board chairman Aline Wong and then Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen. The Queen has visited Singapore three times, at 17-year intervals.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam is in London this week for the first state visit to Britain accorded a Singapore leader.

The official part of the visit, which begins tomorrow with a formal welcome by Queen Elizabeth II on Horse Guards Parade, promises to be a memorable spectacle.

British and Singaporean flags, separate carriages for the President, riding with the Queen and Mrs Mary Tan, escorted by the Duke of Edinburgh. With their love for horses, carriages and the monarchy, the British know something about pomp and ceremony.

But Dr Tan's mission is more than about pageantry and show. It is to celebrate the ever-evolving dynamics of an old relationship that started with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 and the founding of Singapore as a British colony five years later.

Today, even as Singapore has moved away from its British moorings, so much of the island still speaks of that past, from heritage buildings like the Singapore Cricket Club to names such as York and Balmoral on hotels and housing estates.

Remarkably for newly independent societies that tend to sweep away vestiges of foreign rule, Singapore remains angst- free about its colonial past. The 31,000 and more British nationals resident on the island are neither an object of curiosity nor special irritation.

But every child has to grow into adulthood and move out of the parental home. Singapore's coming of age came early in its independence years when it had to deal with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson's shock decision in 1967 to reduce Britain's presence East of Suez.

It sent the Lee Kuan Yew government scrambling to shore up Singapore's military sinews, and build up strategic ties with the United States and other nations.

Today, the Republic is anchored firmly in ASEAN, even as it confidently engages wider Asia and beyond.

Still, the trip is filled with meaning and the honour to Singapore is indeed a big one. As the Tans are bound to discover, the Queen regards state visitors as her house guests, practically, in the intense way she prepares for them.

"Her Majesty welcomes and hosts only two countries a year," notes Mr Antony Phillipson, the British High Commissioner to Singapore.

"State visits are the highest level of reaching out to a country we can do. The run-up to Singapore's 50th anniversary is a very strong theme to the visit."

London's move to be early in the game as the Republic prepares for its golden jubilee is a smart one. But, as seasoned observers of the relationship are only too aware, it is also a mite overdue and corrects an optical imbalance.

The Queen has visited Singapore three times, arriving at 17- year intervals, the last in 2006. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge came in 2012. Meanwhile, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have all been accorded state visits to Britain.

It is heartening to note, therefore, that Britain has realised the importance of not taking a relationship for granted even if Singapore is confident enough of itself to not always demand reciprocity.

Beyond the shared heritage is a wider canvas worth examining.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron, who understands business better than many of his peers and predecessors, Britain, as Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Singapore last year, is "looking East as never before".

More British ministers have thus toured the region in the last four years than in the previous decade, fully aware that their island nation needs Asia to escape the economic malaise in Europe.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.