Tasiilaq, Greenland on a summer's night.

Singapore’s need to stay abreast of global economic trends and climate research is what drives its interest in Arctic affairs. Ewen Levick tells the story and asks whether the UK could learn from the city-state’s bold Arctic approach.

The rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice continued unabated in 2016. Air temperatures at the North Pole were 20 degrees above average on Christmas Eve. Ice coverage has hit record lows, having lost an area eight times the size of the UK since 1981. There has been great international interest in these processes. Nations far distant from the Arctic Circle have been eyeing the risks and opportunities that the Arctic thaw may yield. Singapore, the small tropical city-state located 137 kilometres north of the equator, is one such nation. It has demonstrated considerable interest in the various developments associated with Arctic change.

Despite its geographical distance from the region, Singapore is working hard to involve itself in Arctic affairs. In 2011, it formally applied for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, the influential intergovernmental forum for states holding territory in the region. It assumed this status in 2013, having appointed a Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs the previous year. Subsequently, the Special Envoy, Ambassador Kemal Siddique, embarked on sixteen months of negotiations with other member states and observers to discuss potential Singaporean contributions to the Arctic. These included strengthening collaborative commitments with Norway and establishing a scholarship scheme for indigenous students to study in Singapore. The city-state also contributes to three Arctic Council working groups: the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, through its studies of migratory birds that spend the northern winter in Singaporean wetlands; the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), through its expertise in responding to oil spills; and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) in maritime search-and-rescue operations. The Singaporean government has clearly made Arctic engagement a foreign policy priority. Why is this so?


Understanding Singapore’s strategic geography is crucial to understanding its Arctic interests. Singapore is a small island with no natural resources, dependent on Malaysia for water, and sandwiched between states with much larger populations. The island is set apart by a uniquely developed economy. The ability to rapidly adjust to structural changes in the global economy is seen as a matter of national security by the Singapore government and vital to its continued independence. Thus, Singapore is a ‘developmental state’ in which the government’s legitimacy is directly drawn from sustained economic growth. However, Singapore’s ability to adjust to global economic changes is, in turn, reliant on a strong single-party state that is able to look beyond short-term election cycles and make decisions based on long-term strategic forecasts, such as an ice-free Arctic.

A large container ship laden with containers sits at the quayside in Singapore docks. Hundreds of containers sit on the quayside in the foreground.
Singapore Shipping Docks. Author: ShnapThat! [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Much of Singapore’s wealth comes from a large domestic maritime industry which employs over 170,000 people out of a population of 5 million. The Port of Singapore has connections to over 600 ports and 120 countries, and the city has a remarkably high trade-to-GDP ratio of 368%. It is the second-busiest container port in the world after Shanghai – roughly 140,000 ships dock each year with a combined tonnage of 2.5 billion. Singapore is also a world leader in maritime services and technologies. The island is home to over 5000 maritime service companies and builds 70% of the world’s jack-up oil rigs, used for offshore drilling in hostile environments. It thus stands to reason that Singapore is interested in the opening of the Arctic Ocean to shipping and resource extraction.


Singapore is paying special attention to the opening of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs from Asia, through the Bering Strait and along the Siberian coast, around Scandinavia, and to the ports of Europe. The NSR certainly represents an attractive route for ships travelling between Europe and Asia since it may reduce the journey from 21,000 km (using the Suez Canal) to 12,800 km, cutting transit time by 10-15 days. Turning the NSR into a viable shipping lane will require enormous upgrades to physical infrastructure and the improvement of services in navigation, meteorology, and search-and-rescue. While foreign investment is currently low, it is likely to increase once the NSR is completely ice-free. Singapore is positioning itself to be at the front of the pack.

The container ship 'Arctic Express' gliding from the terminal through Kola Bay to Barents Sea. The ship is moving left to right through a broad channel. The scene is lit by soft orange light.
The container ship Arctic Express sailing through Kola Bay to the Barents Sea at dawn. By Tom Thiel (Flickr: Arctic Express) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Russian company LUKOIL currently operates two Singaporean-built icebreakers. This demonstration of Singapore’s Arctic expertise has created face-to-face business connections that will facilitate future shipbuilding contracts. Similarly, the Singaporean company Keppel has worked with ConocoPhillips, an American firm, to develop a jack-up rig specifically for Arctic drilling. As the Arctic thaw continues to open up possibilities for economic opportunity, Singaporean government and business are cooperating to enhance Singapore’s status as a premier centre for Arctic technology and expertise.


Singapore’s Arctic interests also relate to how the NSR may impact future maritime traffic patterns. If the NSR is to become a reliable transit route, prompting northern Asian ports to develop the requisite infrastructure and services to sustain large numbers of container ships, there are fears in Singapore that its position as a global trade hub could be threatened. As Arctic sea ice retreats, there is little doubt that use of the NSR will grow. Yet its economic threat potential to Singapore should not be overestimated. Assumptions of a faster northern route overlook various difficulties and uncertainties. Although Arctic ice is retreating as the Pole warms, weather around the Arctic rim is also becoming more unpredictable. Sweden and Siberia witnessed record snowfalls in 2016 and unusual jet stream patterns have changed the normal route of northern storms in what may be a foreshadowing of further extreme weather events brought about by climate change. Shipping companies must therefore factor in the costs of Arctic-proofing vessels, paying icebreaker escort fees, providing special training to crews, and paying higher insurance premiums related to adverse conditions and the ongoing lack of search-and-rescue assets along much of the route.

If the NSR is to become a reliable transit route, prompting northern Asian ports to develop the requisite infrastructure and services to sustain large numbers of container ships, there are fears in Singapore that its position as a global trade hub could be threatened.

These extra direct costs come on the back of further indirect costs. Unpredictable weather makes for unpredictable schedules. In addition, only ships carrying up to 4000 twenty-foot containers can traverse the route due to shallow waters in the Laptev Strait. Vessels are also restricted to the same width as existing icebreakers. In an age of enormous ships capable of carrying over 18,000 containers, economies of scale alone make the cost-per-container of using the NSR greater than other routes despite the shorter distance, even before Arctic-specific costs are factored in. The Panama Canal itself is experiencing a drop in traffic numbers as companies prioritise size over speed. The NSR is unlikely to prevail against this trend. Although the numbers of ships using the route grew to 71 in 2013, this remains insignificant in comparison to the roughly 80,000 that pass through the Strait of Malacca each year. When viewed in this context, the opening up of the NSR may simply represent an opportunity for Singaporean business rather than a threat to its trade.

A clear threat to Singapore that is linked to Arctic climate change is rising oceanic levels. The highest point on the island, Bukit Timah, is less than 200 metres above sea level; the airport and central business district are no more than two metres clear. Some estimations project that sea levels may rise almost two metres by 2100. Even if more conservative projections of a less than one metre sea level rise will prove accurate, Singapore could still lose up to 17 square kilometres of land to the ocean, necessitating the building of sea walls that encompass the entire island. Singapore’s interests in the Arctic thaw thus extend well beyond economic opportunity. Its engagement with the Arctic community ensures that it is able to work with partners to better understand how climate change may affect the world’s oceans, and prepare accordingly.


Singapore’s engagement with Arctic affairs may strike some as surprising. Yet the city-state sees both opportunity and threat in Arctic change and it has adopted a bold, proactive approach in order to stay abreast of events. The extent of Singapore’s efforts might be seen to highlight the rather ambiguous stance that the UK has demonstrated towards Arctic change, despite the fact that the UK sits far closer to the region.

The extent of Singapore’s efforts might be seen to highlight the rather ambiguous stance that the UK has demonstrated towards Arctic change, despite the fact that the UK sits far closer to the region.

A wide-ranging report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic (HOLSCA) in 2015 found that the UK’s Arctic approach suffers from a lack of strategic drive and coordination, a lack of maritime safety and search-and-rescue provision, and ‘patchy’ attendance at Arctic Council working groups (the UK has observer status at the Arctic Council). This picture of disengagement appears to stand in contrast to what would appear to the UK strengths in this sphere. British scientists and explorers have a long history of research and discovery in the Arctic. Britain’s geographical proximity lends significant advantages, as it is close to the Arctic Circle and flanks the Northern Sea Route. British maritime experience in the cold, tumultuous waters of the North Sea and North Atlantic is particularly relevant to the discussions over northern maritime infrastructure, shipping, tourism, and search-and-rescue concerns which have arisen as a consequence of Arctic change. The deficiencies illuminated by the 2015 HOLSCA report prompted the Lords to observe that the UK should engage more fully with Arctic affairs or risk being ‘outmanoeuvred by other states with less experience in the Arctic but a more positive and forward-looking engagement’. Singapore is showing precisely this level of engagement. The UK might do well to take note.

Ewen Levick is undertaking a Master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on international security and national strategy. He previously served in the Australian Army. Contact Ewen at: ewen.levick@gmail.com

Featured photo: Tasiilaq, Greenland on a summer’s night. Christine Zenino. [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons