By Elysa Chen
THE question popped up during the tea break of a dialogue session that Law Minister K Shanmugam had with 200 Ngee Ann Polytechnic students last week.
Describing the query as 'interesting', the minister expanded on his answer when the dialogue session resumed.
The question was from student Mel-Travis Loke Yong Chin, 17, who had, together with a few friends, approached Mr Shanmugam during the tea break. They were hoping to understand the minister's comments to 200 lawyers from the New York State Bar Association recently.
In particular, the students asked the minister to explain his abbreviated comment that Singapore is a city, not a country.
Explaining, Mr Shanmugam said: 'I made two speeches to the New York Bar...
'I made it clear that we are a sovereign state, with all the attributes of a sovereign state. We are a country in the legal sense.'
Explaining that political differences are shaped by economic conditions, geography and history, he said it would be more accurate to analyse Singapore's politics by referring to politics in larger US cities, like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
This is because Singapore does not have a large geographical land mass or different histories for different regions within the same country, which could lead to different political ideologies.
Mr Shanmugam was asked at the US session if it was true that the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) hold on power for decades could be one reason why the opposition was unable to survive or win cases in courts.
In his reply, he defended Singapore's status as a democracy during the PAP's 50-year dominance by comparing Singapore to Chicago and San Francisco, where Democrat mayors have won since 1931 and 1964, respectively.
He also pointed out the dominance of Democrats in New York City's city council, where they hold 45 out of 48 seats.
Mr Shanmugam, who was basing his comments on arguments by Mr Bryan Caplan, an American economist, said Singapore was viewed as a deviation from the democratic norm because it was seen primarily as a country.
He added: 'This is where most people make a mistake... I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country.'
Travis, a year-one diploma student in banking and financial services, said later: 'We often refer to Singapore in National Day songs as a country.
'As the song goes, "This is my country, this is my flag." So, we were scrutinising the words 'city' and 'country', and trying to understand why he made the distinction.'
To shed further light on the issue, Mr Shanmugam gave the example of how New York people are interested in international trade as opposed to those in a state in the mid-west of America, who would be focused on farming and would not be interested in free trade.
He said: 'So... a party that is focused on farming and protecting farmers will do well in a farming area, but may not do well in a city area.
'A party that is focused on urban interests, or interests which urban voters are interested in or focused on, will do well there but may not in a farming area.'
Mr Shanmugam said that in Singapore, whether you are born in Jurong or Changi or Sembawang or in the south, there are no big differences in climate, geography or economic interests.
We go to similar schools and live in similar places - 70 to 80 per cent of our population live in public housing.
He said: 'Our economic interests and the type of society we want to see, it's similar.
'So my point was that you cannot take Singapore and compare it with a big country with huge geographical and historical differences, then it gets distorted. What we have to do is compare it with other big cities.
'And if you compare us with cities in the US or other countries, you will find similarities - people tend to vote in a certain pattern because their interests are similar.'
Travis said he was never puzzled by Mr Shanmugam's comment, as Singapore was often referred to as a garden city.
'I thought he cleared the doubts my friends had in a tactful way,' the student added.
This article was first published in The New Paper.