I finally finished reading John Julius Norwich’s “A history of Venice”, which is perhaps the most comprehensive English history of The Most Serene Republic of Venice (almost 600 pages in the paperback!).
I first started this book about 7 years ago, and only recently picked up where I last left off (I didn’t bother re-reading the older parts, tbh, though my memory was quite patchy).

I bought the book because I chanced upon a speech by George Yeo, where he had compared Singapore with the Venetian Republic, saying there are many similarities between the two.

Now that I am finally done with the book, I’m honestly not sure I agree if there are that many similarities between the two cities: in fact I think there are many more differences than similarities.

Differences between Venice and Singapore

Venice historically developed as a result of its impregnable lagoon: in times of danger, Venice simply removed the every-day markers of shallow waters in its lagoon, which turned its lagoon into a natural barrier against its enemies.
Singapore has never had any natural impenetrable defences against its enemies, and was, in fact, famously invaded and conquered by the Japanese in WWII.

For most of its history, Venice also had colonies in Cyprus, Crete, and large parts of the Mediterranean. Singapore has none.

For most of its history, Venice’s inhabitants were traders, with even civil servants often buying and trading their own accounts of spices, luxuries etc. that the city traded between Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Venetians were thus quite worldly & in touch with their environment, having travelled frequently across the Mediterranean. There was thus also a very pragmatic, realistic perspective that the Venetians had, driven by their regular trade interactions with their counterparts. They were thus quite wordly and savvy in many of their foreign policies. They were also extremely entrepreneurial, with many of the working class being artisanal craftsmen who developed unique capabilities.
While Singapore had a pretty sizable trading population in the past, nowadays most Singaporeans mostly work domestically, and I think most Singaporeans are very focused domestically rather than in our region. I’m not sure Singaporeans are largely entrepreneurial: the default mindset, I think, is one of bureaucratic inflexibility.

Venice was an oligarchy, drawn from the noble classes, with a complicated election system of peers which constrain the supreme leader, the Doge (not crypto). Every Doge was elected with a contract drawn up between the rest of the government vs. the Doge, and it was designed to ensure that Dogeship didn’t become a hereditary despotic system. In fact, many of the Venetian governance systems were designed to remove the cult of the personality.
In Singapore, across the board, I think our system is very personality driven, and I think we do celebrate and focus on individuals, and we don’t have the same degree of checks-and-balances that the Venetians had.

Many Venetians served across multiple functions: it was not unusual to read of Venetians who traded, became ambassadors for the Republic, a Captain-General in war time, and then got elected as Doge towards the end of their lives. I think this created multiple cohorts of the Venetian elite who were familiar both with Venice’s government mechanisms & also its external environment.
In contrast, in Singapore, we don’t quite have the same fluidity across the system, unless you’re a scholar. So you then have a “scholar” class vs. the rest (including non-scholar elites), who then don’t really share the same worldview. In fact, even if you are a government scholar, as I remarked to a friend in the service, the only places where one gets exposed to the external environment are EDB, ESG and MFA. Most other places in government are very domestic focused, and it breeds a certain sense of Singaporean exceptionalism, which is dangerous as it can cause complacency.

While Venice contributed a few popes and many cardinals, Venice was very clear about the superiority of the secular state above religion, and was extremely tolerant of other religions: alone amongst all the Western states, it never executed anyone for heresy. it was also extremely tolerant of different ideas: it had a lively publishing industry, and people were not arrested for having different ideas.
With regard to freedom of ideas, I’m not sure if Singapore is at the same level. With regard to the superiority of secular power, Singapore is quite similar. But in recent years, there have been more incidents of religious and racial intolerance that has come to light, which makes me wonder how much longer this superiority of secular power will remain.

Similarity with Singapore now

Venice ultimately declined, because it lost some of the above things I mentioned: the sensitivity to the external environment, as the local population gave up trading (which was instead passed to the minorities to do); the gradual decay of its institutions, including the norms to prevent personality cults & checks-and-balances; perhaps most importantly, it became complacent, focused on luxury, and internally corrupt, with many of its own rules being forgotten or overlooked. Its institutions then became bloated & inefficient: in the final days, its committees were unable to make clear decisions, hedging and giving generic vague advice to its public servants desperately asking for direction. If we are not careful, Singapore could go down the same exact path.

Final lesson on neutrality

Another apt lesson from Venice for Singapore, especially in this time of a potential second Cold War. In its dying days, Venice opted for a rigid neutrality, despite not having a strong armed force to enforce its neutrality. In doing so, it had aimed not to take sides, and hoped to slip in between the cracks, so to speak.

But by its rigidly neutral stance, it actually antagonised both sides (the French and the Hapsburg Empire), such that both sides eventually took advantage of its weaknesses to claim back territory. A counter example was the Marquis of Savoy, who sided first with one side, and then with another, and was able to gain a territorial advantage as a result of focusing on his own interests.