How Singapore and South Korea are actually brothers from different mothers

By June 13, 2017World

TL;DR – Same same but different.

Singapore and South Korea have more in common than you think. Typically Singapore has been compared to places such as Israel, Sierra Leone (because we are right below alphabetically) and Monaco.

But South Korea? A place which has almost 10 times the population of Singapore? Where’s the connection?

One afternoon, I attended a Korean masterclass by Dr Kim Sang Woo, who was an adviser to the late South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.


Dr Kim, born in Korea, is the son of a military attaché for the Korean Embassy in Washington DC. He studied politics, international relations and history in various universities including University of Cambridge.

Among his various sharing of how food culture plays an important part of bringing Korea to the world, he also brought up interesting insights about Korea that made me realise how similar Singapore and South Korea actually are.

1. Both Singapore and South Korea were recently independent

Korea has a long history of being invaded or annexed by outsiders such as the Khitans, Mongols, Chinese and Japanese, with its separation from North Korea being a result of the Cold War between Russia and U.S..

Korean war


Both South Korea and Singapore have been independent democratic states for less than a century, where although now we are both relatively prosperous, we struggled against communist elements, Japanese occupations and foreign invaders.

2. Both Singapore and South Korea are surrounded by larger powers

Check out this map of Northeast Asia.

North East asia


South Korea is surrounded by bigger countries such as China and Japan, both of which have historically fought wars on Korean soil, hence the description of the Korean peninsula as the “doormat for major power conflict in this region”.

Now look at the map of Southeast Asia below.

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If the Korean peninsula is a “doormat”, then what would you use to describe Singapore?

It’s no surprise that military conscription exists in both countries, although there are slight differences.

3. International trade is important to both Singapore and South Korea

According to TechinAsia, both Singapore and South Korea rely heavily on our human resources, and need to expand our markets to include the global and regional market as our domestic markets are too small.

Singapore South Korea


South Korea has big brand names such as Samsung, Hyundai, Lotte and more, whereas Singapore has brands that are making it big overseas such as Charles & Keith, BreadTalk and Razer.

4. Yet both Singapore and South Korea face concerns from its own citizens over globalisation

Fear of outsiders and anti-foreigner sentiment is not uncommon. Dr Kim shared that due to Korea’s past history of being conquered by foreigners, some older generation South Koreans are resistant to opening up to other cultures.

They are quite happy for foreign powers to leave them alone and for South Korea to close up to the world. But many of the younger generation don’t see eye-to-eye, because of the expanded opportunities globalisation offers.

This struggle between open-vs-closed mindset will increasingly be seen more often in other countries as well.

Dr Kim is advocating for South Korea to have more cultural and economic exchanges with other countries, as this will strengthen’s South Korea’s position rather than weaken it.

5.  Both Singapore and South Korea are part of ASEAN

Ok, I stretched the point a little. Actually, while Singapore is part of ASEAN, South Korea is part of the ASEAN+3.

Yeah, I had no idea this “+3” existed until Dr Kim mentioned it.

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ASEAN+3 is an expanded version of ASEAN transnational forum with 3 additional countries: Japan, China and South Korea.

These 3 countries couldn’t work things out at the East Asia summit, and since each of them already has a bilateral trade agreement with ASEAN, hence ASEAN+3 is the beta version of multilateral talks with ASEAN involved.


The below graphic is also pretty interesting because it shows how South Korea and Singapore are also part of APEC and RCEP, although it can be seen that Singapore is involved in more partnerships (are we kiasu or what?)


6. Food provides a good opportunity for cultural exchanges, but both Singapore and South Korea are not really there yet

Although Asian cuisine is widely available around the world, especially Chinese, Thai and Japanese food, both Singapore and Korean cuisine still have some way to go.

For example, Korean red ginseng is a Korean specialty product, but not many foreigners can stomach the thought of eating a ginseng sweet which is sold as a gift for tourists to bring home.


As for Singapore, although our chicken rice, nasi lemak, otah etc can be found overseas (albeit at higher prices), we still scratch our head at “Singapore noodles,” because we have a gazillion different noodle dishes here in Singapore.

7. Both Singapore and Korean food go really well together

Dr Kim was in Singapore for a Taste of East Asia (TEA) masterclass organised by e2i, where F&B trade professionals from Singapore could learn and network from overseas masters under the East Asia Cultural Project.


Korean Masters such as Grandmaster Ki Soon-Do and Chef Vivien Han of Congdu fame also collaborated with Singapore restaurants Xi Yan Private Dining and Crystal Jade Prestige respectively to create fusion dishes.

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The bak kut teh below served at Xi Yan Private Dining was actually Korean Kimchi pork ribs cooked in special Korean Doenjang (soya bean paste)! And yes, it tasted as good as it looks.

Specialty food products such as sun-dried bay salt baked in bamboo and fermented soya sauce were introduced to Singaporean participants. These products come from South Jeolla Province, widely recognised for having Korea’s best cuisine (according to Korea Times).

Grandmaster Ki’s story was especially appealing to me, because she is the 10th generation matriarch of a soya-sauce legacy over 300 years old.

In her family, mothers will pass on an heirloom jar filled with the best quality soya sauce to their daughters (including daughters-in-law), who will carry on the tradition of filling the jar with the best soya sauce from their yearly harvests.

Only once, has she ever sold a 500ml bottle of precious soya sauce from that 300-year-old jar (it was a really special request), and at a price of USD $3,000! In comparison, a normal 300ml bottle of 5 year soya sauce typically sells for USD $8.

Just like in Singapore, you cannot underestimate the value of a good rempah.

The East Asia Cultural Project opened my eyes to appreciate Korean food, history and politics more than I expected.

South Korea and Singapore may have different social cultures, languages and history, but in many ways, we are more similar than we realise.

(Cover image via)


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