Dissertation Abstracts

Chains, Values, and Ethnicity: The Political Economy of Aquaculture in Singapore

Author: Lim, Guanie , guanie.lim@gmail.com
Department: Geography
University: National University of Singapore, Singapore
Supervisor: Dr. Harvey Neo
Year of completion: 2016
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: global commodity chain , global value chain , state-society relations , Southeast Asia
Areas of Research: Agriculture and Food , Economy and Society , Organization


The aquaculture industry of Singapore is one of the last bastions of Singapore’s shrinking agriculture sector. Despite Singapore’s inherent scarcity of physical and farming space as well as the state’s dirigisme in spatial planning and receptive attitude towards international trade as an avenue to feed its populace, it has continued to survive. Yet, there has been relatively little research conducted on this industry. In particular, the organizational dynamics and place-specific context of the Singaporean aquaculture industry are seldom expounded upon. These issues are crucial for they illuminate the intricacies of contemporary development and unpack both the opportunities and constraints that participation in the industry brings for firms. To analyse these issues and to unpack the Singaporean aquaculture industry more generally, a global commodity chain approach is employed. Particular attention is paid to the manner in which the governance structure of the industry shapes the power relations interlinking the firms operating in the industry, and the wider social, cultural, and political economic contours embedded within different portions of the commodity chain.

The dissertation illustrates that the industry exhibits archetypical features of a buyer-driven commodity chain. In this industry, the lead firms – the wholesalers and retailers – exert a strong influence on the governance structure. Their stranglehold over the commodity chain stems from their buying power, financial might, and flexibility to source from numerous suppliers. The governance structure of the chain, distributing almost unbridled market power to the lead firms, has in turn exerted tremendous pressure on the fish farming firms operating at the upstream node of the chain. To surmount this and other challenges, the fish farming firms have attempted to upgrade their operations in order to capture more value-addedness and profits. However, their upgrading efforts are largely uneven, and often fraught with difficulties.

The dissertation also argues that many of the fish farming firms have responded to such challenges by establishing business ventures outside of Singapore, particularly in Malaysia’s southernmost state of Johor and (to a smaller extent) the Riau Islands of Indonesia. In their internationalization efforts, these firms utilize the regional Chinese (minority) ethnicity and the Chinese business networks as they evoke the sociocultural principles of a ‘common’ Chinese identity and associated Chinese business ideals (real or imaginary) such as guanxi (good connections) and xinyong (trust). Many of these connections are also embedded in personal relationships between the owners and managers of the Singaporean (ethnic Chinese) firms and their foreign counterparts.