What can India learn from Singapore, the multi-ethnic, multi-religious state.
Former member, Railway Board
What appears as a tiny red dot on the southern tip of Malaysia on most of the world maps is the city-state of Singapore, a pocket-size economic superpower. With a population of about 5.7 million and just under 720 sq km of landmass, it packs a mighty economic punch, much above its size, with a GDP of $90,000 per capita and an unemployment rate of just 1.7%. Consequent to attaining independence from the British in 1963 as a part of Malaysia, two years later it opted out of the uneasy alliance as it became an independent state, and since then it has never looked back. In 1960 itself, it had set its sights on making itself an economic powerhouse when the government decided to set up an industrial estate at an investment of $46 million, a princely sum those days, in the mangrove swamps of Jurong, southwest part of the main island of Singapore. As later on admitted by Goh Keng Swee who was then the finance minister in the government of Singapore, it could have easily turned into the biggest white elephant in Southeast Asia and would have become a major embarrassment for him to be known to the posterity as Goh’s folly. Although such an idea was not the first of its kind, Goh’s plans for an industrial estate in Jurong were highly ambitious and wide-reaching. Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist engaged to pilot the project, selected an area of about 70 sq km in Jurong, where the low hills were levelled and soil used to fill the swamplands. One of the first industries to come up was the National Iron & Steel Mills (it’s now a subsidiary of Tata Steel), followed by a saw mill for timber products and later on facilities to manufacture oil rigs, shipbuilding, oil refinery, etc.
Since then, the area has been transformed into a self-sufficient town consisting of five administrative zones and a separate five-year master plan to further develop it. In fact, it now boasts of a port, an industrial estate, its own town hall, a science centre and a bird park. Singapore’s unique location on the major shipping lane from Europe to the Far East makes it an ideal spot for setting up container ports. It boasts of two such ports, with the second at Jurong that began operations in 1965. Currently, Singapore ranks as the third-largest container port in the world. In addition, the country’s first International Business Park, built in 1992 in Jurong East, is home to various international and domestic companies such as Creative Technology Centre Pte Ltd, Acer Computer International Ltd and Ascendas Pte Ltd. Of course, throughout Singapore’s spectacular growth has been the larger-than-life presence of one of the main founding fathers, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the first Prime Minister of Singapore and held office from 1959 to 1990, a full 31 years, giving its administration a very long spell of stability—one of the significant factors in Singapore’s remarkable economic growth. His torch is being now carried by his son Lee Hsien Loong, who became the Prime Minister in 2004. Singapore has had its share of immigrants over the ages and currently has 74% of its population of Chinese decent, 13% Malay, 9% Indian and rest a motley of other Southeast Asian origins. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the politically-active and highly-committed Lee Kuan Yew, who is from the majority Chinese community, had a fair chance of leading the nation for over three decades. Religious groups comprising of 30% Buddhists, 20% Christians, 14% Islam, 10% Taosim and 5% Hindus seldom have any conflicts as they are simply too busy doing their jobs and making money. One of the most interesting features of Singapore is not just its phenomenal development, but also the way it has handled its varied ethnic groups, providing each one to live and grow according to its abilities, yet not lose sight of the fact that they are all Singaporeans first. Towards this, allotment of flats in the government-sponsored housing estate for low-income groups is made strictly in proportion to the three major ethnic groups—Chinese, Malay and Indians—eliminating a possibility of ghettos being created.