Singapore turns 50: The remarkable nation that “can Lah”

By: | Published: August 8, 2015 12:20 AM

As Singapore breaks into festivities and its citizens break into Singlish (a mixture of Malay, Chinese and English) with lingo such as can Lah (can accomplish), there is little doubt that if something needs to be accomplished, Singaporeans can Lah!

The modern spectacle that Singapore is began its moorings as an island in the Malay Empire of Johore.The modern spectacle that Singapore is began its moorings as an island in the Malay Empire of Johore.

The tropical isle of Singapore is as close an approximation, if there can be, of perfectly-oiled efficiency. Small, sleek and, yes, tightly managed, the “city in the garden” of 230 square miles synchronises and straddles diversity: From its 5.46 million multi-racial population to its status as a leading financial hub, from skyscrapers to shophouses to possibly the best airport in the world—all have contributed to the making of Singapore as a dynamic entrepot in Southeast Asia. As one of Asia’s wealthiest in PPP, Singapore is cheered as Asia’s answer to Switzerland. The Singapore story—of a young nation that celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence and its rise from rather humble beginnings to now—is a remarkable story of the small nation that could, but ostensibly, are some hiccups between.

The modern spectacle that Singapore is began its moorings as an island in the Malay Empire of Johore. Its fortunes changed 200 years ago, after having been “founded” by Sir Stamford Raffles (in 1819) as a trading post given its location at the head of the Strait of Malacca. Then, the British East India Company wanted to secure Singapore to protect their cargo from the Dutch, as their ships plied between India and China. Singapore soon became a British Crown colony, that too governed from Calcutta! In 1867, it became a separate Straits Settlements colony. Thereafter, its political destiny took a turn, attaining self-government from the British in 1959. It became a part of Malaysia from 1963-65. Finally came the Proclamation of Singapore on August 9, 1965, when the nation’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) deemed Singapore as an “independent and sovereign state and nation independent from and separate from Malaysia.”

Singapore’s progression from a sleepy, coconut-tree framed island into a primary trading port that morphed into a melting pot of traders, merchants and sojourners, to under colonial yoke when English language, institutions and even a distinctly neo-classical architecture ruled the isle, to independence has bestowed it with a personality quite its own. Independence in 1965 knit the dominant ethnic Chinese (three-quarters of the population), the Malays and the Indians into a inter-mixture neither wholly Chinese nor Malay, but into an identity that was partly organic and partly invented—Singaporean. With an English-educated Chinese as the governing elite, a dominant Chinese-speaking mass at the heartland, Singapore has never been a “third China” nor just a pale shadow of Malaysia—but been itself.

The credit for making Singapore—marshy swamps and Third World in the 1960s to what it is today—must go to the first Prime Minister, LKY, and the political party that he spearheaded, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Nobody embodied the fledgling nation’s thirst for identity and economic ambition more than LKY (Prime Minister from 1965-1990), who maintained a visible presence until the last, despite stepping down in 1990 to become the Senior Minister (SM) and, thereafter, the Minister Mentor (MM) until 2011. LKY was in equal parts a ruthless patriarch and a visionary “model” citizen, who even quit smoking and exercised to set an exemplar. Such was the quest that LKY once famously said, “…even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.”

In the 1960s, it was LKY who stood in command of the “developmental state”. Singapore thus embarked on three decades of hyper growth. The Economic Development Board (EDB, set up in the 1960s) became a key player in state-led economic growth. Perhaps LKY was even a precursor to China’s moderniser Deng Xiaoping (who took on Mao’s mantle in 1978) with Singapore embracing an “open door” policy a decade before China did (in 1968, welcoming foreign investment in manufacturing by establishing the Jurong New Town as the first export processing zone).

Foreign investment into Singapore was channelled into electronics, petroleum products, shipbuilding and repair, chemicals and transport equipment (for oil-rig construction), rather than textiles and plastics. The discovery of oil in South China Sea had provided Singapore an opportunity to position itself as a base for offshore exploration. Singapore also positioned itself as the queen of the tourist circuit, what with catchy slogans from “Surprising Singapore: A Modern City with a Remarkable Past!” in the 1980s to “New Asia-Singapore” in the 1990s to “Uniquely Singapore” in the 2000s. This strategy has paid off—it received 15.1 million tourists in 2014 (almost double of what India received in 2013, 6.97 million tourists).

The Singapore model could shine, partly because of its size—in the city-state, regulation was a tad easier. Two crucial factors of production—land (almost 80% of the land is state-owned) and capital—are regulated by the state. The state holds the right to acquire land for “developmental” purposes. For mobilising capital, the state spearheads a “large and complex mandatory savings scheme” administered by the central provident fund under the ministry of manpower. Both employers and employees compulsorily have to pay into the central provident fund which varies according to age and is subject to a wage ceiling. This is used to finance development. Over the years, the contribution rate and maximum monthly rate have been increased—the withdrawal age is also going up.
But despite a 30-fold increase in GDP, some of this has not been good enough, or so some Singaporeans think. As the nation breaks out into a celebratory “Majulah Singapura!” (onward Singapore!), this is a time to reflect on the pressing challenges, some that come from within.

One of the oddities of such a diverse nation are the issues that the dominant, elected, political party PAP has to grapple with—simmering issues such as Singapore’s falling fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman (well below the replacement rate of 2.1%). And then is the contentious debate on immigration. In 1990, foreigners made up 14% of the 3 million population. Today, citizens constitute 3.3 million, there are 527,000 Permanent Residents (PRs), but it is the numbers of foreigners that make Singaporeans queasy—up to 38% of the population. In fact, when the government proposed to bring the population up to 6.9 million (with foreigners constituting close to half) in 2030, Singaporeans squirmed in disapproval, taking to protests online and offline.

And there are fleeting flashes that online power has increased and can be over the top. In 2014, a British banker who lived in Singapore posted a series of offensive remarks on the “poor people of Singapore”. His remarks were in bad taste, and netizens went after him and he and family were hounded out of Singapore. Separately, the high cost of living and the glitter of modern life and gadgets all around encourages some of the less well-off Singaporeans to go to loan-sharks and pawn shops. Indebtedness causes ruckus in their houses, when loan-sharks use strong-arm methods to retrieve loans. Occasionally, juvenile gangs enter into gang-wars using the parang (metal bar) in slashing attacks, a jarring note for a country so well-controlled.

High-profile defamation cases against critics, including the irreverent ones, come up from time to time. The high-profile case of blogger Roy Ngerng who calls himself an “unsung, part-time blogger” of “The Heart Truths” (blog) centred around the central provident fund. In 2014, Ngerng suggested that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had misappropriated the central provident fund savings, going to the extent of likening Lee to the City Harvest Church leaders of Singapore (who are in the dock, facing trial for misuse of $50 million in 2013). The defamation suit attracted attention as it was the first such high profile case in the High Court, where the typical minimum damages claim is Singaporean $250,000. According to Channel NewsAsia, “about $110,000 has been donated by the public for the blogger.” After the death of the beloved LKY, 16-year-old Amos Yee uploaded an 8-minute video critical of LKY, which infuriated the government and the populace at large and Amos was in detention for 50 days before the case was settled.

Singaporeans are testing limits. Despite a ban by the Media Development Authority (MDA) in 2014, Singaporean film-maker Tan Pin Pin’s documentary “To Singapore, With Love” (2013)—which chronicled the stories of nine political exiles who live abroad—did not quite prevent Singaporeans from going across the border to Johor Bahru (Malaysia) to watch it. Almost 40 artists, film-makers and civil society activists also asked the MDA to reconsider the ban, which thereafter allowed private screenings.

But these warts apart, for most Singaporeans, it is “Love, Actually” for Singapore. As Singapore breaks into happy festivities next week and Singaporeans break into “Singlish” (a mixture of Malay, Chinese and English) with lingo such as “Can, Can, Lah!” (literal meaning, can accomplish), there is little doubt that if something needs to be done, Singapore and Singaporeans Can Lah! That, in fact, is the defining fighting spirit of Singapore.

The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi

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