Thursday, August 6, 2015

Singapore at 50: doing whatever it takes to succeed


To be around for 50 years is a noteworthy achievement in any endeavour. But to reach that milestone and lose your father in the same year adds a decidedly bittersweet touch to any sense of accomplishment. On Sunday Singapore will commemorate 50 years as an independent state, but the anniversary celebrations will be the first without founding father Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister for more than three decades and holder of various ministerial posts for 56 years, who died, age 91, on March 23 this year.

Singapore's written history can be traced to the 3rd century – its original Chinese name, Pu Luo Chung, translates as "the island at the end" of the Malay Peninsula. It has seen the Portuguese, Dutch and British come and go, but three years of Japanese occupation during World War II – described by Lee as "the dark ages" – destroyed confidence in Britain's power to defend the region and became a key factor in setting Singapore on the road to self-rule.

The key to Singapore's future may lie in its leaders being able to manage a kind of low-key Orwellian 'doublethink' – the acceptance of two contradictory beliefs at the same time. 

A degree of autonomy was granted in 1948 but Singapore had to wait until 1958 before an act of the British Parliament allowed the state of Singapore to be established. Five years later, the Malaysia Agreement was signed and Singapore, Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak became the Federation of Malaysia.

The next few years were rocky, typified by mounting unrest and racial tension, until on August 9, 1965, the Parliament of Malaysia voted unanimously to expel Singapore from the federation. The same day, the Republic of Singapore Independence Act was signed and Singapore was established as an independent and sovereign republic.

The prospects for this fledgling nation seemed meagre – unemployment was high, housing standards poor, education uncertain, and there was a lack of natural resources and space for the nation to grow and develop. But develop it did. First manufacturing, then oil, the service industries, the port, and, most recently, the financial sector went from strength to strength as Singapore went from Third World to First World in a single generation. Bloomberg's annual index of the world's most innovative countries now rates Singapore eighth, only two places behind the United States.

Thousands of performers will take part in the 50th national day parade at the Padang – the site of the first national day parade – a multimillion-dollar extravaganza designed to entertain crowds and also impress the neighbours with a show of military might.

A white flower placed on an empty chair will mark the absence of the founding father.

So where does Singapore's future lie? Asia is often said to be the steward that will take the capitalism of the West from the 20th century and into the future. Indeed, before the national day commemorations there has been much talk of chasing rainbows, but there needs to be more than just a pot of gold at the end of the pursuit.

In 1968 Lee referred to Singaporeans as "a tough people" who were able "to accept stern measures for collective survival". But although this single-minded approach has been a key factor in Singapore's success, unity and harmony are regarded by many as the real reasons behind its position of strength.

In an interview in 2007, Lee spoke of Singapore's coming late to independence. "We had 20 years of examples of failed states. So we knew what to avoid – racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict."

At the Padang celebrations a large part will be dedicated to the theme of "one united people of Singapore, regardless of race, religious background and language". The key to Singapore's future may lie in its leaders being able to manage a kind of low-key Orwellian "doublethink" – the simultaneous acceptance of two seemingly contradictory factors. Achieving and maintaining religious and racial harmony is paramount, but these spiritual and cultural endeavours are buttressed by material success and legislative authority, in particular the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, two articles of the constitution and parts of the Sedition Act.

The national day celebrations are a good example of this co-operation between the spiritual and the material, as an observer of last week's dress rehearsal said: "Of course we know it's a hugely expensive exercise in self-promotion, but we absolutely love it: it's our national day!"

It has been said that Lee's legacy lacks a genuine system of beliefs and is more about his having been efficient and effective. But what is undeniable is that through conflict and uncertainty the nation's founding father has left Singapore with a sense of preparedness and an understanding of the need to do whatever it takes to achieve that "collective survival".

Simon Clews is director of the Writing Centre for Scholars and Researchers at the University of Melbourne

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