How Singapore Became the Asian Powerhouse

Modern-day Singapore provides the best quality of life in Asia according to Mercer’s quality of living ranking of cities worldwide. In celebration of Singapore’s National Day, we take a look at the city-state’s rise from humble roots to a developed nation.

Succeeding Despite the Odds

Singapore’s separation from Malaysia on 9 August 1965 saw Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew break down on television.

SG50 in 2015, Singapore’s 50th year as an independent nation, saw an outpouring of pride and self-congratulations in a country that might easily have failed but succeeded spectacularly.

The 1987 National Day celebrations included the song We Are Singapore opening with the line ‘There was a time when people said that Singapore won’t make it, but we did.’

Revived for SG50, with a new prelude, We Are Singapore was re-released with a YouTube video that shows not only what Singapore is, but more importantly who Singaporeans are.

A comparison of the two videos shows the differences in the skyline of Singapore’s iconic business hub Raffles Place, plus the changes in Singaporeans over the previous 31 years.

It also provides an insight into why Singapore has been such a success from 1819 with the founding of the Settlement of Singapore to the present-day home of Crazy Rich Asians.

From Temasek to Singapura to Singapore

Next year Singapore will commemorate the bicentenary of its modern-era. To commemorate the centenary in 1919 two books were published.

One Hundred Years of Singapore covered mostly the European history while One Hundred Years of the Chinese in Singapore told the Chinese story.

Once known as Temasek, it was renamed Singapura as it entered a period of prosperity first as part of the Majapahit Empire then as an independent state, before declining into a known but rarely used backwater. The modern-era began in 1819 with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles.

Fast forward to the 20th century and sound archaeological proof of the ancient settlement of Temasek/Singapura was unearthed, thanks to the work of Professor John Miksic of the National University of Singapore, recent winner of the inaugural Singapore History Prize.

Location and People

Recovering from the shock of being ousted from Malaysia in August 1965, Lee Kuan Yew and other pioneer leaders, such as S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee, took stock of the new country’s assets.

With no natural resources, no hinterland and limited space, the new Republic of Singapore had little in its favour.

Throughout the centuries Singapore’s greatest attraction was its location, the main reason why Sir Stamford Raffles founded the port at the behest of the East India Company.

Today Singapore’s location and natural deep harbourage make it the second-busiest port in the world after Shanghai. Changi Airport is the 18th busiest airport with over 62 million passengers in 2017.

Singapore had to rely on the only other resource it had — which would also turn out to be its greatest strength — the Singapore people.

The Path to Success

Today Singapore ranks second in the world in the Index of Economic Freedom. Yet industrialisation only began in the 1960s.

At that time the late Brother Joseph Kiely was a teacher at the De La Salle schools in Singapore. He recalled that there was ‘little or no tradition of technical education.’

Without industrialisation the economic outlook for Singapore was bleak. Revamping the education system to include the skills necessary for attracting industry ensured a qualified workforce for investors while creating job opportunities for Singaporeans.

This shrewdness, foresight and plan of action set Singapore on its course of transformation from a third-world country to developed nation in a single generation. An unparalleled achievement on the global stage.

Economic Growth

Foreign talent was and still is welcome in Singapore.

One of the major contributors to Singapore’s success was Dutch economist Dr. Albert Winsemius. He went to Singapore as part of the United Nations Development Programme team in 1960 and remained an advisor for 24 years.

Tasked with assessing Singapore’s potential for industrialisation, Winsemius’ contribution to the country’s success is reflected in the fact that a street was named after him.

Thanks to Winsemius and his team’s advice, Singapore underwent prodigious economic growth in its first 30 years of independence.

According to the World Bank, Singapore’s GDP per capita rose from US$427 in 1965 to US$24,936 in 1995, higher than the UK and Canada over the same period.

In 2017 Singapore’s GDP per capita reached US$57,714, more than the UK, Canada, Germany, France and Japan. The closest to Singapore among those countries was more than US$12,000 behind the island nation.

Progress was not limited to terms only economists and politicians care about. Government investment in healthcare saw infant mortality fall from 27.3 deaths per 1000 in 1965 to 2.2 in 2016,  fourth in the world after Monaco, Japan and Iceland.

Not All Plain Sailing

In a 1987 speech Goh Chok Tong, then first deputy prime minister and defence minister, made the comment, ‘Running the United States is like being in command of an aircraft carrier. You will not capsize. Steering a small and young country is more like shooting rapids in a canoe.’

Singapore has enjoyed a period of relative peace.

In the 1964 communal riots broke out along racial lines. In 1969 a ban on a May Day Rally organised by communist-linked unions led to clashes with the police. Again in 1969, race riots spilled over from Malaysia’s 13 May Incident.

The next riot to occur in Singapore was in 2013 when a road accident in Little India sparked violence from 400 migrant workers. The specialist ‘strong arm’ police deployed to quell the unrest was the Gurkha Contingent.

The gap of 44 years between the disturbances is due to Singapore’s strict laws.

With such a diverse multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious population it is easy to give offence and take offence. Imagine people jumping up and down in the canoe from Goh Chok Tong’s analogy.

People Are at the Heart of Singapore’s Success

Given a fertility rate of 1.16 in 2017 increasing Singapore’s population is a problem, making immigration part of the plan for economic growth. People and Singapore’s success go hand in hand.

In 1965 Singapore’s citizen and permanent resident population was 1.9 million. By 2017 it was 3.9 million with an overall population of 5.6 million including expatriates and foreign workers.

Despite its detractors, Singapore is attractive to many people. The number of new citizens annually ranges from 15,000 to 25,000, with new permanent residents at 30,000 annually.

One of the attractions is home ownership, 91 percent in 2017, thanks to the Housing Development Board offering subsidised housing for eligible citizens and permanent residents.

Little Red Dot

Singapore is not Surrey, South Australia or Saskatchewan and cannot be judged as if it were. It is a unique little red dot that against all odds has succeeded thanks to the commitment of its people.

In his 2018 May Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, ‘What is the responsibility of the new generation of Singaporeans? It is to renew Singapore – to open a new chapter, to create new possibilities and frontiers for our country.’

As the song goes: One People, One Nation, One Singapore.

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