SG50: Look to the future, too, not only the past — Devadas Krishnadas

DECEMBER 3 — 2015 will be a year of relentless celebrations and commemorations of Singapore’s 50th year of independence. These events will take place at all levels — from grassroots to national — and at all places — such as schools, community clubs and the Padang for the National Day Parade.

Every Singaporean — regardless of political affiliation or past nationality — has reason to join in to mark this milestone in our national journey.

However, amid all the activity, there is the danger that we might end up having a year-long party for the sake of having a party rather than finding deeper meaning and purpose in the celebrations. Even where we do find meaning, there is also the risk that we might misunderstand the significance due to the heavy emphasis that will inevitably be placed on the historical significance of the occasion.

People cheer during Singapore's 49th National Day Parade at the floating platform in Marina Bay August 9, 2014. — Reuters pic
People cheer during Singapore's 49th National Day Parade at the floating platform in Marina Bay August 9, 2014. — Reuters pic

Let me point out four possible misunderstandings and suggest what we should focus on instead.

The soul of things

First, it is natural that much will be made of how Singapore went from Third to First World in one generation. The country’s development is reflected in its modern landscape — from the well-planned housing estates in the heartlands to the towering skyscrapers of the business district. And yes, physical structures can express meaning, but usually only shallowly.

What we should be emphasising more than the quantity of our built-up space is the quality of our people and the society that we collectively constitute. We should not forget that the physical towers are ultimately built on a strong foundation of intangible shared values. Singaporeans are the soul of our urbanity.

And while that is still so, we can be confident that our national character will remain resilient. This is a vital virtue which does not happen or sustain itself naturally. We have to keep working at it.

Narratives of success

Second, in that narrative of Third World to First, it will seem that Singapore’s achievements were inevitable and its leaders infallible. We should be mature enough to accept that neither contention is true nor that recognition does not take away but adds lustre to the pioneers — both people and leaders.

Singapore could have gone off the track on several occasions — in the face of global economic shocks, such as in 1997 and 2009, and security and biological threats such as Jemaah Islamiyah and the severe acute respiratory syndrome — and these crises presented severe tests.

Our national journey did benefit from extraordinary leadership, but we also got lucky. We set the correct economic direction early, the Cold War made strategic alliances more accessible given our anti-communist stance, we surfed the tide of the Great Moderation in global economics in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we have been lifted even higher due to the shifting centre of gravity from West to East.

Singapore’s next 50 years may not come with the same benign conditions. The impression of linear progress in our past 50 years, even if true to a certain extent, should come with the usual caveat in financial prospectuses — that past is no guarantee of future performance. Singapore has to remain nimble and be able to take knocks.

That does not mean that we are failing. It means only that we cannot take for granted our good times, but that if we persevere, there will be more of those better times even while we have to go through bad patches. That more punctuated narrative of progress should be our new definition of success.

Make new history, not only celebrate old history

Third, the commemorative aspects of the SG50 events may induce a collective nostalgia for things past and stoke a yearning to retain our Singaporean identity. Again, to an extent, this is natural and even to be welcomed, so that we act to preserve some of our past as anchors of identity.

However, if we overdo it, we can get in the way of the essential truth of the Singapore condition — and this is that we survive by continuous adaptation in the face of relentless change. This has been our formula for success, which we must retain.

To do this, we must continue to be willing to take risks and to focus on the longer term.

Adaptation can trigger discomfort and angst among some Singaporeans who wish for stability and predictability. Nevertheless, we have no alternative but to always seize the initiative from events and to plan and act ahead of tomorrow.

The next 50 years

This brings me to my final point. A preoccupation with the past, however glorious, during the SG50 year would be unhelpful.

In moderate doses, it is comforting and self-congratulatory, which are both fine. But we could develop an addiction to our own self-gratifying narrative of the past 50 years when we should be focused on generating a new narrative suited to the next 50 years.

SG50 should mark not only Singapore’s past half-century, but also an occasion to look ahead to the coming half-century of independence.

In short, let us continue to make new history and not only celebrate old history. To do so, we will need to make big bets and steer our course as conditions determine. As a small nation, we are not masters of our circumstances, but we are and must remain masters of our choices. — TODAY

* Devadas Krishnadas is the chief executive of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.

** ** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online. 

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