Singapore is not 50 years old

AUG 9 — There is some relief in finally getting here.

August 9, 2015. Fifty years in the making. Months of SG50 euphoria has placed a lot of pressure on this rare and wondrous occasion: a four-day weekend.

We have all looked forward to it since March, when the announcement was made. What would we do, we asked? Some bought flights which quickly led to a chastising by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob – urging us to stay in Singapore to celebrate the fact that we’ve been a nation for 50 years.

Which is great — of course. Headlines from some of the major publications (including a gushing piece by home-grown academic Kishore Mahubani in The Huffington Post) declare Singapore’s five decades of state building a resounding success. Mahubani, in fact, calls Singapore the most successful society in history.

I wouldn’t go that far, but our Little Red Dot is without a doubt an exceptionally successful city.

Even more than the statistics — $500 (RM1,416) to $55,000 GDP capita, our excellent human development indicators, the HDB experiment all often trotted out by nation-praising pundits — I think what best bears testament to Singapore’s success is its utter uniqueness.

We are the world’s only major sovereign city state: independent, influential, multicultural and prosperous.

A Chinook helicopter (top right) from the Republic of Singapore Air Force flies a giant national flag over the Gardens by the Bay dome during a preview for the 50th Singapore National Day celebration on August 1, 2015. — AFP pic
A Chinook helicopter (top right) from the Republic of Singapore Air Force flies a giant national flag over the Gardens by the Bay dome during a preview for the 50th Singapore National Day celebration on August 1, 2015. — AFP pic

This is a real achievement, absolutely worth celebrating, and I have no interest in spoiling the party.

Instead, I just want to say as we watch the sky light up tonight in a stunning celebration of our efficiency, energy and ever-increasing wealth, please remember that we are more than just the past 50 years.

While the current administration must be given credit for steering the nation to a point of exceptional prosperity, one of their consistent follies is the need to belittle what was before.

Singapore in 1965 was no fishing village or barren rock and it was not poor. Certainly not by the standards of the region at the time. At independence, we stood only behind Japan as the second richest nation in Asia.

Even more importantly than capita-GDP we had an enterprising population, well-run institutions and a solid economic model.

The Raffles Institution dates back to 1823, Tan Tock Seng Hospital — 1844, The Straits Times — 1845, Keppel Harbor to 1852.

The antecedents of our ministries and civil service all emerged not 50 but over 150 years ago at the time of the Straits Settlement which was established in 1832.

To me, this is what really marks the foundation of the modern state as the settlement included not only Singapore but Penang, Malacca and even Labuan — an assortment of trading ports of which Singapore would emerge as the heart.

That is when we became a centre for regional capital, aspiration and ambition; an entrepot par-excellence and that was the model we would follow. 

Just a glance at a photograph of Raffles Place in the 1920s alone will put an end to the fishing village to metropolis in 50 years spiel.

Rather than playing up this trite simplification we should instead embrace the depth of our history.

Before the Straits Settlement, there were Rajas and Sultans and even before that Sang Nila Utama and Temasek. And of course all the races and cultures that now call the island home brought with them their own ancient histories. So though we are told Singapore is a young nation, the truth is we are rich in history and the roots of our success go back a long way.

By white-washing this fact, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.

Weeks ago, I watched a delightful production, Another Country. The musical performance was a carefully curated anthology of short stories, historical snippets, poetry and music from Malaya. And in its showcasing of the depth of our literary heritage, it highlights that “Singapore” is by no means the creation of one man or one administration but a collection of thousands, even millions, of individual lives, stories, historical facts and circumstances.

And I think that is worth celebrating.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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