Singapore Travelog #1 – From Third World to First

We just landed back in Chennai after a 7 day tour of Singapore. When you think of Singapore, shopping and the Sentosa Island come to mind. While these are great, if we wrote about them, it may not be that interesting. Here is my first pass at writing about Singapore with a request to Priya Raju to fill in.

3 Themes

In our visit, 3 broad themes emerged – first is Singapore’s remarkable rise from a third world country struggling to find its feet to a bustling city state with per capita annual income more than 22,000 USD (by 1999). Most of the credit for this remarkable transformation, achieved in just 30 years, goes to Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary Prime Minister, who took office as a 35 year-old in 1959 and stepped down in 1990.

Second, Singapore’s achievement in integrating its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual population into a single whole, devoid of ethnic strife, is an example to the rest of the world.  How did they do that?

Third, the fantastic attractions –  Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Sentosa Island and the Botanic Gardens.

In the first few days of our trip, we were very impressed by the superb Changi Airport, the modern MRT (mass rapid transit) train service, bus service and the highway system – overall, a first world infrastructure.

The material in this post is from the following sources:

1. One entire day spent in the Singapore National Museum.

2. We met with some friends and family and gleaned some information about Singapore.

3. Based on a recommendation, we picked up Lee Kuan Yew’s book “From Third World to First”.


Singapore’s modern history dates back to the 14th century when Indonesian Prince Sang Nila Uttama spotted the island and decided to establish a city. Legend has it that the Prince and his entourage encountered a strange animal with red body with white chest and black head (sic) and decided to call it Singapura (Lion City) because he thought the animal was a lion.  In the following centuries, merchants from China, Malaya, India and other neighboring areas start settling the city. Its strategic location on the Malacca straits and the easy navigation from China and India piggybacking on the monsoon winds made Singapura a key location in South East Asia.


Later in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles from Britain decided to make Singapura a key British port due to its strategic location.  It is then that it got anglicized to Singapore. Raffles is celebrated in Singapore as the founder of modern Singapore.  Britain sent its prisoners and convicts from its colonies in India and neighboring areas to build Singapore and it quickly became a key maritime, commercial and trading hub of the vast British Empire.

Later during the Japanese territorial expansion in the 1940s, Japanese won a war with the British and occupied Singapore – a period of great misery for the Singaporeans which lasted until the end of the 2nd world war in 1945. As it came out of the Japanese occupation and started to rebuild itself, the British empire started to collapse and Singapore became independently governed. The People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won the elections in 1959 with a key plank of merger with Malaya to create the Malay Federation. But thanks to ethnic riots between Malay and Chinese and other  reasons, Singapore was asked to leave the federation and it became an independent republic in 1965 with Lee Kuan Yew continuing as the Prime Minister.

Visionary Leadership

The real of story of Singapore’s rise started then. Lee Kuan Yew had several outstanding members in his cabinet including the brilliant Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee. From the beginning, Lee and his team focused on building investor confidence because they envisioned correctly that it is the investors that will create jobs. Goh, in a landmark decision, decided to invest 50 million dollars to create the state-of-the-art Jurong Industrial Estate. Initially it was derided as Goh’s Folly, but over time it became a magnet for multinational companies which forever transformed Singapore’s labor force and the economy.

Lee’s book covers the far reaching decision to make Singapore into a financial center. In 1968, they found that the international financial system ground to a halt between 6pm San Francisco time and 9 AM Zurich time (in a cycle that includes Zurich, London, New York and San Francisco). They decided to inject Singapore into the system to make a 24-hour financial system possible.  Over time with smart policy making Singapore became a key financial center of the world.

Singapore Government also guarantees an apartment home for every citizen at dramatically subsidized rates. Homes are made available according to one’s earning power. There are no homeless people  and no beggars in Singapore.  Our friends mentioned that the healthcare system is excellent. A quick back of the envelope calculation showed that medicines are quite expensive compared to India but not as expensive as the USA, but the consulting fee for the doctor is affordable.

National Integration

Our friends talked about the National Service patterned after Israel – every citizen upon completion of high school serve 2 years in the National Service and can be pressed into military service within a few hours when needed. This way, they keep the investments in building a full time military to a bare minimum. Post the national service, the citizens have to do 3-4 weeks national duty every year to keep their military skills well-honed. Every company is mandated by law to support this time-off.  It is said that the National Services is an important ingredient in integrating Singaporeans.

The one big thing that stood out for us is Singapore’s decision to make English the main language. School students study in English medium and are asked to study their mother tongue as the second language so that they don’t lose their roots.  With 75% Chinese, 14% Malay and 8% Indian Tamil and others forming 3%, they could have easily made Chinese the main language. By not doing that they avoided making one ethnicity superior to others. That move also avoided minority bashing and other majority-isms that are familiar to us Indians.

This melding of various cultures and the strong western influence in Singapore impacted their food, fashion and lifestyle giving rise to the Peranakan Culture. Who are the Peranakans?

We will cover that in another post. To read the next post in this series, click here.


  1. Quote

    That’s a very good post, Sukumar. Captures the essence of our trip rather well. When compared to that, what I’m about to write must sound like fluff 🙂

    I think this trip – my 1st to the Far East – has cracked open my horizons further. A picture is worth a 1000 words. What’s a real life experience like traveling worth, I wonder?

  2. Quote

    Thanks Priya. Thanks also for organizing a superb tour of Singapore. It was flawless.

    I am sure you can write a better post.

    The comparison with a picture as 1000 words analogy is interesting. I would say an immersive experience of this type is worth a million words. What do you think?

  3. Quote

    Sure sounds like you enjoyed your vacation! Nice post sukumar, why not give us a few pictures to go with em ? 🙂
    Waiting for priya’s post!

  4. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 13, 2008, 6:43 pm:

    Thanks Jass. At least this time i plan to upload my photos. The task that i dread is the tagging of the photos without which it would not make any sense to the people viewing the photos. I will try my best to do it this time.

  5. Quote

    Sukumar – Well said.

    I think Sang Nila Uttama deserves a separate post. Perhaps you’d like to do the honors?

  6. Quote

    Interesting observations about Singapore… It explains what a committed and good leader can do for a country…
    Are people not migrating there? Want to know more about how can they afford to give apartments to every citizen.. And have you read the book completely? Any policies worth emulating in the Indian context?

    Will be waiting for the next posts..

    Hope you had a great experience…

  7. Quote

    Not sure our readership will be interested in a separate post on Sang Nila Utama.

    Thanks. The way they do it is using a well-designed Contributory Provident Fund program. Once you accumulate about 20percent down payment in your CPF, you can apply and get an apartment on a 20-30 year mortgage taken directly from your CPF. Laws have been passed to ensure that no debtor can attach the apartment bought from HDB (housing development board). HDB can attach if mortgage payments are not made. The above is picked from Lee’s book. The way they have designed the program, we can also copy. It is a 750 page book of which i have read the first 5 chapters. Fortunately he had covered the HDB program in the first few chapters.

    Yes, we did have a great time. Priya is writing a fun post on the things we saw there. Stay tuned.

  8. Quote

    Hello Guys,

    Couldnt believe that you people went there for a holiday. Seems like you went on a research trip! Thanks for the post – Its my eye opener to Singapore! Waiting for the next posts on this series..

    Did you get time to visit NTU/NSU? If so do share about them too.


  9. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 14, 2008, 3:03 pm:

    Thanks. Who told you we went on a holiday trip? We were on a research mission. Just kidding 🙂 Priya Raju is writing a fun post on our trip. I am sure that will beat your expectations. Stay tuned.

    We did not get time to visit the NTU/NSU. Maybe next time.

  10. Quote definitely works.. That can be tried in India also, atleast for salaried people first and then for all..

  11. Quote

    Thanks Ananth. You are right. It can definitely be attempted first with the salaried people.

  12. Quote

    Great post and thanks for the insights of Singapore. Hope you guys had a great time off. For some reason I liked Singapore’s tropical climate too, when I went there morning it was hot and sweating then within 2 hours heavy rain and then again hot. Looking forward to read more about Singapore.


  13. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 15, 2008, 9:27 am:

    Thanks Subba. As a resident of Chennai, i can’t say i didn’t like the Singapore weather. It is quite similar to the Chennai weather except that it gets 10X more rains than Chennai on an annual basis. More posts from Priya to follow.

  14. Quote

    Wonderful post Sukumar. As usual it is different than photo-op travelogue. You just influenced to make my previously planned 1-day stop-over trip to Singapore to 1 week vacation. 🙂

  15. Quote

    Thanks for the kind words Vamsi. Looks like i should petition the singapore tourism board for some compensation for expanding tourism in Singapore 🙂 what say?

  16. Quote


    Sounds like an interesting trip, though I should say that it’s not as interesting as the Egypt one, for obvious reasons 🙂 Hope you had a great time. It’s interesting that they made English their primary language. How did they broker that one if the majority are of Chinese ethnicity? Didn’t they have clashes right off the bat for even suggesting something like that?

  17. Quote

    Thanks NK. I agree. Egypt and Singapore cannot be compared at all. One of the reasons why i didn’t write a moblog which i had planned to. I wanted to go through the entire tour and then write a consolidated set of posts.

    Good question. I don’t know how they pulled off the English as primary language thing. I haven’t finished Lee’s book. Maybe he covers it. My guess is that because they were a British colony, they may have already had English medium education and they simply continued that. Still, it is a tough decision to make, I agree. I will do some research and post back on this thread.

  18. Quote
    pk.karthik said December 17, 2008, 2:57 pm:

    Great blog Sukumar,

    I agree with Deepak ,I dont think u guys went for a vacation ..I would call it a field trip…

  19. Quote

    One thing with Singapore is a controlled democracy, more like parenting. Not many democracies flog people for violiting certain laws. Imagine the law around not having chewing gums in the country to keep it clean.

    I think that is very neccesary. This really helps them( as a society, as a culture ) to enjoy freedom within strict boundaries. This helps leadership also implement thier vision effectively. The society empowers them.

  20. Quote

    One thing with Singapore is a controlled democracy, more like parenting. Not many democracies flog people for violating certain laws. Imagine the law around of not having chewing gums in the country to keep it clean.

    I think that is very neccesary. This really helps them( as a society, as a culture ) to enjoy freedom within strict boundaries. This helps leadership also implement thier vision effectively. The society empowers the leaders.

  21. Quote


    As someone who uses a Elbow crutch to move around and use public transport, roads, public places india is my worst nightmare. The first time i went to Singapore, i fell in love instantly. My long term goal is to immigrate to singapore so that i can live whats left out of me peacefully and in less pain as possible.

    Its the concern for things like enabling public utilities for physically challenged people. In all my stay in singapore, my cruth never slipped and i never fell down (i fall down everyday at an average of 8 – 10 times herein india), not even on granite floor because they are designed to have more friction.

    Low rise platforms and steps on buses, pavement made for wheelchair users and i saw so many people crossing roads on wheelchairs (without someone pushing them) which will never happen in India.

    I think personally it makes sense as an induvidual (selfish of course) for me to pay 20% flat tax in singapore and have a lesser painful life moving around compared to the 31% i pay here right now and have no support from the government at all.

  22. Quote

    Dilip – Its terrible to hear that you fall down 8 to 10 times in India everyday. Reading that makes me sad & angry – If only we had decent footpaths, if only all buildings are mandated to have an entry/exit ramp, life would be easier for people that use crutches or wheelchairs to move around. Not to mention all the pot-holes in the roads.

    We don’t patronize pavement shops/vendors. And after reading your comment, I’m glad about our stance. Pavements are for people. Not for shops. If poor people need a place for shops, let the govt allocate some space in a few localities – and then ban all pavement shops forever.

    There’s precious little thought put on accessibility, like how do people with crutches get on buses or trains. It really makes me bitter. The govt does nothing for anyone anymore. If Galbraith had been around, he wouldn’t have called India a “Functioning Anarchy”, just plain “Anarchy”.

Leave a Comment



Formatting Your Comment

The following XHTML tags are available for use:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

URLs are automatically converted to hyperlinks.