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.
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.
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.
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.