Singapore at 50 reflects on its past and contemplates the future

Singapore at 50 reflects on its past and contemplates the future

In its 50 years since independence, Singapore has become a first-world nation. But times have changed and, says JASON LIM, Singapore will have to change too if it’s to meet new challenges.

On 9 August 2015, Singapore celebrated its 50th year of independence. The annual National Day Parade (NDP) at the Padang became a masterful showpiece, with performances, parades and a military display. A magnificent fireworks display closed the event.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called the NDP a ‘wonderful parade’ and the atmosphere at the Padang ‘electric’. For those watching the parade on television or online, the NDP was preceded by people from all walks of life, including the media and politicians from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), extending their congratulations to the nation.

Lee Hsien Loong also gave a short speech reminding Singaporeans of the journey that the city–state had gone through over the past five decades and his hopes for its future. This was the first NDP without Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister’s father, who had died in March 2015. His seat at the parade had a bouquet of flowers in his honour.

The Today newspaper also reported Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen as saying that Singaporeans ‘reminisced when the veterans from the vintage parade marched past, they gushed when the aerial display was up, and some cried when the tribute film for Mr Lee Kuan Yew was aired’. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat called on Singaporeans to look ahead to the ‘many exciting things coming up’ and said they ‘have the heart and spirit to take Singapore onward’.

History and nostalgia form an important element of the celebrations. The PAP government has always promoted a form of ‘manufactured nationalism’ where the outpouring of patriotism is linked with the socioeconomic achievements of the first generation of PAP leaders led by Lee Kuan Yew. Historian C.M.Turnbull, in her definitive A History of Modern Singapore 1819–2005, noted that Singapore was ‘fortunate in that the years immediately following independence were a time of international economic buoyancy’.

In 2007, an exhibition organised by the National Archives of Singapore looked at the work of the PAP government in the first 10 years of independence. The exhibition’s message was that the success story of Singapore’s economy was in the hands of a group of men who were committed to the survival and thriving of the nation.

Message of survival

It became a familiar story about the transformation of Singapore from a port lacking natural resources to a nation that prides itself for its highly skilled human resources, from a tiny nation that some thought could not have possibly survived to become what Lee Kuan Yew considered to be a first-world nation. The message of survival has been repeated many times. The PAP government has proudly displayed its track record in its industrialisation program and low unemployment, and by achieving social and political stability. There is the reiteration of the work of Dr Goh Keng Swee, the Minister of Finance in 1965, as the chief planner of Singapore’s economic development.

The government introduced tax incentives for local and foreign investors to set up pioneer industrial enterprises. The first industries were labour- and capital- intensive, notably food products, textiles and garments, wood products, chemicals and petroleum products, metal products, electrical machinery and transport equipment.

In 1971, the government set up joint training centres with Rollei and Philips to provide industrial training for local workers. Potential investors would have a skilled workforce for their new operations and were assured of Singapore’s technical capability. By the time Rollei went bankrupt in West Germany and Singapore in 1981, the 4,000 workers trained in precision engineering by the company in Singapore became, as Lee Kuan Yew recalled in his memoirs, ‘a valuable base for the disk-drive industry that arrived in Singapore in the 1980s.

The industrialisation program met with much success, and employment in the manufacturing sector rose from 27,000 in 1960 to almost 270,000 in 1979. The announcement of the British military withdrawal from 1968, and the Vietnam War,made shipbuilding and ship-repairing services crucial for Singapore, and several shipyards of vital significance were fully added to the industry. By 1969, 45 shipyards were in operation, providing employment for 12,000 people, almost double that of a year before.

Besides an astute industrialisation program, Singapore’s economic success is credited largely to a peaceful labour situation since independence. The government’s framework for industrial relations is to restrict union demands. Instead of industrial action, unions are expected to seek consultation and arbitration with employers and the government in a system known as tripartism.

The Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, introduced in 1968, gave employers more powers over matters such as workers’ promotion, transfer, dismissal, allocation of duties, retrenchment and re-hiring, and set the basic conditions for employer–worker relations in order to attract foreign companies. The tripartite National Wages Council started work in 1972 to set guidelines for increased wages and fringe benefits, and suggest incentives for encouraging productivity improvements.

Success at a cost

Singapore’s economic success since independence, especially between 1965 and 1990 when Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister, came at a cost. While Lee Kuan Yew and his ministers could be credited for long-term planning, their programs might not have been achieved without the political dominance of the PAP.

Criticism of the PAP was not tolerated. The political opposition—largely small and uncoordinated groups—was marginalised. Several opposition members faced defamation suits by Lee Kuan Yew that left them bankrupt. The media became subservient to the government. Calls for public discussion on electoral reforms since independence have been dismissed by the government.

Voters continued to show their approval of the PAP because the party delivered what it had promised—homes, employment, social and political stability, and sound infrastructure.

Between 1966 and 1981, Singapore had a one-party parliament. Since then, the political landscape has changed. J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party (WP) was elected in a by-election in 1981; Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was elected with Jeyaretnam in 1984; and the 1988 general elections saw the introduction of the group representation constituencies (GRC)—multiple-member electoral divisions—in a scheme that largely benefitted the PAP.

Yet, by the 2011 general elections, the Workers’ Party under the leadership of Low Thia Khiang captured a five-member GRC and a single member constituency. The increasing criticism of the PAP over immigration policies, transport problems and cost of living led to what Kenneth Paul Tan called a ‘new normal’ in Singapore politics. Voters had cast their votes of displeasure and the opposition parties that benefitted, such as the WP, National Solidarity Party and the SDP, were those widely seen as credible.

As a city–state devoid of natural resources, the PAP will continue to preach the message of survival.

In 2013, the PAP government’s announcement of plans to increase Singapore’s population to 6.9 million by 2030 resulted in a protest by about 4,000 people a month later. Blogger Roy Ngerng began questioning Singapore’s superannuation scheme and, in 2014, was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for suggesting that Lee was corrupt. Another blogger, 16-year-old Amos Yee, was sentenced to four weeks jail for insulting Christians because he had criticised Lee Kuan Yew and Jesus Christ. Lee Hsien Loong is using the tactics of his father to silence criticism.

As a city–state devoid of natural resources, the PAP will continue to preach the message of survival. Employment, community harmony and infrastructure will continue to be the PAP government’s main foci. However, times have changed. Lee Kuan Yew’s governing style of decisions being made at the top and imposed on a population expected to be grateful is no longer applicable. His death marks the end of an era.

Future PAP leaders must deal with a population that sees other forms of national symbols as a form of popular nationalism such as Singlish, historical sites and local cuisine. Economic growth is no longer a single cause for national pride. Social media is now used as an avenue to debate government policies and promote opposing views. Opposition parties—especially the WP and SDP—have shown themselves capable of promoting their organisations and activities online.

Singapore has entered a new phase of its political and economic development. PAP leaders will have to show they are capable of taking on the new challenges ahead without Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore Central Business District.

Dr Jason Lim is a senior lecturer in Asian History at the University of Wollongong. He was a civil servant in Singapore before joining academia.

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