Celebrating 50 years of a city state

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 8, 2015 - 10:00am

SINGAPORE  — Yesterday, I wrote about federalism and how large countries can be better managed with smaller units. It is often said that if Singapore has been so successful it is thanks to its smallness. Malaysia, its bigger neighbor has not been as successful.

History is full of stories on how large empires ultimately break down because of the weight that wears it down.

Prime Minister Mahathir was once asked what he thought of Lee Kuan Yew. The Malaysian leader said he is good, the trouble is he wanted to swim in a bigger pond. Well, look what he has done for a smaller pond. Its very smallness made it possible to be a great country. I have come here to celebrate its 50th anniversary and they call it SG50.

The Singapore government has announced a schedule for the celebration. There will be carnivals and performances and free travel and admission according to the leaflets being distributed. We have not decided yet where my son and his family will celebrate among the many venues for joy and thanksgiving with treats and special offerings. One venue for celebration will be the Singapore Botanic Gardens where I have walked around each time I come here. It is all spruced up for a three day-carnival offering games and traditional snacks.

There will be a free concert at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage featuring local acts such as Rui En, Taufik Batisah and The Sam Willows.

At the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station there will be “retrolicious” carnival with a series of old school activities, nostalgic traditional games and carnival rides. With so many venues for celebration I will suggest that we go to the Gardens by the Bay.

At Siloso Beach in Sentosa there is a long sand sculpture showing significant moments in Singapore’s history will be displayed. But since I am a lover of music I will ask my son to bring me to the Esplanade Concert Hall that will be open house to enjoy a variety of musical performances.

I will celebrate the SG50 by listening to some of Singapore’s classic tunes, such as Home and Di Tanjong Katong. Spotify has released an SG50 playlist that takes listeners on a musical journey throughout 50 years of Singaporean music.

By the way I flew to this city state via Philippine Air Lines and found out to my surprise that it has continued the excellent service it had under San Miguel’s Ramon Ang’s management. I heard from staff that the joint venture with the luxury Middle East Airline Etihad is on so the national airline will be the airline to watch for comfort and the best service to its customers.

Singapore has many reasons to celebrate. Wikipedia tells us why:

“It has about 5.2 million people who live and work within 700 square kilometers (270 sqm), making it the 2nd most densely populated country in the world after Monaco, another city-state.

Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965, becoming an independent republic.

Since 1965, Singapore rapidly industrialised and modernised, becoming one of the four “Asian Tigers.” In addition to the substantial absolute and per-capita size of its economy, Singapore maintains a significant armed forces. It ranks highly in terms of defence spending and troop size.

Singapore places emphasis on self-sufficiency in basic needs, like water. The government also stockpiles other key resources, such as sand and oil. In this way, Singapore tries to avoid overdependence economically, politically or militarily on larger countries. Accordingly, Singapore may represent the most-complete contemporary example of a city-state, meeting the full definitions of both a city and a fully sovereign state.”

Dark clouds covered the sky in 1965 when Lee Kuan Yew announced that the tiny island would become independent. There were tears in his eyes. “He wept in what he called “his moment of anguish” at the creation of a nation that never aspired to nationhood” Time Magazine writes.

It drizzled then. As I write this column to describe the spectacular celebration of the 50th anniversary of its independence, it is also drizzling. It threatens the celebrations but I don’t think it will make any difference. The Singaporeans will celebrate rain or shine. As my son said it has not rained for a while so the rain is welcomed, not feared. It is an excellent metaphor for Singapore’s success and its journey from being cast out of Malaysia to become even more successful than the big federation it was once a part of.

It had its travails and cock-ups in nation-building but in the end this modern city-state can be proud that it is now one of the most prosperous countries in the world. To complete the irony, Lee Kuan Yew, the man who led it with vision and wisdom passed away last March, just months before this celebration.

 Kishore Mahbubani, dean and professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, delivered a lecture in East Timor about what other developing countries might draw from the city-state’s success.

“First, Mahbubani acknowledges, Singapore got lucky. By accident of fate, Singapore was blessed with good founding fathers like Lee Kuan Yew, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee to guide the country just as it was starting out.

Second, the city-state cultivated a culture of meritocracy. Singapore ensured that officers were recruited and promoted by merit and were adequately paid.

Third, their guiding philosophy. Mahbubani notes that Goh Keng Swee had studied the Meiji Restoration very carefully, and that Japanese leaders had spent significant time trying to study, copy and adapt best practices into Japan from around the world.

Fourth, Singapore maximized its maneuverability in its foreign policy. Realizing that small states cannot afford to make enemies, it managed its relationships adroitly.

Fifth, Singapore’s leaders focused on starting with small wins like getting a standing pipe in the village to provide water.

Sixth, Singapore relied not on foreign aid, but on trade and investment to achieve its development goals.

Seventh, Singapore had an inclusive policy on ethnic groups. To accommodate the ethnic groups in the country – which include Chinese, Malays and Indians – the country has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

Eighth, Singapore’s leaders believed in thinking long-term. Here, Mahbubani uses the example of Singapore’s need to secure its water supply.

Ninth, Singapore avoided populist measures. Mahbubani notes the aversion of the country’s leaders to the welfare state, believing that ‘handouts’ undermined self-reliance and fostered a dependence on the state. The city-state has invested in the welfare of its people in other ways, including through high-quality education and healthcare, affordable public housing and public transportation, and a compulsory saving fund for workers.

Tenth, Singapore’s leaders were honest and not corrupt.“





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