How LKY transformed Singapore from 3rd World to 1st
A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2018 - 12:00am

In 1960, I accompanied Max right after his Vietnam Presse advisory contract to visit Singapore. It looked like old Binondo with a polluted river filled with sampans. Alongside were Chinese stores in rundown two-story wooden houses. Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia. Its ethnic Chinese population of approximately two million in 1965 (now 5,612,300) was forced out of the federation by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman due to economic dispute and racial discrimination. A second visit a few years later, we saw a dramatic change, the new city state was transformed into a “garden city” encircled by tall trees and greenery like London. The river cleared of its pollution blended with the landscape designed by British and Japanese horticulturists. Our taxi driver cautioned us about the SG$500 penalty about littering.       

The speedy transformation of this tiny state at the tip of Malaysia was due to the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew commonly referred to by his initials LKY. Governing for three decades (1959-1989), Lee is recognized as the nation’s founding father, with the country described as transitioning from the “3rd World to 1st world in a single generation” under his leadership.

A 1st World oasis with 1st World citizens

To make Singapore “a 1st World oasis in a 3rd World region,” he told The New York Times, “We built infrastructure… The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so they behave more like 1st World citizens.” There were campaigns – more than 200 in the ‘70s and ’80s – and the Keep Singapore Clean Campaign in 1968 was one of the first. There were fines for littering, jaywalking, spitting, urinating in lifts, failing to flush toilets and smoking in certain areas.

To improve the image Singaporeans presented to tourists, a concerted effort was made in June 1979, the annual National Courtesy Campaign. Being polite, Mr. Lee said in his speech, was a desirable attribute which was found in cultivated societies. It was another measure that the Republic became famous for around the world.

Home Ownership scheme and ‘Stop At 2’ policy

In 1964, the government introduced the Home Ownership for the People scheme to give citizens a tangible asset in the country and a stake in nation-building. This push for home ownership also improved the country’s overall economic, social and political stability. Together with other schemes and grants introduced over years, has made home ownership highly affordable and attractive. It also ensured social cohesion and a good racial mix among various ethnic communities living in public housing estates.

The government’s reach extended to the bedroom. A population book in the early years threatened to overwhelm the fledgling nation’s housing, education and medical infrastructure, as well as strain the economy. So, the Stop at 2 policy was born. The Family Planning Population Board was set up in 1966 to achieve zero population growth. Abortion was legalized and voluntary sterilization encouraged among lower-educated women. Disincentives were imposed on those who had more than two – including reduced benefits in housing allocation, maternity leave and tax deductions, and lower priority for school places.

Building a skilled workforce for industrialization

LKY had a vision that with education, the population would be the nation’s most important assets in an island with no hinterland or natural resources. In the 1950s and ’60s he focused on building an efficient, universal education system that would provide a skilled workforce for Singapore’s industrialization program as well as to lower unemployment. Today, Singapore and the National Institute of Education – which is part of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are known internationally for high teaching standards.

56 years of successive miinisterial positions

LKY met his wife Kwa Geok Choo at the prestigious Raffles College Singapore where she was the lone female student. They both went to Cambridge University in England to take up Law in 1946. LKY graduated with double starred-first-class honors in 1949. Upon their return to Singapore both worked as legal assistants at Laycock & Ong. This developed Lee’s expertise as trade union adviser. By 1954, Lee co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP), becoming its first secretary-general. He was elected the first Prime Minister in 1959 and successfully campaigned for Britain to relinquish its colonial rule. He forged a system of meritocracy (avoiding dynastic rule), highly effective and incorrupt government and civil service. Many of his policies are now taught at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (highly recommended for Filipino mayors).

Lee led the PAP party to eight consecutive victories. Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 to serve as Senior Minister under his successor Goh Chok Tong until 2004, then as Minister Mentor (an advisory post) until 2011, under his son Lee Hsien Loong. In total, Lee held successive ministerial positions for 56 years, unopposed for five years of election.

The Singapore dream

Addressing the Singapore Press Club in 1996, LKY stated, “The present generation below 35 has grown up used to high economic growth year after year, and they take security and success for granted. Because they believe that all is well, they are less willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of the others in society. They are more concerned about their individual and family’s welfare and success, not their community’s or the society’s wellbeing – this is very dangerous because things can go terribly wrong, terribly quickly. These people are simply not aware of Singapore’s vulnerabilities. All they read about is that Singapore as the most competitive country, number 1 or number 2 as seaport or airport. They complain that we are driving the people too hard. Why not settle for number 3 or number 4 or number 5? Does it matter? My answer is, yes, it does matter. For if we are not near the top in competitiveness there is no reason why we should have a seaport or an airport or an airline. 

“To the young and to the not so old, I say, there’s a glorious rainbow that beckons those with the spirit of adventure. Follow that rainbow, go ride it. Not all will be rich, quite a few will find a vein of gold. Dig it out.”

(For feedback email precious.soliven@yahoo.com)

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