Technically, Singapore has not one, not two, but three anniversaries.
There’s the day it achieved full international independence in 1965 – still marked every year on August 9. There’s the date Singapore achieved self-governance from Britain in 1959 – celebrating its 60th this year. And there’s the date marked by many as Singapore’s conception, when British colonial officer Sir Stamford Raffles founded a trading post on the island in 1819.
It’s this last date that Singapore is currently celebrating – with events, festivals, and a large dollop of controversy. Colonialism has never been as dirty a word in Singapore as it has been elsewhere, and statues of Raffles still dot the city, arms crossed beneath a sneer of cold command.
But when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong praised him recently for creating “a modern, outward-looking, multicultural Singapore”, he was promptly accused by some of airbrushing history.
As Singapore treks through the record books, it seems an appropriate time for us to do so as well. Here’s a (very) brief profile of the world’s most successful city state – past, present, and future…
Journey to statehood
Value judgements aside, it’s unarguable that Raffles did found a settlement on the site now known as Singapore. An ambitious clerk with the British East India Company, he arrived in Malaya in 1805, led a bloody invasion of Dutch-held Java in 1811, and dropped anchor at the swampy, sparsely populated island of Singapore in 1819.
The resulting trading post grew rapidly, and gained special significance in 1869 when the Suez Canal made it a gateway between East Asia and Europe. Main exports were rubber and tin, increasingly extracted by a steady influx of Chinese immigrants.
As in so many parts of the world, Singapore’s history was rerouted by the Second World War. In 1942, Britain abandoned the city to the notorious excesses of the Japanese army – a defeat Churchill called “the largest capitulation in British history”.
There followed the Sook Ching (‘purge through cleansing’), in which tens of thousands of “anti-Japanese” Chinese Singaporeans were rounded up by the secret police, taken to remote locations and massacred. Exact numbers are heavily disputed to this day.
The atrocities scarred the city, and destroyed Britain’s credibility as a colonial guardian. By 1945 anti-colonial sentiment was rife, and a war-weary Britain started gradually relinquishing control.
Singapore achieved self-governance in 1959, and then joined the new Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Two years later, amid riots and palpable Chinese-Malay tension, Singapore became a fully-fledged sovereign state.
A model economy
Since independence, Singapore has changed beyond all recognition. The city has quite literally altered its foundations – reclamation schemes have seen the land mass grow by around 22%, transforming sea and swamp into liveable neighbourhoods for the city’s burgeoning population.
But nowhere has change been more sweeping than in the economy, which saw the nascent nation crowned one of four ‘Asian Tigers’, alongside South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Some scholars have argued – quite convincingly – that no country has ever jumped from poverty to prosperity quite so quickly.
Founding father Lee Kuan Yew is widely credited with the transformation (he took over a semi-literate port city riven with opium dens and racial tension), and he called the first volume of his memoirs From Third World To First.
With no industrial heritage, natural resources or obvious trading partners, he threw his weight behind foreign investment, and aggressively promoted a labour-intensive, export-led economy. Ideologically opposed to welfare, Lee Kuan Yew valued jobs above all else, and he brought independent labour unions under the government yolk.
The city he created was outward-facing, efficient and, above all, honest. Countless developing economies have been held back by institutional corruption, but Singapore still regularly ranks among the least corrupt countries in the world, and tops international surveys for ease of business.
Sometimes called ‘the house that globalisation built’, Singapore’s success has long been claimed as a victory for free-market economics, a stellar education system, and an extremely hardworking citizenry.
For proof of the Singapore work ethic, consider a 2007 study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman. After analysing pedestrians across 32 global cities, he declared Singaporeans the fastest walkers in the world.
A question of priorities
Away from the marketplace, the world’s liberal democracies can’t quite decide how to feel about Singapore, as the government’s rather austere social policies have become a byword for state-enforced morality.
It’s known around the world as the country that banned chewing gum, while littering can earn you an on-the-spot fine and vandalism is punishable by caning. Not flushing the loo will get you fined, walking around your own home naked can get you fined a great deal more, and sneaking onto someone else’s Wi-Fi could notch you up to three years in jail.
Rather more sinister are the laws on freedom of expression. Singapore has never welcomed criticism, and in 2010 British author Alan Shadrake spent five-and-a-half weeks behind bars after publishing a book attacking the justice system.
In 2018, the country was ranked 151st out of 180 for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders – an abysmal ranking for a developed country – while state surveillance is endemic. The courts make liberal use of the death penalty, and security services can hold prisoners indefinitely without charge.
An illiberal utopia
That said, as authoritarian governments go, Singapore’s has always carried remarkable upside. Not every draconian law is enforced.
Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, but a Pride parade takes place every year, and there’s been no prosecutions this millennium. Older Singaporeans remain staunchly conservative, but the new generation identifies strongly as forward-thinking, global and liberal.
Sedulous city planning has made Singapore one of the greenest cities on the planet, while 90% of residents live in former public housing, carefully calibrated to ensure maximum racial integration.
Singapore has one of the lowest rates of drug use in the world, you could practically eat your dinner off the pavement, and the state’s all-seeing eye weeds out and crushes corruption with fearsome vigour. Many Singaporeans will defend to the hilt the benefits of closely-controlled social harmony.
The future, today
In an apparent effort to usurp New York as the city that never sleeps, Singapore has pioneered a whole host of night-time attractions – from a night-time safari park to the first ever night-time Grand Prix.
Perhaps the most intriguing innovation comes courtesy of its utilities board. NEWater takes ‘wastewater’ (read: sewage), and purifies it to create drinking water. It’s squirm-inducing, but the product is actually the purest in the country.
You can’t stop progress, and Singapore probably wouldn’t let you try.
- Press Association