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Singapore at 50: Where Did the Years Go

Published by Huffington Post on Tue, 11 Aug 2015


I was barely 17 years old when I first visited Southeast Asia from my native India. Singapore existed then as a small port and entrept, a neglected tendril of Malaysia's 14 states. I could have scarcely imagined then that Singapore would become one of the world's most modern states, its commerce conducted globally, its investments and its entrepreneurial and infrastructure expertise sought by virtually every government and business entity internationally. I could not have imagined that this would become arguably the safest city-state in the world, and certainly the best managed municipality. Coming to Singapore this week was like taking a train to a surrealistic future, to a place of towering buildings, smooth streets, deep greenery and a multiracial society of Chinese, Malays and Tamils who have woven a national fabric largely devoid of ethnic tensions. I came to Singapore this week because it is marking its 50th anniversary as an independent sovereign state. Five decades ago, Singapore was unceremoniously tossed out of its alliance with Malaysia. The leaders of Malaya and Singapore disliked one another intensely, not the least on account of ideological differences involving virtually everything from finance and banking to politics and governance. Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman didn't much care for Singapore's British educated Lee Kuan Yew, let alone the historical fact of Singapore's founding by the intrepid Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. His supporters even called for Mr. Lee's arrest. In speeches and in published writings, both men used inappropriate language against each other. While few people said so, the prime minister's Malay-dominated United Malays National Organization was fearful that Mr. Lee's People's Action Party - mostly consisting of Chinese - was mistreating Malays. There were even race riots between Malays and Chinese. And so on August 9, 1965, the Malaysian Parliament voted 126 to 0 to expel Singapore from the union. In a speech that has become part of Singapore national legend, a tearful Lee said, in part, of the expulsion: "I mean for me, it would be a moment of anguish because all my life... you see the whole of my adult life... I have believed in Malaysia, merger and the unity of the two territories. You know it's a people connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship..." Both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew are gone now, the latter having died last March 23. But both lived to see their respective countries become modern, prosperous states that enjoy cordial relations with the world's only remaining superpower, the United States, and with Asia's great giant, China. Yet, the animus of history isn't easily shed, and by no means could it be said that Malaysia and Singapore are the best of friends. Political tensions over petty issues such as the sharing of water pop up from time to time. As does Malaysia's needling Singapore for being, for all practical purposes, an authoritarian entity ruled since 1965 by Mr. Lee's PAP. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Lee a couple of times during his tenure as Singapore's prime minister. On one occasion, when I asked him about the "secret" of Singapore's economic and social success, he told me: "We took the world as we saw it, and we built on our dreams. Singapore was built brick by brick, garden by garden. It didn't happen by magic." But it was Mr. Lee - who cut a stern figure in public but was jovial in private - who provided his own special magic that resulted in what Singapore became. It was the magic of punishing dedication to the task of nation building, to the task of zero tolerance for corruption. He knew he wasn't beloved by democrats because of his dictatorial tendencies, but he didn't care; he knew that the world's media often berated him for relentless quashing dissent, but he didn't care. All that mattered was Singapore's growth and prosperity. That meant paying constant attention to the minutest of details. I recall walking in a park one afternoon when I espied the prime minister, attired in shorts and a T-shirt, kneeling on a footpath measuring the shade given by tall trees to protect pedestrians against the fierce tropical sun. I was astonished that a head of government would be performing such a plebian task. I didn't have the nerve to go up to him and ask why he was doing what he was doing. But had I done so, I'm certain that Mr. Lee's response would have been: "Every detail matters when you build your dreams." A large part of his dreams consisted of creating the world's greenest and most environmentally friendly metropolis from what once was a mosquito infested swath of swampland in Southeast Asia. So on this 50th national day, Lee Kuan Yew is rightly celebrated for everything he did during his lifetime to build on his dreams for a world-class city. There are books about him, and posters festoon lamp posts. But as I wandered Singapore this week, I couldn't help but notice that - notwithstanding the tributes to Mr. Lee - the vast majority of visual accolades were directed at the everyday people of this place. A kaleidoscope of faces from a dozen ethnic groups adorn posters and placards and buntings. They are all faces with broad smiles - the government officially encourages citizens to smile. One would think that a golden anniversary would warrant long days and nights of festivity. But in the Singaporean tradition of work-above-pleasure, only one weekday has been declared a national holiday. There is, after all, Lee Kuan Yew's dream for Singapore still to be pursued, irrespective of whether he's around or not. This is still a work in progress, 50 years after it was cast adrift by Malaysia. This is still a place of civic discipline and a strong work ethic. This is still a place where stiff penalties are imposed on those who spit chewing gum on the streets. And this is still a place where electoral politics are not quite what Western democrats - and the Western media - would want it to be. But this is Singapore, it is what it is, you can come and go as you please, and when you are here I'm willing to bet that you'd feel reluctant to leave. Everything works here because Singaporeans and expatriates alike work so hard at making things work. You could look far and do worse, a lot worse. Somewhere up beyond the tropical cumulus that drop heavy rains and also clear the skies to shower sunshine, Lee Kuan Yew must be smiling on this 50th anniversary. But it'd probably be only a fleeting smile because, after all, there's so much more work ahead for his beloved Singapore. I, for one, am just delighted that I was present at the creation, and I am certainly delighted that I find myself here as Singapore turns 50. You could call me a celebrant, but I like to think that I have every reason to feel that, in my own way, I too have been a part of Lee Kuan Yew's dream for Singapore. -- This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.
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