Singapore, the tiny 700 plus square kilometres city state, celebrates its independence today — August 9. On expulsion from Malaysia, Singapore became ‘an accidental state’ on Aug. 9, 1965. Its founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015 had earlier become the chief minister of the self-governing territory of Singapore in 1959.
Singapore at that point was a backwater territory, with rampant corruption, crime and a racially divided society. Its per capita income around independence was as low as that of Sierra Leone — less than $500. What has happened since then that made Singapore one of the richest societies in a little over 50 years is what I call a ‘marvel of human engineering.’
In addition to becoming one of the top financial centers, it is a global thought leader in many fields of human endeavour. Lee Kuan Yew put citizens at the heart of planning the country.
Arrival in Singapore can be entrancing where instead of looking for a garden in the city you enter a ‘city in a garden.’ “Greening is the most effective project I have launched in Singapore,” Lee famously noted.
Manicured and choreographed
Invited to speak at a one of the Singapore Golden Jubilee events, as one of the only two among hundreds of former ambassadors, I described the country in two words — ‘manicured and choreographed.’
Singapore is a story of resolution and courage in pursuit of dreams, led fittingly by men of high integrity — a quality that has permeated down to its common citizens — a benchmark on how Singapore is measured and identified.
The national values of Singapore, adopted formally in 1989 are the noblest of a human society. These are: Nation before community and society above self; family as the basic unit of society; regard and the community support for the individual; consensus instead of contention; and racial and religious harmony. public good precedes individual rights. It is as simple as that.
Pursuing these five values aligns the citizens’ thoughts. Rge leadership choreographs this action, gelling them into a remarkably cohesive unit. In fact, these values are the prerequisite to survival and prosperity of the country, said George Yeo, Singapore’s former Foreign Minister quipped once.
Singapore believes in the concept of ‘total defence’ which has five major components: military defence, civil defence, economic defence, social defence and psychological defence. The emphasis is on the whole, as weakening in any one sector can lead to defeat. All must be defended in unison.
Preparedness and harmony
In fact, the state of preparedness is part of Singapore’s psyche. Singaporeans even park their cars face out, which to me symbolises preparedness and harmony. Gelling a nation in a country with three disparate communities — Chinese, Malay and Indian, all tied culturally and emotionally to their homelands is a remarkable act of choreography.
Meritocracy runs for selecting the best in bureaucracy and it shows in the meticulous care with which the process in implemented. The emphasis is on the highest sense of integrity. This renewal nourishes the system. This is necessary to maintain Singapore’s edge in economy and thought leadership. It is a lesson other countries should draw from.
One of the most striking policy successes is the way Singapore converted its hinterland into a boundless opportunity for expansion and development. After opening doors to multinational corporations, Singapore never looked back.
Sandwiched between two big neighbours — Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore has used its location to its advantage. From a state of near hostility with its neighbours, Singapore has come all the way towards shared prosperity. It is a lesson to the world that size is no disadvantage if a country chooses correct growth strategies.
It is these deft policies a country of just five million residents is now the 17th biggest economy and among the top five per capita incomes in the world with no natural resource except utilising its human resource capital.
Progress of any kind comes out of a disciplined action, like a good choreographer is able to draw the best out of the performers. People pulling every side can bring chaos and disorder in societies.
Look at ballets. Look at military parades and callisthenics — the choreography and manicured performers enthral people. It is the same with shaping good societies.
The Singapore story can only be felt through understanding its people, its effervescence, self-confidence and evolving identity. The system does not allow any missteps, otherwise the performance becomes sloppy.
This is indeed choreography and discipline at its best. It is also the apex of human ingenuity — something we all can learn from.
Sajjad Ashraf was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Singapore from 2004 to 2008. He served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University if Singapore from 2009 to 2017.