Lee Kuan Yew’s global city: Exploring independent Singapore

If you’ve been travelling long distances across dusty, uneven roads elsewhere in Asia, arriving in Singapore will come as a pleasant surprise. From touching down at the ultra modern Changi Airport and driving into the city centre, the journey will leave you pretty impressed.

Singapore is so clean that someone once told me that you could eat your dinner off the road. I’m not sure I would go that far, but the authorities have certainly gone to great lengths to ensure that the city remains a pleasant place to explore, live and work. You see little rubbish strewn about the place: the grass verges are well looked after, paving is intact and the river in the centre is clean. They even banned chewing gum in the past!

Modern commercial Singapore, providing back-drop for colonial quarter cricket pitch

With a commitment to free trade, low taxes and state support for hi-tech economic sectors, Singapore is an attractive place to do business. It is one of the world’s leading financial centres and research published last year by PwC suggested that it is the best global smart city, based on areas such as unmanned transport, smart healthcare, smart housing and utilities and infrastructure readiness. Singapore scored 64% in total, ahead of London (59%) and Shanghai (55%).

Singapore has previously been cited as somewhere that could provide inspiration for Britain as it heads towards Brexit. The city state faced an uncertain future when it broke away from Malaysia in 1965 and set out on its own. With no natural resources to fall back on, the odds were stacked against it. But with a sheer will to succeed, Singapore has prospered over the last five decades by forming links with trading partners around the world – and many of its residents have grown extremely wealthy as a result.

Amongst the skyscrapers and old colonial buildings, Singapore is relatively easy and quick to get around thanks to its efficient and modern Metro system. Crime rates are low and there is zero tolerance for corruption. It also had a world class school system.

Much of modern Singapore’s success can be attributed to the vision of one man – Lee Kuan Yew – who, by his own account, transformed the former British colony from “the third world to the first” during his three decades of rule. The FT noted in Lee’s obituary that average per capita income just after independence in 1965 was only US$511, but by the he resigned as prime minister in 1990 it had topped $50,000.

“Raffles may have been the founder, but Lee was the transformer,” wrote author John Curtis Perry in comparing the man credited with establishing Singapore as a British port in 1819 (which I described in my last blog) with the founding prime minister who ruled from 1959 to 1990.

Road to independence

In the 1950s Singapore suffered from high levels of unemployment, food shortages and many lived – and worked – in terrible conditions. Workers and students took to the streets to make their feelings known about low pay and what they saw as poor treatment by colonial authorities. Wildcat strikes contributed to the port’s inefficiencies – docking time was twice that of rival Hong Kong.

The British were also being threatened by the Malayan Communist Party, which had turned against them in 1948 after having been an ally in the battle with the Japan during the Second World War. It led to Britain declaring a 12-year Malayan Emergency.

Singapore won self-government from the British in 1959 and in the same year People’s Action Party (PAP) won a General Election, with British-educated Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister. The PAP has held power ever since and transformed Singapore into the modern and prosperous city state that greets visitors today.

The PAP’s election mandate was to break-away from colonial rule and establish a fully independent Singapore, but given the economic and political climate a merger with the Federation of Malaysia was deemed the only practical option.

Malaysia became an independent country in 1963. But the merger lasted only two years – the Malayans didn’t want to be ruled by the Chinese in Singapore it seemed – and the city state set out on its own.

Many said independent Singapore wouldn’t survive. Lee himself was privately pessimistic, but demonstrated optimism when in public and spoke confidently of his desire to “create a First World oasis in a Third World desert.” He had a vision for building the “New York of Malaysia, the industrial base of an affluent and just society.”

Independent Singapore looked to the state Israel for inspiration. Like the newly established Middle Eastern country, it needed to create alliances beyond its immediate neighbours to survive and thrive. Singapore therefore built ties with America, Japan and western Europe.

Moving Singapore up value chain

When Singapore emerged as an independent state in 1965, it was boosted by a surge in world seaborne trade. As I discussed in my last blog, the city was founded and grew thanks to its port.

Singapore has not forgotten its roots and has continued to invest heavily in sea infrastructure in recent decades to ensure it invested in remains one of the world’s most efficient. And in the coming years it will move its entire port set-up to a reclaimed area of land, close to the main island.

But during the 1960s and 1970s Singapore realised it needed to diversify and embarked on an intensify period of industrialisation, during which many new factories were built. Foreign investors were encouraged and multinational corporations were offered incentives to set-up operations in Singapore.

Lee used Britain’s stature to help win over the international community. “Instead of denouncing the British colonial past, Lee glorified in it and made it a positive part of his Singapore story,” wrote author John Perry Curtis in his new book, Singapore: Unlikely Power.

And Lee saw simple touches like the importance of keeping Singapore clean and tidy (he was even captured with a broom sweeping streets himself), as well as planting flowers, as a means to give confidence to investors that it was a well-run country.

Rubber and tin had for some time been two important stapes, but in the 1960s oil refining also became significant. Its proximity to the oil fields of Kalimantan and Sumatra worked in its favour and today it retains its position as one of the world’s largest pertro ports.

Shell has been operating in Singapore for more than 120 years and has its biggest wholly owned refinery – capable of processing 500,000 barrels of oil a day – on Pulau Bukom, an island south west of the city state.

While manufacturing is all well and good, the government soon saw the importance of moving from low value, labour intensive work to hi-tech. Much attention was given up skilling workers (at the beginning of the 1960s only half of Singaporeans were literate) and the National University of Singapore now ranks among the world’s top 30. This shift up the value helped set the city state to be one of the four Asian Tigers – alongside Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan – by the early 1990s.

Singapore’s origins in shipping have helped create demand for other services, including insurance, legal arbitration and risk modelling. Within the general financial services sphere, the fact that it can fill the gap between the closing of the American markets and open of European exchanges is particularly attractive.

I discussed in my last blog how tourists have been coming to Singapore since its early days, but in recent years the city has worked harder to bring in leisure visitors. In Changi it has a world class, efficient airport, which is the hub for one of the world’s most popular airlines – Singapore Airlines, established in its current guise in 1972.

And once in Singapore there are plenty of plush hotels for tourists – and business travellers – to stay in, including the 55-storey Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Opened in 2010 at a cost of $5.7 billion, it boasts seven celeberity-run restaurants, two theatres and casino across three towers.

Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, housed in colonial era building

Visitors have many of attractions in the city to keep them occupied, ranging from shopping malls and great museums to theatres and other entertainment – the Singapore Symphony orchestra was established in 1979. Further afield is Singapore Zoo, while many many spend time on the nearby island of Sentosa, which boasts numerous hotels, theme parks, waterparks and other attractions.

Marina Bay Sands hotel

Singapore’s future

When Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, one million Singaporeans queued to file pass his coffin and pay their respects during a week of national mourning. From the uncertainty in the 1950s and 1960s, he has been extremely influential in making modern Singapore the highly-regarded place it is today.

Despite Singapore enormous success in recent decades, the city state has not been without its critics – not least because of the authoritarian rule imposed by Lee and fellow party members. As with other modern cities, such as Dubai, development has been directed by a central bureaucracy where individuals’ freedom of expression has been restricted.

Following independence, good government was considered more important for Singapore democracy. “The argument is that economic progress is only possible at the cost of civil liberties,” wrote author John Curtis Perry. “The rights of the individual must yield to the betterment of the community. In the challenging task of spinning together a cultural web for a diverse society, the government’s orchestrated effort has clearly built a state that is a model for the international business community, a shrine to global capitalism. But of course it is capitalism with socialist characteristics.”

The opposition has gained some ground in the years since two opposition MPs entered parliament for the first time in 1984. But it is the PAP, which has ruled uninterrupted since 1959, that continues to dominate – it won 70% of the popular vote (82 out of 89 parliamentary seats) at the last general election in 2015. And there was controversy last year when the the government was accused of meddling in the presidential election (for a largely ceremonial post) when a state-appointed committee kicked two other candidates after of the contest for not meeting newly introduced financial criteria.

Journalists operating in Singapore are “highly controlled,” according to the BBC. Singapore Press Holdings, which is closely linked to the government, has a “virtual monopoly of the newspaper industry” – it owns the well-distibuted titles Straits Times and Business Times. While MediaCorp, which is owned by a statement investment agency operates numerous TV and radio stations. International monitoring organisations say that self-censorship by journalists is common and that the subjects off limits for discussion is growing.

But Singapore’s past success will not necessarily secure its future glory. When Lee died in 2015, the FT flagged a number of worries for the city state, including pressure for a less authoritarian government, a declining working-age population and a big reliance on foreign immigrants. To survive and thrive in the years ahead Singapore needs to prove that it can deal with all the other challenges that will be thrown its. If it doesn’t, there will be plenty other countries around the world that will be happy to fill the gap.

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (originally the Town Hall)

Categories: Asia, World

Tagged as: ,