“Welcome to Singapore”, sweet-toned the young lady at immigration counter, extending a bowl of toffees and stamping the passport in a simultaneity replete with savoir faire and rehearsed finesse. The affability at immigration desk blended seamlessly with endearing ambience of the Changi international airport, flawlessly maintained with meticulous attention to detail and décor, to usher in every visitor to a secure little world of prosperity, assiduously developed over a span of three decades. It was virtually a dream land opening out before me as I was hustled into a waiting car outside the airport to transfer to the hotel, and to my official schedule for the day. As a frequent meeting destination during my working years, I must have journeyed to Singapore several times. The same sense of newness and zestful gestures of welcome greeted me at every visit.
The transformation of a marshy area of poverty stricken people of the 1950s to the present day city state, displays the sagacity and amazing foresight of statesmanship at work, in uplifting an entire region and mass of people from grinding poverty to fairy-tale prosperity. Nestled towards south of Malaysia, the city state’s territory consists of the diamond-shaped main island, commonly referred to as Singapore Island, and sixty two small islets. The Straits of Johor in the north and Singapore Strait towards the south separate the city state from peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia’s Riau Islands. Subsequently, reclamation of land from the sea, a process that is ongoing, has contributed to consistent territorial expansion, taking the total area, presently, to a little over 700 square kilometers. The land area is projected to increase by another 100 square kilometers in the next fifteen years by consolidating smaller islets into larger islands through filler reclamation and expansion vide additional reclamation, given the acute need and enormous pressure for land in a densely populated state, with 5.5 million people squeezed into a territory of 700 odd square kilometers.
Founded in early nineteenth century by Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the East India Company, the island came under British sovereignty in 1824. Invaded and temporarily occupied by the Japanese during WW II when they defeated the British in 1942, the island was recaptured by the British a few years later. Singapore attained independence in 1963 and united with other colonial territories to form Malaysia, from which it was since hived off into a separate entity as part of a political decision. Due its rapid development thereafter, the state was recognized as one of the four Asian Tigers, and the only Asian country to enjoy the top AAA rating from global financial agencies. It is a major commercial hub, the world’s fourth largest financial center and among the world’s biggest sea ports in terms of cargo tonnage and container throughput. Also an aviation hub for Southeast Asia, Singapore’s Changi airport is a stopover on the Kangaroo Route (term originally coined by Qantas to refer to air route between UK and Australia) between Sydney and London.
A globalised economy that is highly diversified, the country depends heavily on international trade, supported by a robust manufacturing arm, accounting for about 30% of the state’s GDP. The state boasts of one of the highest per-capita income at US$ 55000/-, apparently higher than that of USA. It ranks among the top performers on international metrics in education, health care services and environmental conservation. Nearly ten percent of the land area has been earmarked for parks and nature reserves, promenades and tree-lined highways, enhancing greenery to appropriate balance of beauty and conservation, softening the effects of urbanization and improving the quality of life for a multi-ethnic population dominated by people of Chinese origin, followed by Malays, Indians and Eurasians as significant minorities. The state’s multiculturalism is promoted though four official languages, English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, and a range of other policies.
What is the secret behind the phenomenal success story that Singapore is by global standards? Starting from the same deficiencies which many of the Asian countries were in half a century ago, the towering success of Singapore was inspired by the vision of a man called Lee Kuan Yew, the city state’s first Prime Minister, who passed away recently. Driven by the central insight that if world-class infrastructure and education can efficiently combine with meritocratic governance, devoid of corruption and vested interests, it can be foundational to setting up a robust manufacturing economy, Lee decided leveraging on the state’s immediately obtaining advantage of low cost labour. The window of opportunity was opened out to private sector and overseas investments. It took considerable courage of conviction to pursue this course in a post-colonial scenario where some of the newly independent countries, fearing re-colonization though monetary might, restricted foreign trade and investment, and aimed for import substitution and indigenous manufacturing, mounted largely on behemoth public sector undertakings, many of which progressively degenerated into unwieldy, loss making units draining the exchequer. In refreshing contrast, Lee’s Singapore progressed rapidly from rags to riches, taking over reins of government in 1959 with an economy poised at a meagre per capita income of US$ 400/- , ramping it up, over a span of few decades, to existing level of US$ 55000/-. By creating best-in-class infrastructure and investor friendly climate that treated international trade and investments as pathways to prosperity instead of neo-colonial domination, Lee seized the advantages of globalization, where the disadvantage of poverty was converted into an opportunity by developing stable mechanisms capable of promoting economic growth. Could the country, however, survive on the initial low cost platform for long in a scenario of rising wages and costlier living conditions? Productivity and product quality needed to improve and so technological upgrade and consistent improvement in productivity kept steady pace to stay abreast of topmost demands of global markets.
By virtue of its location, corruption-free environment, skilled manpower, low tax rates and advanced infrastructure, Singapore continued to attract substantial foreign investment, evidenced by the presence of several thousand multinational corporations from USA, Japan and Europe, in addition to several hundred companies from China and India. Acclaimed for its pre-eminence in several areas of commerce and dominant position as a financial center, Singapore is the second largest casino gambling market, one of the world’s top three oil refining centers, the world’s largest oil-rig producer, and a major hub for ship repairs and bunkering services.
The story is not merely limited to world class amenities that boosted private industry and commerce. Lee’s good governance included massive public spends stretching from universal education and health coverage to social housing and old-age security. He set up a police-judicial system that is quick and efficient in responding to crime, law and order situations, and dispensing justice. Added to it is also an agency that swiftly cracks down on corruption in all sections of the government. Salaries of government officials are on par with the best in the private sector, regularly upgraded to eliminate disparity and motivate peak performance. Set up with the help of Israel and regularly trained by them, Singapore’s military, consisting of a full-fledged Army, Navy and Air force, is widely considered to be the most technologically advanced in Southeast Asia. Citizens are part of the defense apparatus as young people are compulsorily conscripted to serve time in the armed forces.
With its beautifully laid out gardens, animal reserves, bird sanctuary, amusement parks, all forms of entertainment, overall discipline and cleanliness, Singapore is immensely tourist friendly. The city offers a vibrant night life with assurance of virtually fool-proof security, a fact that the over fifteen million visitors annually passing through Singapore will vouch for. My travels outside India have been limited to a few countries in Asia and Africa, in addition to many of the middle eastern states. Of all the places visited, Singapore forever beckons with its magical spell, making it difficult for a person to leave the place once he is into it either on business or leisure. Though substantially smaller, equating to about one-fifty fifth of the size in comparison, the city state holds a special appeal in the way it resembles my significantly larger home state of Kerala, in the lushness of its greenery and similarity of climate. Is there a downside to all its riches and prosperity? I have often asked my erstwhile colleagues and friends in Singapore as to how day-to-day life was like, and the surprising answer was that it was boring. Everything is so predictable in Singapore; public transport and utilities are perfect; so are the waste disposal and water recycling systems, simply perfect. Same with various other services supporting the daily grind, all working perfectly in an environment of overarching discipline and clinical cleanliness. Prolonged exposure to such a setting can gradually build up ennui, blunting initiative and stifling creativity, probably a consolingly encouraging thought for people living amidst lesser comforts and greater constraints.
Singapore is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party (PAP) of Lee has won every election since inception of the state’s government in 1959. The dominance of PAP, extremely low level of freedom of the press, suppressed civil liberties and political rights, are collectively pointed out as a negative against Singapore. Even though not conspicuous to visitors from outside, the city state is closely policed, and activities of citizens and visitors monitored to a scale leaving no room for disruptive, corrupt or criminal elements, or activities even remotely anti-establishment. Arising from these deemed negatives, the western media has accused Singapore of being a regulated democracy, dubbing it, rather derisively, as a “nanny state”, to define its over-protective and intrusive style of governance. Lee Kuan Yew had absolutely no grouse against such accusations; as far as he was concerned, he had accomplished his life’s mission of uplifting fortunes and transforming lives, by unlocking potential of a mass of people to toil their way from abject poverty to unimaginable prosperity, leaving an architecture that is not only an enduring monument to his visionary statesmanship, but also a benchmark in benevolent governance, from an altruistically dedicated guardian of public weal.