Nationally Speaking SG50: What Makes The Lion Roar?

Photo Credit: Nicholas Lannuzel

By Samuel Loh [ of RI (JC) class (16A01A) ]

Few countries in this world are the product of accidents, and fewer have national independence thrust upon them vehemently against their own volition. And amongst this already small group, even fewer still manage to — borrowing an adage deeply endeared by locals — move from Third World to First in under half a century of statehood despite the odd circumstances of their birth.

Fifty years on, the greatest of geopolitical irony remains this: as a country born out of sheer coincidence, and as a country which continues to thrive and reach unprecedented prosperity amidst coincidences, Singapore’s weakness is just exactly that — we’ve left a lot up to chance, and sometimes we lose sight of that.

A significant share of our successes as a nation was almost certainly earned, and deservedly so, by a cohesive society that championed principles of racial harmony, equality, and pragmatism over complacency or divisiveness. That explains why, to many of us, SG50 is just as much a celebration of the intangible yet emotionally profound Singaporean spirit that all Singaporeans embody, as it is about impressive year-on-year GDP figures: hardworking, resilient, industrious. To dismiss the active contributions of everyday citizens, a relatively efficient civil service, as well as mostly incorruptible political leaders, would be terribly unfair. But as the city-state plunges headfirst into the twenty-first century and readies itself to confront new challenges, it would do our generation of Singaporeans some good to consider how progress can really be sustained in the future.

Many of our achievements are really quite serendipitous. For instance, not many countries happen to be strategically located where easily more than three-quarters of global shipping already traverses. Likewise, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was an exceptional leader who possessed incredible foresight, and whose dedication to building the Singaporean nation from scratch was undoubted. Men and women of his calibre also happen to be conspicuously absent in our world, and one would be inclined to consider quite foolish the prospect of chancing upon another leader just like him to kickstart Singapore’s second economic miracle. Even then, it would be very unwise to assume that someone who wielded just as much political influence would use that same power to uplift society, as Mr Lee did, and not simply to nourish their own selfish ends. For much of Mr Lee’s career in government, the political system was built around him. Enduring restrictions on speech and assembly, in addition to compulsory saving under the CPF scheme are evidence of this, and reflect Mr Lee’s very pragmatic beliefs. The current cadre of leaders are equally competent. But politicians, however qualified, come and go. Economic variables change all the time, and political landscapes around the world are being reshaped even as we speak. What remains are systems and institutions that Singaporeans must uphold and protect to the same conviction as cherished values like meritocracy and national defense. In his eulogy to Mr Lee’s passing earlier this year, Mr Li Shengwu, his grandson, describes with great clarity what meaningful institutions should be: “a way of doing things that outlives the one who builds it” and “does not depend precariously on individual personalities”.

Photo Credit: Ernest Chua

One such example of an institution that has succeeded is, arguably, our education system. The strength of our conviction for grooming younger generations of Singaporeans is not something that exists only in word — for the better part of memory the portion of our national budget allocated to education is second only to defence. And the results show. Affordable and good education goes a long way to ensuring some level of equality of opportunity amongst Singaporeans. It mitigates the distortive effect inherited wealth and privilege has on meritocracy, It also helps train the next batch of leaders to manage the state and carry the country forward. Admittedly, the education system cannot completely eliminate socio-economic inequality, or elitism, and neither can it really promise to produce another Singaporean leader as visionary and capable as Mr Lee Kuan Yew. But it most certainly increases the chances quite tremendously that we may make the playing field more equal than before, that we will not have a shortage of qualified and honest leaders to run our government. That alone is comforting, and that is precisely the kind of security and stability institutions offer that random chance does not.

Singapore’s equation for success is one part hard work, one part good fortune. To pull off a similar feat again is to demand an unlikely alignment of planetary bodies in the exact same fashion as in 1965. This SG50 is an apt opportunity to recognize that successes do not come packaged and readily available, nor are we creditors to a future of guaranteed prosperity. The Singaporean ship has been nearly perfectly captained thus far, but the best navigation lies in a sturdy helm, not a singular fortuitously proficient helmsman.

This first appeared as a post on Word of Mouth on 17 August 2015. It is reproduced with permission from its editors.


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