As a Malaysian growing up in Singapore, I’ve always had a fascination for the generation of Singaporean leaders that was able to nurture what was then a Third-World backwater into that of a modern metropolis, despite the acrimonious seperation from Malaysia in 1965. How did a country without a hinterland, without anything to fall back on, manage to scale dizzy heights and achieve what it has today? Singapore’s story is indeed a remarkable one in history. And today, despite all the detractors and naysayers, I would like to pay tribute to a man whom the Tunku once perceived as a potent threat to his premiership over Malaysia; a man who, thanks to his conviction, fortitude and tenacity enabled us to enjoy the fruits of his generation’s labour. A man who fought for the ideal of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, and carried that ideal of equality and multiracialism forward into independence.
My parents have often recounted to me their childhood and adolescent experiences growing up in 1970s-Malaysia. How could life between the two territories be so different? After all, we shared a common heritage, common cultures, and we were once predestined to be a united political entity. Well, the difference turned out to be stark; shockingly stark.
The Singapore we live in today; the very Singapore we youths take for granted, wasn’t always this blissful. Life was tough, the prognosis for our future seemed bleak especially in the face of a tumultous seperation from Malaysia, a lack of resources and a small population. Today, in what is a far cry from the past, we enjoy stable economic growth, a sense of profound security, social cohesiveness unseen in all corners of the world and it has become a ‘Mecca’ for many nations seeking to emulate and study our success. Consistently, we are rated as one of the world’s most competitive places to do business, and one of the top nations with a clean, unblemished record in governance. What exactly can be attributed to the achievements we have made? What exactly was this magic formula?
The formula is rather simple, and has been consistently highlighted by public officials. It is Meritocracy and Honesty. Yes, these were the guiding principles that were key in moulding our path to pre-eminence.
Meritocracy, because it is precisely because of such an initiative that we have ensured all Singaporeans feel that they have a vested stake; a shared stake in a shared future. A sense of commitment to a country that isn’t simply defined by one ethnicity or religion. Meritocracy meant that hard work, commitment and resolve would suffice for anyone seeking to succeed. It meant that regardless of one’s religious profession, his skin colour or his language, nothing sought to disenfranchise or marginalise him and one would have an equal opportunity to succeed.
Meritocracy was also key in fostering social cohesion in what was a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. Ethnicity has always been a volatile subject in this turbulent region. It has made minorities realise that no one is going to be discriminated against. It is a virtue imbued in the national pledge that we recite daily. Cue ‘regardless of race, language or religion’. Indeed, it is what has made Singapore distinctively Singaporean. I can safely profess that all races in Singapore now identify themselves as Singaporean instead of being ‘Chinese, Malay or Indian’ respectively.
I believe we are fortunate to have emerged as one of the few ex-colonies without a hint of sectarian violence and ethnic conflict. We do have to credit this to the ideal of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ Mr Lee Kuan Yew once held fast. While Malaysia practiced and still practices a policy of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ or Malay supremacy, Mr Lee believed that all Malaysians should have an equal, fair stake in Malaysia and should not be discriminated against simply because they were minorities. I am indeed, thankful that the sound policies developed by Singapore have contributed immensely to the strength of its social fabric today. I can mix effortlessly with a person of another race, who centuries ago, would have come from a culture alien to me. In fact, I can sing the national anthem, watch football and cheer on the Singapore football team with Yusuf, my Malay friend whom I share a diehard passion for the Lions with. I can discuss religion and Middle Eastern politics with Rashaad and Thaqif, and debate whether IS is truly Islamic or un-Islamic. It is here where I can see my fellow Singaporean compatriots, from all walks of life, pursue their dreams without fear of being disadvantaged in any way. Where other luminaries like the late Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King once fought for racial equality on the streets of Johannesburg and Selma, I believe Mr Lee Kuan Yew matched these giants in stature, in fighting for a vision where a region with manifold cultures so diverse and different could thrive in harmony and peace, overcoming barriers.
My parents often relate to me their experience of growing up in Malaysia in the 1970s. Life was hard and one had to work assiduously to succeed. However, I believe what differentiated Singapore’s prospects from that of Malaysia is precisely this policy of multiculturalism and non-discriminatory meritocracy. Where Malaysia institutionalised racial differences in the Federal Constitution, Singapore entrenched multiculturalism as a guiding principle. For one, the university and civil service are prime examples of discrimination at school and at work. Today, we hear of stories where straight As Indian and Chinese students are rejected from University of Malaya places in favour of lower scoring ‘bumiputras’. The civil service, unlike the highly regarded one we see in Singapore, recruits based on race. No matter how qualified, distinguished or talented a candidate may be, he will eventually be judged by the colour of his skin. Honestly, I tell you, Nelson Mandela, a leader the Malaysian authorities pradoxically look up to, would have frowned upon the sort of discrimination minorities in Malaysia continue to face. Indeed, it is because of such a policy that Malaysia has constantly languished behind Singapore in competitiveness and efficacy of governance ratings. It creates a sense of alienation and disgruntlement. A lack of attachment to a country that treats its country as second class citizens. It leads to a brain drain, an exodus. It is what compelled my parents to come here to Singapore to pursue ‘the Singaporean dream’, just as many have aspired to achieve the ‘American dream’. Thus, I am immensely grateful to have had firsthand experience as a Malaysian of the discrimination and treatment as second class citizens at the hands of a ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ policy and the policy of multiculturalism and a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ that I have had the privilege to enjoy here in Singapore. I thank Mr Lee Kuan Yew for bringing forward his ideal of an equal, just Singapore from merger right into independence. For enabling me to proudly say, I feel truly at home, where I feel at ease and am colour-blind to the friends I have. With friends I can confer on politics and religion with, with friends whom I know have an equal opportunity to succeed in life just as I have.
Secondly, in the midst of the criticism of Malaysian Premier Najib’s handling of the IMDB financial scandal and spate of corruption allegations in Malaysia linked to top-level officials within Barisan Nasional, I see a stark difference in the principles of governance between Malaysia and Singapore. It is a difference which I once again credit Mr Lee Kuan Yew for. It is establishing the virtue of honesty as a guiding principle.
Singapore is fortunate to have enjoyed the firm, tenacious leadership and foresight of Mr Lee. It is under Mr Lee that a firm, unwavering commitment to the rule of law was established. A commitment to ensure a first-rate public service devoid of the scourge of corruption, nepotism and greed. Mr Lee could have simply made empty promises to the electorate to promote the clean image of governance. However, that would never have gained the people’s trust. What was needed was tangible results and actions, and that he delivered. He showed, in the 1975 conviction of Wee Toon Boon, a cabinet minister for accepting gifts (yes, merely a gift! Not a bribe) from a businessman friend, that no one, no matter the weight his office carried, would be above the law. Honesty henceforth prevailed, and prevail it did. Today, Singapore continues to rank highly in honest government ratings. Coupled with a policy of meritocratic selection of only the best of the best, Singapore has nurtured a first-rate, efficacious civil service held in high regard by foreign counterparts.
Honesty, too proved paramount in the government’s dealings with the electorate. Unlike populist parties we often encounter in the West, the PAP and Mr Lee was brutally honest and forthright in their dealings with the public. Mr Lee never hesitated to tell the truth, no matter how painful it was. Truths such as the fact that we could never survive if we were to become a welfare state like those of the West, where hard work is barely rewarded and sloth can get you by. It is because of such hard truths, that we were able to produce standout policies like that of the ERP and CPF. These policies may seem harsh and unnecessary; a thorn in the flesh for most Singaporeans. However, in retrospect, I believe that these policies have become the cornerstone of what has enabled Singapore to thrive over the years. Yes, I am not joking. Here’s why.
The PAP and Mr Lee were brutally honest in recognising that Singapore could hardly afford to get bogged down by traffic woes that plagued other capitals like Jakarta and Bangkok. Traffic jams hamper productivity and investment while adding to pollution. A nimble, tactful policy like that of the ERP and COE, coupled with the move to establish a first-rate public transportation system, has ensured Singapore remains an attractive prospect in the eyes of investors who treasure the efficient transportation infrastructure Singapore enjoys. This has indirectly contributed directly to Singapore’s prosperity. As for the CPF policy, I believe the system of ensuring a combination of personal responsibility, hard work, risk-pooling and co-payments, coupled with numerous safety nets the government has implemented has made the social welfare system Singapore has one of the best in the world. Many countries look to it for inspiration. It has also led to Singaporeans being able to utilise these CPF funds to purchase their own homes. In no other country in the world can we see such high rates of home ownership.
While many can criticise the government for its authoritarian tendencies and the Western liberal media has often styled Singapore as a ‘benovelent dictatorship’, I feel that ultimately, regardless of the criticism, it is undeniable and indisputable that the government has produced results. Results are truly what matters. Mr Lee may come across as condescending, uncompromising and repressive. But what he has delivered is a promise made to the electorate; a promise made to the Singapore people when he first said he would be accountable for the millions of lives he now had responsibility over, and that we would overcome. He has overcome, and he has exceeded all realistic expectations. He has delivered a standard of living he could barely have dreamt of when he embarked on the seemingly arduous, uphill task of transforming Singapore from third world to first.
Where we turn our gaze to the world around us, we find our developed nation counterparts in the OECD languishing in education standards polls. We find thriving democracies we once looked up to mired in political gridlock, unable to achieve any substantial policy outcomes. We find nations besieged by communal violence, and in the midst of the rising threat of terror, grappling with the contentious issue of integration of religious minorities. While we mourn the passing of a great leader; the founder of the modern Singaporean state, we should also see cause for celebration in this year of SG50 and find time to count our blessings. Mr Lee has led Singapore remarkably for the past 50 years. We can be thankful for the simple pleasures we enjoy today: a roof over our heads, potable drinking water despite a lack of water resources here, affordable food prices and utilities, and a sense of profound security. Our children can grow up healthily and happily thanks to the sweat, blood and tears that Mr Lee and his comrades bled. However, I also believe that it is a time for us to take stock of the past, and look into the future. We cannot let the passing of Mr Lee hinder our progress. A man’s legacy now depends on our generation. It has often been warned ominously that small city-states like that of Venice and Athens vanished after a 100 years of prosperity. What should we do to ensure that by 2065, we are still a bustling metropolis? What are the formulas to succeed? To me, we should hold fast to the principles that our founding fathers firmly believed in- pragmatism, honesty and meritocracy. It has served us well and will continue to serve us well. In being pragmatic, we should not possess a risk-averse attitude. We should be willing to make realistic, yet unconventional choices. Sometimes, this means taking the route less trodden. However, it was precisely this route that Mr Lee embarked on; to embark on the Jurong Industrial Estate many deemed a failure.
The passing of the old guard heralds the dawn of a new era. We can mourn, but we should not mourn forever. It is time for our generation to take control of our destiny. Let us not take the work of our forefathers like Mr Lee for granted, but instead, aspire to live out his legacy.