Ninth of August, fifty years ago. A tearful Lee Kuan Yew announced a big decision for the island city. He declared that Singapore would separate from the Malayan Federation to create its own independent state. Brave enough to face autonomy in the midst of poverty and dilapidation, Singapore has transitioned to a first world economy in only a generation.
Today is Singapore’s fiftieth birthday. Its story is a testament to a willpower, of overturning thousands of unfavorable conditions into strengths that make Singapore what it is today. It is a model state, adored by many, despised by some. But one thing that no one can do, is push it to the sidelines. The small island has done it.
On this auspicious day for the lion city, let me give a few things I like about Singapore—and probably, those things that show and make Singapore great.
1. Singapore has balls!
For many international relations (IR) students, myself included, there is a stroke of astonishment, a glimpse of audacity, to the establishment and development of Singapore. It is derided as the “tiny red dot”. It was not supposed to have been established at all at the first place. It is surrounded by countries that can, and have been, hostile to it. Yet, it has the balls to face and overcome every single one of them.
In the words of the founding father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore had to do a transition “from third world to first” and boy have they done it! Its GDP per capita is now the biggest in Southeast Asia, with only about 4.5 million people. It utilizes the very limited resources it has, and it empowers the only true resource it has, human capital, to the maximum.
Foreign policy-wise, also a miracle. It is mockingly dubbed the “tiny red dot”, and furthermore, “in a sea of green”. Pinched between Indonesia and Malaysia, it struggles to establish itself. It joined ASEAN only two years after independence as founding member (ah, yes, happy birthday, ASEAN!), and it immediately established relations with the world’s most significant powers. To help defend itself, it joined the Five Power Defence Arrangements with no less the United Kingdom and Australia, and in an “in your face” gesture to Malaysia and Indonesia, cooperated in defense and security with Israel.
Furthermore, it has the balls also to sentence two Indonesian commandos to death after the MacDonald House bombing during the Konfrontasi period. Two million people against more than 150 million people, 600 sq km against 1,9 million sq km, it takes more than two balls to do it. Yet they did.
Look at them now. Where east and west converge, Singapore has done it. And they have the balls to do it.
Say whatever you like, but you cannot doubt, Singapore has one of the best metro systems in the world. It is punctual, pristine, and positioned well. You cannot imagine today, what will Singapore be without the MRT. If the U.S.’ greatness was built with its wide and lengthy highways, Singapore was built with the MRT.
What is even better with the MRT is that Singaporeans can actually be taught not to take the MRT for granted. Of course you will see fines stamped everywhere (from eating, drinking, to taking durian on board). But if you compare, probably, New York’s Metro to Singapore’s MRT, you’ll know what I am saying.
3. Chicken rice
The national dish of Singapore, need I say more? The gingery-chickeny rice coupled by perfectly boiled chicken drenched in soy sauce. Tell me if you are not licking some drools. You cannot go to Singapore without enjoying at least a portion of this iconic item. But some chicken rice are more equal than others. From my experience, one stands out, that is the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre. If you have not tried it, you really have to take a taste! It is quintessentially Singapore.
4. Beautiful museums
I like museums. In any city, its museums tell a lot on how the city is developed, and more importantly, how its people take care of the very place they live in. Singapore’s museums are testaments on how Singaporeans take care of their city. Some of them stand out for me: Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore Philatelic Museum, National Museum of Singapore, to name a few. You simply have to visit at least some of them when you go to Singapore (forget Orchard Road for a while, and take a peek at these wonderful attractions!).
It is difficult for any country to maintain multiculturalism, and avoiding inter-racial or intercultural conflict. Singapore avoids it by creating a somewhat complex mechanism of concessions and choices. For instance, while recognizing all languages (English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil), it uses English as the working language. Singapore is not created as a Chinese state (despite its overwhelming majority). It is created to be a multicultural state, preventing racial or cultural dominance over anyone. In practice things may well be different, but if you want to see a laboratory of successful creation, Singapore is the correct place to see.
6. The national anthem
Hey, it is Majulah Singapura (Onward, Singapore). Written in Malay by a Minang individual, the country ‘forces’ everyone to sing the song in Malay, whatever the language he or she speaks. I myself can sing the national anthem. It is simple, yet contains the very vision of Singapore: Mari kita rakyat Singapura sama-sama menuju bahagia (Let us all Singaporeans together move toward happiness). See the clip here, a short testament of Singapore’s hard work. Semua kita berseru, majulah Singapura, majulah Singapura! (Together we declare, onward Singapore, onward Singapore!)
I don’t have a lot to say about Singapore, though. From an Indonesian to all Singaporeans, happy birthday! Here’s to many, many more successful years to come!