Singapore is one of the greatest success stories of the modern world.
The modern history of the country started in 1819, just under 200 years ago. The British were looking for a strategic location to base their growing merchant and naval fleets and to thwart Dutch regional influence.
The then Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolan in Sumatra, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, landed in Singapore after surveying neighboring islands. A colony was soon founded with a population of only 150. Today, the population is almost 5.5 million. Singapore’s success was based on free trade, which made it a vibrant commercial center, attracting merchants from all over Asia, the Middle East and the United States, as well as Great Britain, which dominated the globe in the nineteenth century.
The port city saw its greatest period of growth after the British opened the Suez Canal in 1869. Control of vital sea-gates around the globe contributed to the dominance of the British Empire. It was possible for British vessels to sail from England to Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus in the Mediterranean, before continuing their journey through the Suez Canal and Aden, then on to points east, including Singapore. The naval base at Singapore enabled the British to dominate the Far East and Australasia. Singapore was a vital sea-gate, one of the arteries of empire. Many believe this fulfilled the prophecy in Genesis 22:17 that Abraham’s descendants would “possess the gates of their enemies.”
Everything went well until the Japanese attacked the city the day after Pearl Harbor. Once regarded as an impregnable fortress, the city surrendered on 15th March, 1942. It remained under Japanese occupation for three-and-a-half-years. Looking back, it was a major turning point in the decline and fall of the British Empire, perhaps the biggest single turning point. It showed that the seemingly invincible British, a white race that ruled the greatest empire in history, could be defeated by a non-white peoples considered backward and inferior.
After the defeat of Japan, the British returned, but it was impossible to return to the pre-war order. New political parties were formed that campaigned for independence.
In 1963, the people of Singapore voted to join the new Malaysian Federation, which the British had created six years earlier. Only two years later, Singapore, an island of mostly Chinese immigrants, had to leave the Moslem dominated federation and go it alone.
In 1965, at the time of independence, the total Gross National Product of Singapore was only $1 billion. Fifty years later, it’s $300 billion. Per capita income has grown from less than $500 per year to well over $55,000, second only to Japan in East Asia. The island state has been transformed in fifty years from a Third World outpost to a thriving city-state that belongs proudly to the First World of wealthy, affluent countries.
This achievement was the work of one man, Lee Kuan Yew, the longest serving prime minister in the world (from 1959 to 1990). Singapore’s former prime minister died at the weekend. The man who cried when the federation broke up and Singapore had to go it alone, had a clear vision of what was needed – a free enterprise system which would become a regional financial center. This does not mean that government was not involved. He was mildly authoritarian, with restrictions on freedom of speech and the press. He also oversaw massive public housing projects, which contributed to a rising standard of living for the people. The US could learn from its medical system.
He leaves behind a wealthy, efficient and honest administration – one of the modern world’s greatest success stories. Other developing nations, struggling to survive in the contemporary world, could learn a great deal from Singapore and the man who built its modern economy.
Singapore is also symbolic of Asia’s growing might, accompanied by the decline of its former imperial master Great Britain, and the West in general.
The world has changed a great deal in the fifty years since Singapore became an independent republic. It’s experience should give many nations pause for thought and reflection.