James Ruggia | March 18, 2016 3:00 PM ET
Friday Flashback: An Orderly March to Progress
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this June 26, 2015 column on Singapore’s Orderly March to Progress. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
One of my first travel assignments brought me to Singapore in the mid-1980s on a press trip with a group of veteran travel trade journalists to cover the plans for Sentosa Island.
Some of these reporters carried themselves with a swaggering condescension that had, I thought at the time, a colonial arrogance to it. In a press conference with an important Singaporean official from the now defunct Singapore Tourism Promotion Board, several questions from those reporters had that patronizing smell to them. One American reporter, from a now-defunct publication, even uttered a sarcastic impression during the conference of the way the official pronounced English with a Chinese accent.
New to Asia, I was as embarrassed by my colleagues as I was impressed with the official who gave a three-hour “vision” presentation that laid out the development plans for Singaporean tourism that projected over decades. Singapore was making long-term plans, something that western societies seemed incapable of doing.
Singapore is one of those places that draws an opinion from everyone. From the caning of Michael Fay to the notorious prohibition on chewing gum, it manages to draw ire. The left critiques its repression of press, while the right rejects the government’s involvement in development and the economy. Whatever the merit of your particular critique, you can’t say that Singapore isn’t a lot better off than it was on August 9, 1965, when it seceded from the newly formed state of Malaysia, which itself had seceded from British rule only two years earlier.
That Singapore was a divided nation of contending religions, ethnicities and classes that was unregulated, overcrowded and unsanitary. As Peter Westmore, the president of Australia’s National Civic Council recently described it, unemployment in 1960 was at 14 percent and per GDP was $516 per year. Half the population was illiterate and two thirds were living in slums.
How different things are now. According to Westmore, the small island nation of 5.5 million people now sports a per capita GDP of $55,000 with people enjoying a life expectancy of 82.
At the center of these changes was a Cambridge educated young leader named Lee Kuan Yew, or as he is called in Singapore, LKY.
LKY seems to have learned a lot from Sir Stamford Raffles, the man who founded the Straits Settlement for the Royal British Navy in 1819. In Raffles, LKY saw the strands of DNA that would help him lead the city through its transformation. When Raffles arrived he found a sleepy malarial port serving nearby rubber plantations on the Malay Peninsula.
Before long, Raffles had turned the city into an essential maritime depot at the crucial crossroads between the Straits of Melaka, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Visitors still admire those cream-colored British colonial buildings framed by palms on those vast manicured lawns. But the colonial Singapore of Raffles created a wealth that only a few could prosper from.
Thus the 1960s Singapore that LKY found was overwhelmingly poor with only a small percentage of the population enjoying the limited prosperity that was being created. This inequity divided Singaporeans, usually along ethnic lines in a city where the population is primarily Chinese with large minorities of Indians and Malays. It never fails that people will attack each other when they’re being exploited from above.
As prime minister of the new state LKY followed a carefully structured development plan that put transport at its center, carrying Raffles maritime vision into the modern world of aviation with the opening of Changi Airport in 1981. Changi, still rated the top international airport by Skytrax, sits prominently alongside other legacy brands such as Raffles Hotel and Singapore Airlines that exude the notion that Singapore itself represents the highest standards.
Those standards were observed in developing the Suntec Center, home of ITB Asia, which opened in 1997, the new Cruise Terminal (2012), the transformation of Sentosa Island from a sleepy attraction to one of Asia’s most dynamic entertainment hubs and much more. All of these developments confirmed the vision that was laid out for me and those other reporters all those years ago on my first trip to Asia.
LKY, who passed away on March 23, left Singapore with a legacy that believes that healthy development needs to be directed by a government with a long-term plan that functions above such obstacles as a critical press and the narrow profit motives of private businesses. Thus the government is involved on an ownership and management level in several important sectors that most countries leave to the private sector, everything from airport operations and real estate to banking and shipping.
In June, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of LKY, greeted a group of Southeast Asian journalists to discuss Singapore’s 50th birthday. He summed up his father’s achievement as an “orderly march to progress” and attributed much of the success to zero tolerance for corruption and relentless investment in education.
Just to be clear, I believe in democratic rule, an independent press and that society is best served by a plurality of contending powers, but having said all that, there’s plenty to admire about modern Singapore and what LKY achieved.
Singapore would love to see visitors come into the city to participate in its National Day in all of the so-called “SG50” celebrations. So when you see one of Singapore Airlines big Airbus A380s all decked out in 50th anniversary livery, think about Lee Kwan Yu whose very practical vision for society told both the left and the right to take a hike and in just a couple of years turned a sleepy port city into a thriving metropolis with an educated middle class that’s living better than it ever has.
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