In 1965, the Republic of Singapore emerged as an independent sovereign nation after its expulsion from the Malaysian federation. With a land area of a mere 283 square miles and virtually no natural resources, Singapore was left with a daunting task of development as it embarked on its journey as a nation. Singapore had a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi-racial social makeup, and this was another major challenge for the country as a unified and inclusive society needed to be established. Today, six decades after independence, Singapore stands as an economic powerhouse with outstanding achievements in business and commerce, education, health, housing provisions, banking and poverty alleviation. The country has ensured very high living standards for its citizens. It was labelled as one of the four “Asian Tigers” along with South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong due to its outstanding rapid economic success. It is worth exploring how such a small, impoverished and poorly developed country after suffering centuries of ruthless colonial rule managed to establish itself as a highly developed economy in such a short span of time.
At the time of Singapore’s independence in 1965, the majority of the country’s population was unemployed and two-thirds of its people were living in slums and squatter settlements. Substandard sanitation, poor infrastructure and an insufficient supply of water were problems plaguing the nascent state. According to the World Bank, the GDP per capita income was a lowly $515.6 in 1965. Singapore lay between Malaysia and Indonesia, two large and non-friendly countries at the time. Lee Kuan Yew took over as prime minister as Singapore gained independence and his policies would go on to changes the nation completely. With neighbouring states unwilling to trade with Singapore, the country sought to establish trade links with developed countries which were situated far beyond their borders. Low taxes and few capital restrictions were what characterized the Singaporean economy in the years to come, and these factors led to massive sustained economic growth. To attract investors in their country, Singapore had to make sure that their domestic environment was safe and free from corruption, and had a low level of taxation. For this to be possible and feasible, major freedoms and fundamental human rights had to be sacrificed. Individuals involved with heavy corruption and trade in narcotics were ruthlessly executed by the state. The People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Lee Kuan Yew, dealt with all labour unions very harshly and this gradually destroyed most of them. The PAP-led government brought what was left under a single group known as “National Trade Union Congress” (NTUC) and maintained direct control over it. Such a political system ensured smooth operations of trade and commerce with little political freedom, attracting foreign investors who sought to pursue business activities in a stable and non-restrictive environment. This made Singapore very appealing to corporations and business enterprises compared to other countries in the same region which had unstable climates for trade and business. Singapore possessed an established port system and an advantageous geographical location which allowed them to transform into a manufacturing hub. Today, Singapore has very low tariff and non-tariff barriers, making trade extremely free.
Singapore has successfully established itself as a highly popular tourist destination in the world. Around 10 million people visit the island nation every year and enjoy its modernity, popular hotels and resorts, glamorous shopping malls, warm and pleasant weather, wonderful amusement parks, and rich cultural heritage and diversity. Medical tourism is also a major part of the tourism industry as a large number of individuals from various countries seek medical treatment at world class Singaporean hospitals. Singapore’s excellent educational institutions have made it a popular destination for higher studies for students from the South Asian and Southeast Asian region. Some Singaporean universities are well-known across the globe for their outstanding scientific and academic research.
As of 2021, Singapore is 9th on the Human Development Index (HDI) and it is classified as having, “very high human development.” In the same year, the per capita income (PPP) stood at $102,450, the second highest in the world. Singapore is thriving in the sectors of education and healthcare, which are very important social indicators. Acute poverty remains very low as the government takes necessary steps to ensure basic income, health provisions, education, and housing, and also provides assistance to needy citizens for public transportation costs, utility bills, and so on. While all these achievements are commendable and deserve a lot of admiration, it must be acknowledged that Singapore has been unable to establish itself as a strong and functioning democracy. Political freedom in the country remains low compared to the world’s developed nations. Political and civil rights remain limited in Singapore. Press freedom is also low, indicating that Singapore has not established adequate freedom of speech for its citizens.
Singapore stands as an example for the world as it has transformed itself from a struggling, impoverished nation to a highly developed one in three decades. Presently, high income levels, excellent living standards, quality education, nearly full literacy, sound health provisions and so on define life in Singapore. It is a global commercial hub and a world leader in technology, innovation and trade dynamism. Different religious and ethnic communities live in relative harmony and this is indicative of an inclusive and integrated society. The Singaporean development model has opened up the debate of whether a developing country should pursue a state-planned economic system with limited political freedom for a limited period of time to ensure sustained growth and development. South Korea and Taiwan are other examples where this model has worked. Nevertheless, authoritarian practices such as repression over political dissent, suspension of basic fundamental rights, and restrictions on freedom of speech must be condemned and every effort for democratization must always be made. Singapore will achieve its full potential only when it establishes itself as a full democracy. For now, we can praise the country for its remarkable economic achievements.
The writer is a Development professional. He can be