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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 19:35 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 19:35 | SYDNEY

Singapore at 50: Time's up on the 'fishing village' narrative

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10 August 2015 10:50

Singapore is this week celebrating its coming of middle age as an independent country, a 50th birthday milestone that deserves due pomp and ceremony, given the accomplishments and sacrifices of the 'pioneer generation' since the city-state's traumatic separation from Malaysia in August 1965.

This is also the first National Day since the death of Lee Kuan Yew, who masterminded and micro-managed Singapore's unique experiment in nation building so thoroughly that, for many Singaporeans, history effectively begins in 1965. Beyond the flag-waving, therefore, it is an occasion that might also prompt Singaporeans to re-assess their past and imagine a different future.


Statue of Raffles, Singapore. (Flickr/Bertrand Duperrin.)

All countries have their national myths that truncate or traduce history. In the UK it is jokingly said that only two years matter: 1066 (the Norman invasion) and 1966 (the year England won football's World Cup). A third, 1940 (the Battle of Britain) could be added, such is the lingering obsession with the Second World War.

Singapore's government-inspired foundation narrative identifies just two dates of national significance: 9 August 1965 (National Day, marking independence) and 15 February 1942 (Total Defence Day, marking the British surrender and the start of occupation by Japan). 1819, the year Stamford Raffles arrived, is taught in schools, but Singapore's colonial founder and free-trade champion no longer intrudes far into the public's consciousness except as a brand name.

Such is the excoriating importance assigned to 1965 as year zero in Singapore's modern history that this has created a distorted historical narrative. References to pre-independence Singapore as a 'fishing village', swamp or colonial backwater are surprisingly pervasive, including in past National Day speeches.

Colonial Singapore, to be sure, had its share of plantations, swamps and kampung (villages). However, as the most important of the Straits Settlements, it was already established as a thriving entrepot for regional trade by the mid-nineteenth century. When the British handed over control, they left behind Southeast Asia's leading port, a naval base, several airfields, and the accumulated soft and hard infrastructure from over a century of settlement. This solid foundation for statehood was inherited by Singapore's ruling People's Action Party. It was not a swamp, or a fishing village.

Without doubt, the developmental and security challenges thrust upon Singapore at independence were severe and acute. Because the island's economy and infrastructure was so deeply integrated with that of the Peninsula, it took time to adjust to the shock of separation. Singapore's survival was not assured. The premium the micro-state has placed on defence self-reliance was shaped partly in the shadow of Britain's humiliating battlefield defeat (hence the commemoration of 15 February as Total Defence Day), but also by the rapid drawdown of the UK's Far Eastern military presence shortly after Singapore became independent, although a residual Commonwealth presence was maintained on the island into the mid-1970s.

Even as Singapore has grown and prospered, there is perhaps, an understandable ambivalence towards the old colonial power. Too often, however, international media coverage of Singapore unquestioningly reproduces the 'fishing village' narrative. 'Swamp to skyscrapers' is a similar variation on Singapore's post-1965 development, as featured in a recent BBC report. Some Singaporeans have questioned the accuracy of the 'fishing village' or 'swamp' descriptors, on grounds that this legitimises a national foundation myth designed to magnify the achievements of the PAP as the monopoly provider of development to the Singaporean population.

As younger Singaporeans look ahead to the next 50 years, it would be a pity if such a flaw in the country's rear-view mirror were to skew their perspective. After all, there is surely a continuity to be celebrated in Singapore's origins and enduring comparative advantage as a beacon for safe, secure, free trade.

That need not involve a colonial cringe. In an encouraging nod to the educational value of the longer view of history, the Ministry of Education recently introduced a new school textbook, The Making of a Nation-State, 1300-1975. It explores the importance of trading links through Singapore's environs that long predate the colonial period.

Happy birthday Singapore: life begins at 50.

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