In the 50 years since its independence, Southeast Asia’s smallest country has been transformed from a struggling city-state into one of the richest nations in the world. Here, an occasional resident looks back on the decades of change, and on the man who shaped Singapore’s course, chewing-gum ban and all.
By Daven Wu
Photographs by Todd Beltz
On September 12, 1965, shortly after Singapore was cast out of the recently formed Malaysian federation and subsequently declared its own independence, Lee Kuan Yew, the fledgling city-state’s prime minister, stood before a crowd of town hall supporters and said, “We made this country from nothing, from mudflats. … Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!” By any yardstick, it was a bold pronouncement. Even Lee’s most enthusiastic loyalists must have blinked.
Granted, 150 years of British colonial rule had created a thriving entrepôt, a solid civil service, and a rather picturesque skyline of Neoclassical and Palladian piles clustered around the southern tip of the island. But outside of the central business district were mudflats, swamps, and dirt-poor kampong villages. Most of the population lived in squalid, crowded tenements. There was no reliable water supply. In real terms, the average Singaporean in 1959 was no richer than his American counterpart of a century earlier.
Against this sobering background, who would dare dream of building a metropolis in a decade? More to the point, just who was this Lee to make such a prediction?
Born in 1923 into an upper-middle class Straits Chinese family, Lee, a Cambridge-trained lawyer, had lived through both the Japanese occupation of the island and its ensuing political struggle toward independence. He was well aware that Singapore had none of the natural resources of its much larger neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. His greatest challenge was that he had inherited a nation with no shared culture or language among its diverse population of Chinese (themselves splintered by multiple dialects), Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. The race riots of 1964 were a potentially dire portent.
A canny geostrategist, Lee was undaunted. He knew in his bones that Singapore would pull through. It had to. The alternative was unthinkable. “Here we make the model multicultural society,” he insisted in September 1965. “This is not a country that belongs to any single community. It belongs to all of us.”
In 1975, almost a decade later, I started primary school in Singapore.
It’s a curious thing, but I seem to remember that time in sepia tones. My family lived in a two-story colonial-era terrace house on Emerald Hill Road, just off Orchard Road. Day and night, there was always the pounding noise of construction. Nobody had air-conditioning, not unless you worked in an office or lived in one of those fancy new condos that were sprouting up all over the island. Almost all my friends—tellingly, a diverse mix of Chinese, Malays, and Indians—lived in flats subsidized by the Housing Development Board, or HDB as everyone called it.
In the evenings, we sat down in front of our new color television sets and watched Mash, Happy Days, The Six Million Dollar Man. Disco played on the radio. At school, we dutifully lined up in rows each morning and sang the national anthem, Majulah Singapura. I took my first exam when I was six years old and, thanks to Lee’s emphasis on a meritocratic educational system, spent the next five years obsessing over my grades.
On the weekends, my mother would take me to the German delicatessen at the Goodwood Park Hotel to pick up honey-smoked ham and pastries. I also always looked forward to visiting my uncle in his office in Raffles Place, with its charming mix of gleaming new high-rises and rundown shophouses along Boat Quay. To celebrate special occasions, he entertained the family at the revolving restaurant atop the Mandarin hotel on Orchard Road and maybe afterward treated us to a movie at the Art Deco–style Cathay cinema. If there were any mudflats or swamps, I don’t remember seeing any.
Quite without anyone noticing, Lee and his team of technocrats had actually achieved a metropolis. He was bang on schedule. Admittedly, no one pretended that Singapore was anything like New York or London, but still, for the expatriates starting to flow in from New York and London, it certainly wasn’t a hardship posting either. What not many of us realized or appreciated at the time was just how fast the wheels were turning behind the scenes, and how much harder Lee was pressing his foot to the accelerator.
Almost immediately after that 1965 speech, Lee had set about rehousing the population. The surest way to create a sense of community and to enable families to accumulate wealth, he felt, was to give them a home of their own. Property ownership grounded people. It was a philosophy informed by pragmatism and a great deal of chutzpah, but Lee was convinced it would work. And so, armed with sweeping new zoning laws, the HDB razed entire quarters and built in their place the regimented rows of utilitarian tower blocks that have become such a familiar part of Singapore’s skyline. By 1970, the housing problem was, in the HDB’s own memorable parlance, “licked.”
Those were also the years that set the tone for the West’s subsequent perception of Singapore as—to borrow the title of a 1993 article by American novelist William Gibson—“Disneyland with the death penalty.” Shoulder-length hair for men was banned and drug importation carried with it a mandatory death penalty. Spitting and littering were punishable with fines. A compulsory two-year national army service for 18-year-old men was introduced. At the same time, the streets and the filthy Singapore River were cleaned up. Orchard Road began its transformation into the Asian version of Fifth Avenue even as, every November, Lee planted a tree as part of his push to transform the island into a garden city.
One day, in the midst of this dizzying transformation, my mother announced that we were moving to Australia. “For a while,”she said. We were away 18 years.