On August 9th, 2020 one of the world’ richest nations, the Asian city state of Singapore with a population of 6.2 million, celebrates its 55th birthday as an independent republic after the federation with neighboring Malaysia only lasted from 1963 to 1965.
Its surprising name, Singapura (“Lion City”), later corrupted to Singapore, may have originated when many centuries ago a prince from what is now Indonesia glimpsed a tiger, but mistook it for a lion, and thus misnamed the settlement.
From 1960 to 1980, the gross national product of what is now East Asia’s richest country grew fifteen-fold. This impressive economic miracle has made Singapore wealthy, modern, efficient, safe, virtually corruption-free and very popular among investors.
Success basically resulted from the fascinating vision by founding father and longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), who advocated relentless pragmatism, stringent conservatism and radical innovation. In order to clean up what he called a “cesspool of squalor and degradation”, Lee started enormous reforms, including a social housing program.
To achieve his goals, Lee would resort to all kinds of measures: to imprison critics without a court order, to shut down local Nanyang University after large student protests, to censor both local and foreign newspapers and to sue media which he disliked.
Lee blatantly interfered in citizens´ private life and always thought he had the right to do so: less educated mothers who already had two children were asked to undergo sterilization, or charged with higher taxes. At the same time, since the 1980s he encouraged the upper class to have more children. Unfortunately that plan didn´t work, as Singapore currently has the world´s lowest birth rate at 0.7 children per woman.
Due to zero tolerance against misbehavior, multiethnic Singapore with four completely different cultures and religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam) coexisting on very limited space, remains stable. Strict racial harmony laws guarantee social peace: people who stoke religious or racial enmity can be sentenced to a maximum of three years in jail. The death penalty is imposed for drug trafficking and also applied to foreign nationals.
Although he grew up speaking English in a port that had been under strong British influence since 1819, Lee was very aware of his Chinese descent and the Confucian values that marked him.
Under its shiny, surface Singapore remains deeply conservative at heart. The High Court on March 28th 2020 again upheld a rarely used law, introduced in 1938 under British colonial rule, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail for sex between men.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, oldest son of founding father Lee Kwan Yu, previously had pointed out that society in Singapore “is not that liberal on these matters.”
Heng Swee Keat, the deputy prime minister and presumptive successor to Lee junior, said that older Singaporeans were “not ready” yet for a leader who is not Chinese, which still make up almost 75% of the population.
A Singaporean identity was created by implementing an iron fist policy: the law allows caning to be ordered for over 35 offences, but only for men. Lee senior, who wasn’t fond of liberal democracy, never understood why Western educationalists were so much against corporal punishment. On the other side, there’s growing discontent with the political situation in what many critics consider a Far Eastern “nanny state”. In the general election hold on July 10th, 2020, the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1965, took 61.2% of the vote, down from nearly 70% in 2015, winning 83 of 93 parliamentary seats.
The Workers’ Party, the only noticeable opposition force, obtained 10 seats and its best result since its foundation in 1957. Thanks to the large amount of foreign residents and a voting age of 21, just 2.65 million voters went to the polls.
To deal with the looming recession, Singapore will spend close to 70.4 billion US dollars, almost 20% of the country’s GDP, on four stimulus packages to help businesses and households manage the serious impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy.
It’s the biggest challenge that Singapore’s hard-working inhabitants have had to face in the 21st century. In view of what they have mastered in the past, the international community can be sure that they will come out of this crisis even stronger than before!