Growing sense of national identity, and global standing, as S'pore turns 50

Singapore awoke to a rude shock on Aug 9, 1965.

At 10am, a voice on the radio revealed that the city state had been turfed out of the Malaysian federation and would "forever be a sovereign, democratic and independent nation".

The headline in The Straits Times, the following day (see page below), summed it up simply: "Singapore is out".

 
 
 

The city state had been expelled unceremoniously, cast adrift, bereft of any hinterland, and faced an uncertain future.

Even the redoubtable Prime Minister then, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, famously wept at this "moment of anguish" at his first post-independence press conference that day.

Reflecting this sombre mood, ST's front page editorial decried the "tragic news" as a "cruel shock", which was "sad beyond words".

Few believed the separation could be a lasting solution; many thought Singapore would have little choice but to return to the Malaysian fold, when economic realities kicked in. There were fears that ethnic ties, fraught and fragile, might fray, or worse, flare up in violence.

The editorial's conclusion was striking: "In time, it is to be hoped that the wounds will heal and the logic of Malaysia, unimpaired in its fundamentals, will reassert itself."

But 50 years on, how alien, even odd, those sentiments might seem to a younger generation of Singaporeans. Today, as Singaporeans mark SG50 - their unexpected, improbable nation's Golden Jubilee - not many continue to view Aug 9 as a "moment of anguish".

Fifty years ago, the new-found Republic had no army to defend its new-found independence. This weekend, families braved the rains to watch the dazzling display of aerial acrobatics by the country's very own Black Knights.

Fifty years ago, the top concerns were over high unemployment, low literacy and a shortage of housing for those who lived in slums. Today, the news is dominated by reports of sky-high property prices, tight labour markets, and how Singapore sends more students to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge than any other country outside Britain, apart from China.

Alluding to this transformation in his National Day message last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted how Singapore had turned "that moment of anguish into a lifetime of determination to forge a path for this island nation".

PM Lee also recounted how Mr Lee Kuan Yew had pledged in 1965 to build a model multiracial nation in Singapore.

"He said: 'We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.'

"From that break, we began building a nation. And what a journey it has been. It started with the first generation of leaders convincing our pioneer generation that Singapore could succeed as a sovereign country. Together, leaders and the people - the lions and the lion-hearted - fought with unwavering determination to secure our foundations. After them, younger generations picked up the baton and took Singapore further...

"Year after year, we have kept the promises that Mr Lee Kuan Yew made on the 9th of August 1965: that we will be 'one united people, regardless of race, language or religion'; that we will always have a bright future ahead of us."

There will be much sadness, perhaps even some tears shed, that Mr Lee did not live just a little longer to savour and share the joyous celebrations with the people he inspired and led to today's Singapore.

Yet, ironically, the outpouring of national grief that welled to the surface following his passing in March did more than anything else to remind Singaporeans what this year-long jubilee jamboree was all about. The way Singaporeans responded during the week of national mourning for their founding father made one thing plain to everyone, here and abroad: the idea of Singapore, and the principles that led to it becoming an independent nation - multiracialism, meritocracy, equality before the law, as well as honesty, integrity and efficacy in government - has become ingrained in the people's hearts and minds.

Singapore is out? No actually, the events of the past months, and decades, have shown that Singapore is in.

Fifty years on, Singaporeans today look to their shared past and collective future with pride, and a growing sense of national identity, more than anyone had ever imagined.

Similarly, around the world, the little red dot is no longer viewed as an economic and political non-starter. Rather, the Republic is respected not just for the economic miracle that transformed the city, but also the doggedness of its people to constantly strive to stay ahead and remain relevant to the world.

Concluding his message, delivered from the newly refurbished Victoria Concert Hall, PM Lee noted that it was there that his father and his colleagues launched the People's Action Party and its long struggle for a fair and just society.

"It was here in 1958 that Majulah Singapura was first performed. It was at the Padang nearby, after independence, that we held our National Day Parades, and sang Majulah Singapura together as a nation."

Former art teacher Wong Hiong Boon, 83, recalls in a 52-page National Day special (which comes with your paper today), the emotions he felt when he sang that anthem for the first time on Aug 9, 1965.

"We didn't have the British. We didn't have Malaysia. We were alone and scared. Could we survive by ourselves? Majulah Singapura told us we, the 'rakyat', the people, could... It was the first song we could call our own. It was the first national anthem I sang with so many feelings. It gave us courage and hope."

Today, that same anthem will sound around the island, at a host of community events culminating in a grand parade at the Padang.

The new spirit - or semangat yang baru - that it extols might be taken to reflect the remarkably changed sentiments, both at home and abroad, towards Singapore, its people and their prospects. Today, no more tears are shed, nor is there shock or grave fears aroused, at the thought that "Singapore is out", because, put simply, Singapore is in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'IN S'PORE IS'. Print Edition | Subscribe