Early years (1965-1980): Laying the foundations for shift from Third World to First

In March 1965, a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road killed three people and injured 33.
In March 1965, a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road killed three people and injured 33.PHOTO: ST FILE
Men enlisting for national service in 1967.
Men enlisting for national service in 1967. PHOTO: ST FILE

How can the survival of a newly independent Singapore be ensured?

This was the top question on the minds of the Republic's first two heads of state: Mr Yusof Ishak, who was president from 1965 to 1970, and Dr Benjamin Sheares, who held the position from 1971 to 1981.

Their addresses to Parliament provided a glimpse of the fraught anxieties at the time, with the urgency to establish a robust defence force and diplomatic missions abroad.

Amid a volatile regional climate, they also pledged to hold true to the ideal of a multiracial, colour-blind society - an ideal that had met much resistance.


One fundamental reason Singapore exited Malaysia in 1965 was that the countries' respective leaders differed in their beliefs in the creation of such a society.

"If we are to remain a cohesive people, we must concentrate on the factors which bind us together, and not those which will divide us," said Mr Yusof, at the opening of the first Parliament on Dec 8, 1965. "We cannot allow anyone to work up heat on the gut issues over language, culture and religion, grating the raw nerves of our people."


The word "survival" featured no less than five times in Mr Yusof's first address, a sign of the heavy odds stacked against Singapore at the time.

The abrupt exit from Malaysia was a "chastening reminder that history is not written by legal draftsmen or pre-determined at constitutional conferences", he said.

With the conflicting forces in the region, it was crucial to guard against being "swallowed up in some more backward whole".

Indonesia was, at the time, waging a violent undeclared war, the Konfrontasi, to oppose the formation of Malaysia.

In March 1965, a bomb at MacDonald House in Orchard Road killed three people and injured 33.

To deal with security threats, an Army Bill would be tabled to "provide the framework for a hard, well-trained, if small, regular army supported by a large people's volunteer force", said Mr Yusof in the same speech.

And the need for national service and a large citizen force became all the more acute after the British, in 1968, announced they would be pulling out their forces by 1971.

In 1968, in his second address to Parliament, Mr Yusof said: "These reserves will be well and regularly trained, ready for combat, but otherwise, they will be in productive employment, contributing to the economic growth and progress of the country."

It was also crucial to build bilateral ties, and to keep allies close. "Our security depends upon having the minimum number of unfriendly countries and the maximum number of friendly ones."

There were still two other groups who opposed a multiracial society - communal extremists, who agitated "raucously, albeit foolishly" for the implementation of one language throughout all levels of teaching, and the opportunistic communists, who "play on communal heart strings, if only more skilfully and cynically", to grab power.

He said: "The more extreme any community is about one race, one language and one religion, the more likely it is to arouse counter chauvinism amongst the other communities to the detriment of all."

Further changes were made to protect Singapore's domestic political system from external influences in the 1970s. A ban on foreign donations was introduced. By then, Dr Sheares was president, and he described it as "criminal negligence" should foreign interests be able to influence local politics.

All political parties also were to have their expenditure and income periodically inspected.

That was also the decade the People's Action Party (PAP) consolidated its hold on power, after the then main opposition party Barisan Sosialis lost ground with its boycott of Parliament in 1965. It had accused the PAP of "undemocratic acts" and said Singapore's independence was "phoney".

But MPs should not lose sight of their role to "ensure all shades of opinion out in the constituencies are vigorously voiced", Dr Sheares said.


With the split, there was no common market with Malaysia, and this meant "radical changes" to Singapore's plans for industrialisation and economic development.

One reason for seeking merger, Mr Yusof said, was to "give our workers a way in which we could industrialise behind the comfortable buffer of a protected domestic market, comprising the combined population of Malaysia".

But without a common market, Singapore now had to build an extensive network of trade relations.

Said Mr Yusof: "Our viability depends upon having the widest spread of economic links with the largest number of countries in the world, so that the economic levers on our political policies will not be in the hands of a few governments."

Although news of the pullout of British forces triggered fears of unemployment, this proved unfounded when conditions were created for the rapid and massive investment by multinational companies.

By 1971, there was a "temporary shortage" of workers, and the Government freely issued work permits to both skilled and semi-skilled workers, and to unskilled workers for heavy manual jobs. But Dr Sheares was already wary of allowing in too many unskilled foreign workers. He said: "There is a limit to the inflow of unskilled non-citizen workers we can absorb if the fabric of our society is not to be strained."


In the early years of independence, the Government tried to put the brakes on unchecked population growth by introducing "a combination of incentives for small families, and disincentives on having more than three children".

Dr Sheares said this was necessary if Singaporeans wanted the quality of life to go up. "Food alone is not enough to bring up a good citizen. Every child needs care, and years of education and training."

In his 1971 address, he noted that a population explosion in many new countries - without naming any - had "brought life down to the dirty ditches of the countryside or the filth and squalor of the pavements in the cities". He also told Singaporeans not to expect the cradle-to-grave welfare state model to be replicated here, pointing to how other countries had suffered when citizens took handouts for granted.

But the Government would provide heavy subsidies in health and education, with citizens forking out a small percentage of the cost as a reminder of what the rest of society is paying, and to prevent abuse of the system. Dr Sheares said: "We must learn from the lessons which others have paid bitterly for, that nothing in life is for free."

As young families began moving into new homes, another potential problem cropped up by 1975: an ageing population left to fend for itself.

Dr Sheares said the Government would introduce incentives for young couples to have their parents live with them. "If nothing else, the grandparents help in bringing up the children while father and mother are at work."

Singapore laid the foundations of its eventual shift from Third World to First during the first 15 years of independence. In this regard, Mr Yusof's words from his first speech ring true. "Given dedication and determination, there is little to stop us from setting the pace of social change and economic development in the region. An industrious and talented people striving to secure their future will surge forward to prosperity and strength if they are given honest administration and effective leadership."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Early years (1965-1980): Laying the foundations for shift from Third World to First '. Subscribe