National Day 2015 special: A toast to firsts

Meet the men and women who navigated uncharted waters - from Aug 9, 1965, to today - to create Singapore's icons

Mr Timothy de Souza has sung three national anthems in his lifetime: God Save The Queen, Negaraku and Majulah Singapura. He shares his memories singing Singapore's national anthem after the country gained independence.
Mr Timothy de Souza has sung three national anthems in his lifetime: God Save The Queen, Negaraku and Majulah Singapura. He shares his memories singing Singapore's national anthem after the country gained independence.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Why celebrate firsts?

For starters, they are exciting. There is a thrill to doing something for the first time, navigating uncharted waters and building from scratch.

In her first 50 years, Singapore - the improbable nation which some said should never have been - has notched up an impressive list of firsts. Many of those firsts were improbable when first conceived but are now proven successes.

Take the economy.

After an abrupt Separation from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee had to reinvent the economy. The two political leaders found that their "Plan A" of import-substitution growth, which tied in well with Malaysia's path, had to be quickly replaced by "Plan B", namely export-driven growth. Among those who had to execute this new plan was pioneer EDB investment officer Chan Chin Bock, now 82, who found himself in the United States, knocking on the doors of multinational companies and asking them to visit Singapore, then persuading them to plant a factory or two here so people would have jobs.

Then there was defence. Dr Goh - who was in Mr Lee's words a "political entrepreneur" - had to work out how to raise an army quickly. A law was passed to enlist young men at age 18 for national service. Dr Goh would later describe enlistees as bespectacled, slender, ill at ease in military settings and "improbable soldiers". Of the 300 in the first batch to go through OCS, or officer cadet school, a quarter wanted out within two weeks.

As for the first new town that the HDB planned and built - Toa Payoh - it was known for being a lair of gangsters. Families avoided the area and if offered new flats there, were loathe to accept.

Some firsts came about thanks to the efforts of people who did not realise what they had signed up for.

At its opening, the Singapore Zoo was staffed by keepers with no prior training in zoology. Some risked life and limb when coming face to face with wild creatures like rhinos, whose behaviour they knew little about. They had no template to follow, so they learnt by trial and error.

As for Singapore Maths, which has in recent years taken the world by storm, it started with nine educators being asked in 1980 to come up with good teaching materials. They outdid themselves by drawing up a new way to teach maths, using bar drawings to depict quantities.

The arts centre now known as the Substation was once just that - a disused building that had been used for power generation. Thanks to the vision of a theatre practitioner and an arts critic, it reopened its doors in 1990 as Singapore's first independent, inter-disciplinary arts centre.

Tracing the arc of these firsts from Aug 9, 1965, to today gives a sense of how this nation was built layer by layer, starting with the foundation stones of the economy, defence and housing in its first decade, then moving on to the middle section which included better ways to teach, move people around, conserve nature sites and recycle water. The newest layer that sits on top includes firsts that involved Singapore stepping up onto the world stage to host the first Youth Olympic Games and win world heritage status for the Botanic Gardens.

This nation's list of firsts runs longer than there are pages in this supplement. What follows is a sampling from a range of sectors.

The aim is to capture and recount the joy, the pride as well as the trepidation of those early days when success was far from sure, and to celebrate how far Singapore has come since then.

Click here to read the stories from this year's National Day supplement. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'A toast to firsts'. Print Edition | Subscribe