Born amid hostility, Singapore benefited from an external environment that turned benign. Today, many Singaporeans have a reduced sense of external threat. But it bears repeating that a benign world can turn nasty in a flash.
As Singapore heads towards its 50th year of independence, we will witness events celebrating challenges overcome, ambitions surpassed and opportunities seized. We must also recognise that we have been fortunate.
After all, it was not just good domestic governance that enabled Singapore to prosper. Even as we celebrate the present, we should also remember that success has bred new challenges.
In August 1965, as I was completing my A levels, press reports and news broadcasts did not inspire confidence in the future of the country. Friends who had left school after their O levels were still jobless. Unemployment was at 12.3 per cent. President Sukarno's ban on Indonesian trade with Singapore hit our entrepot economy hard. The trauma of race riots in 1964 and the sharp ideological conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s shaped the memories of many who lived through that period. Pessimists were migrating as Singapore's future seemed bleak and uncertain.
Readers of The Straits Times in 1965 would have been struck by the dismal regional outlook. Harsh rhetoric was exchanged between Malaysian and Singapore leaders. Front page reports highlighted the worsening conflict in Vietnam, with growing instability in the countryside, mounting pressure from the Viet Cong insurgent movement, spillover effects in Laos and Cambodia and sharp increases in the deployment of American troops.
There was also good coverage of the bloodletting in Indonesia following the Oct 1 attempted coup involving the Indonesian Communist Party and factions in the Indonesian military. Considerable attention was given to the communist insurgencies in Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. South-east Asia seemed to be a hotbed of conflict, riot and revolution.
In retrospect, the government in Singapore did remarkably well in responding to post-independence challenges. The Housing Board's (HDB's) public housing programme and home ownership policies transformed a restless population into conservative homeowners.
The provision of education to the generation born in the 1960s equipped Singaporeans for a world which increasingly used English and required familiarity with science and mathematics.
A Singapore identity was fostered, even as ethnic and cultural differences continued to be celebrated. The build-up of defence capabilities strengthened confidence in Singapore's future, while the introduction of national service created bonds of friendship resulting from a shared experience.
These domestic trends were underpinned by an economic strategy aimed at opening Singapore to the global economy and welcoming transnational corporations at a time when protectionist economic policies and import substitution were in vogue among policymakers in the developing world. Like other newly industrialising economies in East Asia, Singapore benefited from the openness of the American economy and the phenomenal rise in electronics exports. Over the years, growing self-confidence resulted in the shedding of the acute sense of vulnerability which many in Singapore felt in 1965.
But Singapore was also fortunate that there was a sharp improvement in the regional security environment. Under president Suharto, Indonesia moved decisively in favour of foreign investment, strengthening links with the West while emphasising domestic stability and good neighbour policies.
Indonesia's low-key leadership of ASEAN in its early years provided space for the growth of mutual confidence.
Indonesia's Confrontation policies under Sukarno bred suspicion and fear, which had to be overcome. Over time, Singapore's leaders recognised that Suharto could be trusted.
In the 1980s, China under Deng Xiaoping's leadership opened its economy. Thirty years later, the country became the world's second largest economy and Singapore's leading trading partner.
Deng's decision to turn away from supporting communist insurgent movements in the region, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union, resulted in the demise of the region's communist insurgencies.
While Vietnam's invasion in De-cember 1978 and the occupation of Cambodia through the 1980s had been a source of worry, ASEAN's firm response resulted in the new regional institution developing credibility.
With the end of the Cold War in 1991, and the discrediting of autarkic economic policies, states in the region adopted policies welcoming foreign investment and reducing barriers to trade. Such openness helped produce a V-shaped recovery from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.
Singapore benefited from a more benign environment at the turn of the century, even as the pronouncements of its leaders instilled among Singaporeans a consciousness that we live in an uncertain world and that national security and personal safety should not be taken for granted.
Relations with Malaysia improved significantly during Prime Minister Najib Razak's tenure.
Worries about an unstable Indonesia after the end of the Suharto regime in 1998 have also been replaced by expanding cooperation with a newly democratic Indonesia, which will soon see its fourth president since Suharto, Joko Widodo, and the first leader not from the Suharto era elite.
Reduced sense of threat
However, new challenges face Singapore today. A younger generation of Singaporeans has emerged that has had its formative experiences in an era of full employment, an emerging Singapore identity and a reduced sense of external threat.
The sharp increase in Singapore's population through liberal immigration policies and the growing numbers of foreign contract workers over the past two decades has also increased the insecurity of those who are less well-off and especially the new middle class that benefited from Singapore's rapid economic growth since independence.
They feel that their job opportunities have eroded, they are priced out of the property market and they worry that they carry the responsibilities of citizenship while the newer arrivals have benefited from the prosperity and security that they and their families have helped to create.
Perceptions shape reality and cannot be dismissed.
Dealing with such perceptions will be the key challenge of the decade ahead.
But younger Singaporeans must be reminded that while Singapore has been fortunate that the external environment made turns for the better at opportune times in our history, we cannot count on that forever.
Today, tensions over East and South China Sea maritime disputes threaten to turn ugly anytime. A more assertive China is playing hardball with rival South China Sea claimants in our backyard. Singapore is not party to these disputes but cannot avoid being affected, if conflict flares up that threatens regional trade routes.
The danger is that a generation bred in peace and plenty forget that a benign environment can turn difficult in a flash.
A successful response from policy-makers will require a willingness to move beyond repeating the policy formulas that have been successful in the past.
Thinking afresh and discarding sacred cows will be essential. New mental maps are needed to deal with a new world. But old compasses showing the geopolitical lay of the land are still needed.
The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University
This article was published on Aug 16 in The Straits Times.
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