From red dot to republic

From red dot to republic

I would like to unfold the saga of Singapore, an independent republic, emerging from a land of poverty faced with immense problems of housing, finance, labour, cleanliness, air traffic, etc. in the midst of hostile surroundings.

About 85 per cent of our people are now living in their own homes - an achievement without any parallel.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) was set up in 1960 by the People's Action Party (PAP) to resolve the severe housing shortage problem then.

Initially the HDB started building flats for the lower-income group, then went on to build middle-income apartments and even executive condominiums.

In this way new townships were developed, providing people with the necessary living facilities for families - schools, clinics, shops, eateries etc.

The Marine Parade coastal area was reclaimed to build more flats while social and recreational facilities were established for residents' use, thus increasing greater public interest and raising the property value to boot!

The HDB required financial resources to pursue the task of resolving the chronic housing shortage.

When Singapore became independent it faced several serious problems besides the Konfrontasi with Indonesia, public housing and unemployment. Singapore lacked natural resources and land and the Government embarked on setting up a manufacturing zone.

Foreign companies were welcomed with tax incentives.

The Jurong Town Corporation came into being in 1968 and laid the plan for the development of industrial estates in Jurong, a rural coastal village.

By 1988 there were 3,600 factories operating with about 216,000 employees. Today, Jurong stands not only as the county's industrial centre but is also one of the major housing estates, supporting 1/4 million residents.

Once the industrialisation of Jurong was afloat to lure multinational firms, it became necessary to ensure that the management should not be beset with workers' disputes. To overcome the problem, the Government accepted the concept of "tripartism" practised in the Scandinavian countries and brought into force the Industrial Relations Act in 1961.

The Act sets specific procedures for negotiation, agreement, conciliation and arbitration. The late Mr Devan Nair played a leading role in grooming a new generation of trade union leaders who, while fighting for workers' rights, should not forget the welfare and prosperity of the Republic.

This helped to create an atmosphere for our country to leap forward to join the developed countries.

The clean and green Singapore of today has its origins as far back as 1968. A massive campaign was then launched at the Singapore Conference Hall with an audience of more than 1,000 participants. Warnings were announced that penalties up to $500 would be imposed for littering and that inspectors would patrol the streets to nab the culprits.

Schools, community centres and social organisations participated earnestly to instil Mr Lee Kuan Yew's message that keeping the environment clean would enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans and would also attract tourists and investors for economic development.

Next, Mr Lee went on to enhance the quality of our inland waterways. In 1977 he disclosed his vision of having every stream in the country free from pollution. The Singapore River is a well-known historical stream where Sir Stamford Raffles landed and set up the first trading base. Over the years, it became the centre of business activities. The large-scale trading hustle and bustle brought much pollution caused by garbage, sewage, oil spills and waste water from boats plying along the river.

The task was immense but Mr Lee had it pushed on earnestly. About 26,000 families and about 2,800 cottage industries were resettled, besides relocating and phasing out polluting agents like hawkers, squatters and backyard traders and others.

The Singapore River has now become one of the most attractive tourist destinations.

Now let us gaze at the skies at the iconic Changi Airport contol tower. In fact, a new Singapore International Airport was built at Paya Lebar in 1955 after the first civil airport at Kallang Basin was closed. However, it was felt that Paya Lebar did not have the capacity to handle the increasing volume of passenger and aircraft incoming traffic in land-scarce Singapore.

Mr Lee then took a firm decision to move the airport to Changi, even though preparations for the Changi site would involve massive earth work and reclamation from the sea and these would be expensive. Nevertheless Mr Lee strongly supported the move to Changi, in spite of expert recommendations against such a proposal.

Construction at Changi commenced in June 1975 and the airport was opened on Dec 28, 1981, with much fanfare. The control tower (266 ft) stood imposingly by the side.

Changi has also become a major aviation hub in South-east Asia, serving more than 100 airlines and connecting more than 250 cities.

On the political front, the PAP realised that the people wanted an opposition in Parliament and

Mr Lee introduced the Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) system in 1984. Three of the unelected candidates with the highest votes would secure a seat. They would be able to take part in the discussions but were not allowed to vote on certain prescribed provisions. On account of these limitations, the NCMP scheme was not popular.

Further, Mr Lee had expressed concern about the young people's voting trend. They seemed to be indifferent to the need for having a racially-balanced number of members in Parliament. He was anxious about how more Singaporeans voting on racial lines would lead to a lack of minority representation.

The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme was introduced in 1991 to ensure representation of the Malay, Indian and other minority communities in Parliament. Thirty-nine single member constituencies were merged to create 13 GRCs. Candidates standing as a group must have at least one of the candidates from the Malay, Indian and other minority community.

Before the introduction of the new system, the PAP launched a vigorous campaign to explain its need with the community leaders. I do recollect

Mr S. Chandra Das (Chong Boon MP) having discussions with the Tamil Representative Council (TRC) and how Mr G. Kandasamy, its president, agreed to go along with the idea after some initial reluctance. The next day, Mr Ilangovan, its general secretary, faxed a handwritten TRC acceptance statement to Mr Das that received much publicity.

Soon the Government organised a campaign to have the people sign the Great Pledge Book sited at some point along Orchard Road. Mr Kandasamy then went along with a large number of TRC supporters and signed the special Pledge Book. I, too, was in their midst.

There were adverse comments from opposition parties that it created difficulties in finding suitable candidates including a suitable minority candidate. There would be financial problems for conducting the campaign and making cash deposits for candidates.

Notwithstanding such rhetoric, the racial harmony then did not reflect the strong community attachment of the people. I therefore felt that the GRC was a good move. As the years roll on, Singapore has grown and so have the people and before long we can expect the emergence of a Singapore Singaporean.

Singapore also had serious political decisions to make in 1965 when a bomb exploded at the MacDonald House in Orchard Road - the work of Indonesian saboteurs. Prompt investigations brought about the arrest of two Indonesian marine infiltrators.

They were tried and convicted to hang. There was a great uproar in Indonesia followed by a plea for clemency. Despite the likely political repercussions, the Government allowed the law to take its course and the two marines were finally hanged.

There was also the Michael Fay case that received much publicity in 1994. Fay was an 18-year-old American lad living in Singapore with his mother and stepfather and studying at the Singapore American School. He was charged with more than 50 counts of vandalism. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months' jail, a $3,500 fine and six strokes of the cane.

Much pressure was exerted on the Government by US senators and the then-US president Bill Clinton to grant clemency from caning. The Government stood firm on the grounds that Singaporeans breaking the laws faced the same punishment.

The then-President Ong Teng Cheong, on reviewing the case, commuted the caning from six strokes to only four. The sentence of caning against Fay was then carried out.

Singapore received adverse international publicity regarding this case but the Government was determined to carry on the arduous task of keeping the country free of vandalism and violence.

I have read many of the publications about

Mr Lee by his supporters and critics including his biography and writings. However I was deeply impressed by Lee Kuan Yew by Graham Allison, Robert Blackwill and Ali Wyne.

Mr Lee's forthright views on international affairs were highlighted to indicate that they would be of interest and value to the president and leaders of political parties, business enterprises and civil societies in the US in facing the challenges of the globalised world.

In spite of Mr Lee's intolerant and alleged authoritarian style of government, he has taken Singapore from a developing country into the community of first-world nations within the span of 50 years.

Mr Lee will be enshrined in history as a colossus who made the Red Dot into a Garden City Republic of people working diligently to maintain their status in the technologically-advancing age.

M. Bala Subramanion, 97, is Singapore's first postmaster-general.
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