Looking back, to see way ahead

SINGAPORE -The headline said starkly: "Singapore is out".

It ran across the front page of The Straits Times on the morning of Aug 10, 1965. The report that followed told of amendments to the Constitution, passed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament on a certificate of urgency, resulting in Singapore being separated from Malaysia to become an independent, sovereign state.

It went on to describe the secret meetings in Kuala Lumpur between leaders of the Malaysian federal government and the People's Action Party to sign the separation agreement, quoting then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman as saying that separation was his idea.

An enlarged copy of this historic page of The Straits Times kicks off the We: Defining Stories exhibition, now on at the National Museum of Singapore.

A joint effort by the museum and this newspaper, the exhibition draws on pictures and pages from ST's archives to recount some of the critical moments in the life of this country, as seen through the eyes of the photographers and journalists who were there at the time.

Next to the news report, the editors of the day had decided to run a front-page editorial, a rare practice usually saved for the most significant developments.

"The first reaction to the decision of the Malaysian and Singapore Governments to go separate ways is one of cruel shock and profound regret," it said.

It went on to declare that "there had been nothing to prepare the public for yesterday's tragic news", adding that "separation was the last thing the public expected".

"What has happened is sad beyond words. The right to form Malaysia was won in a bitter and prolonged battle in which the leaders of Singapore and the Federation joined forces against common enemies within and without.

"What has happened to the spirit of those early days? The dangers of separation have not vanished. The economic advantages of integration have not grown less. It is a thousand pities that the clock has been thus set back," the editorial lamented.

It rounded off with a call for leaders on both sides to temper their reactions and the emotions of their followers, adding somewhat hopefully: "In time, it is to be hoped the wounds will heal and the logic of Malaysia, unimpaired in its fundamentals, will reassert itself."

As I read these words last Saturday while visiting the exhibition, I was struck by the deep sense of shock and sorrow, and indeed the wonder at the folly of it all, that rang out from the typewriter of the ST's editorial writer of the day.

He was not alone. A related clipping from the same day's paper had a headline which said "Lee confident of S'pore's return to the Malaysian fold again", indicating that many doubted the unexpected and unwanted experiment in self-rule was likely to be long-lived.

I wondered, if those commentators knew then what we know now, would they have considered the separation "tragic" and "sad beyond words"?

Would they have wished that the fundamental forces that forged an integrated Malaysian federation "would one day reassert themselves"?

Indeed, what might a younger generation of Singaporeans make of all this anguish and angst? Many of those born in the late 1980s or 1990s, by which the trauma of the split had passed and the Singapore economy had taken off, might well wonder at the folly of hankering for a return to the Malaysian fold.

As Singapore prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of that fateful separation next year, it is hard to imagine any editorial writer today reflecting the same sense of horror and foreboding of what independence might mean for this fledgling state. Instead, Aug 9 is now seen as a day of celebration.

That, to me, is a profound reflection of how far we have come in five decades. Even so, it is worth remembering how fragile the independence that was thrust upon us really was - and is. This was just one of the many thought-provoking exhibits on display.

Another is the enlarged contact sheet of photos from the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire, in which the looks of desperation among those who had lost their homes in the blaze are matched by the determination of their leaders to put the situation right, thereby adding impetus to Singapore's public housing and home ownership programmes.

There are pictures too of the land reclamation in the 1970s that gave rise to today's East Coast Park and Marine Parade, of Changi Airport's iconic control tower being raised up from the ground in 1980 and of the arrival of the first MRT trains in 1987, reminding us how everyday landmarks and amenities we take for granted today didn't happen by chance.

One of my favourites is a photo of the 1968 National Day Parade which shows a troop of gritty national servicemen marching along rain-swept River Valley Road even as a little boy peers at them admiringly through his toy binoculars.

A front page from November 1972, with the screaming headline "Nine feared dead; 7 women missing in Robinson's blaze", also brought back some personal memories.

My mother had often taken me Christmas shopping at the wonderful store in Raffles Place where, as a boy, I would sit on Santa Claus' lap and whisper in his ear what I wished to have in my stocking. So, when the grown-ups broke the news of the fire to me, I burst into tears, or so I am often told. I somehow assumed that Santa had died in the fire, and I recall the piteous look on my mother's face as she sought to shield an innocent child from the harsh realities of the world.

There are plenty of lighter moments too, such as a 1994 picture of Fandi Ahmad greeting rapturous fans after leading the Singapore team to win the Malaysia Cup, or of Ah Meng the much-loved orang utan sitting serenely at the top of a giant banana "cake" to mark the Singapore Zoo's 10th anniversary.

Towards the end of the exhibition, eight orange chairs - which the museum salvaged from the old National Stadium before the wreckers moved in - invite visitors to view a montage of images on two big screens.

As I sat there, my mind wandered: What would our pioneer generation, whom we are now honouring, make of today's Singapore? Was this the modern metropolis they expected to rise from the mudflats, as then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once promised?

Did they envisage that their children would one day live in a globally connected, largely English-speaking, First-World Singapore, with all the attendant stresses and strains? Or would they be disconcerted and dismayed at the loss of familiar sights and sounds, of old ways and values forgotten and forsaken?

Would they think the herculean efforts and sacrifices they made were worthwhile?

I believe so, even though these days economic growth and material progress seem to have gone out of fashion, and some are inclined to view the trade-offs rather differently.

Or, ponder these questions another way: What will Singapore be like 50 years from now? Are the choices we are making, whether economic, social or demographic, likely to give this city-state further impetus or constrain its options down the road? Would future generations look back on our decisions at this time of transition with pride, or bewilderment?

Of course, no one can say what the future will bring. That, in a way, is the human condition. We are constantly being called upon to make judgments and decisions on partial knowledge, never quite certain where our choices might lead.

So, just like our forebears, the Jubilee generation will have to make a leap of faith. We will have to believe in ourselves, and pull together to face the challenges that will come our way, overcoming the differences among us, in race, language and religion that gave rise to the events which culminated in the headline "Singapore is out".

Add to that the need to manage other fault-lines that seem to be emerging - in incomes, identities and ideas - lest these tear us apart.

The pictures at this exhibition caused me to reflect on the past and ponder the future. And as I left, those wise old words of Winston Churchill came to mind: the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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