A measure of nostalgia would not be out of place on the last day of what to the rest of humankind is 2015, but for Singaporeans is simply SG50 year. Unlike countries that measure their history in millennia, Singapore can boast about 700 years. Contemporary Singapore was born close to 200 years ago, but it was only in 1965 that an orphaned city was forced into a statehood that might not have lasted and a nationhood that few thought possible. Yet, half a century from that august date of Aug 9, Singaporeans collectively cannot imagine that they will exist without this nation-state or it without them. Once, this land belonged to others. Today, Singaporeans belong to it. That is the supreme achievement of an improbable independence. SG50 celebrated citizenship as the art of the possible, honed over five decades of success that even other successful nations talk about.
Good judgment helped to steer Singapore away from the precipice that awaits nations which forget that the world does not owe them a living. The tripartite system, consisting of capital, labour and the state, produced a peaceful industrial climate. It drew foreign investment that enabled Singapore to leapfrog its immediate region and embed itself in the emerging geography of globalisation. Within the country, the meritocratic emergence of a broad middle class laid the basis of political stability. Reiteration of Singapore's historical legacy as a multiracial country resulted in the appearance of anchoring social spaces that were far more powerful than centrifugal attachment to ancestral homelands. The role of national service in the formation of a people's army deterred those who harboured notions of Singapore as lost ethnic territory to be recovered by sudden force or patient attrition.
That these enduring features of the national landscape should be taken for granted is not the problem: After all, a 50-year-old record of resilience cannot be the cause of surprise or even excitement. What would be dangerous would be the dismissal of the values that made independent Singapore viable. These ideals and values include a commitment to equality of all races and religions; a belief in meritocracy and good governance; the ability to see society, for all its faults, as the nurturing sphere of individual attainment; the family as the link between society and individual; an ethic of hard work and self-reliance as being superior to the crutches of welfare dependency; and the fruits of deferred gratification as the best legacy that one generation can leave for the next. Economic opportunities and social responses will change with time, but what will underpin society will be a primary attachment to the survivalist values that have brought it so far. Some wonder whether Singapore's best years are behind it. The answer will depend on the baton that the SG50 generation passes on.
This article was first published on December 31, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.