JC General Paper Essays

How important is a sense of history in shaping the future of Singapore’s society?

Written by: Goh SW, September 2015

Singapore has made her way from ‘Third World to First’ in the past 50 years. Looking around the city-state today, we see a modern metropolis. Who knew that this very ‘global city’, which houses a global trade and finance centre, was a once upon a time one of many port towns in the world surrounded by slumps and villages. This is nothing short of startling. More astonishingly, Singapore became a success despite being a small and open island nation-state without the endowment of natural resources. What is being described here as the success of ‘The Singapore Story’ will forever be written in the annals of world history. Nevertheless, one might question the utility of a sense of history when approaching Singapore’s future, given that the circumstances described in the annals were very much different from those in the present. Borrowing the words of Singapore’s economic architect Dr. Goh Keng Swee: will living in the ghost of history help Singapore “as a base from which to scale new heights”? This essay seeks to explore the utility of a sense of history when approaching Singapore’s geo-political and socio-cultural challenges in a period of transition.

The historical situations which shaped the building of modern Singapore were a very tumultuous one – British colonisation, Japanese occupation during World War II, joining the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and Independence in 1965. These events, which shaped the mettle and iron in her founding fathers to rule, such as the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Goh Keng Swee, would almost never occur again, not at least in the same form. At the same time, the world was a very different place then. Globalisation had not become so widespread a phenomenon, and the world was polarised in a ‘Cold War’ between the US and the USSR over political ideologies and economic practices. The two very different climates of past and present makes it easy for one to undervalue the utility of a sense of history to guide our future development, especially when Singapore we see today was built in the climate of the past.

However, study and deeper observation of Singapore’s history allows to understand the tenets on which the republic was founded upon, and continue to flourish on. 

Once a part of the Federation of Malaysia formed in 1963, separation came on 9th August 1965 over irresoluble differences of governance. Founding Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman led a ‘Malay Malaysia’ founded upon on the supremacy of the ethnic Malay majority and their rights; while the leaders of Singapore’s self-governing People’s Action Party (PAP) campaigned for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’  based on multiracial meritocracy. Having an ethnic-Chinese majority is not something helpful, or even sometimes welcomed. This is especially when Singapore’s immediate neighbours such as Malaysia and Indonesia are demographically distinct, and base themselves on fundamentally different political principles. 

Singapore’s subsequent economic success and contributing socio-political stability compared to her neighbours is itself an imbedded criticism of their systems. The fundamental differences in ‘organising principles’ will forever shape the dynamism of her relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, especially when bilateral contentions are present. For instance, the issues of sovereignty over the supply of water and land reclamation with Malaysia, and Indonesia’s recent naming of two warships after marines who have set off bombs in Singapore during her state-launched policy of Confrontation. Without a sense of history and understanding of these intricacies, these real external threats will not be identified and dealt with ‘prudently’ where other contentions may possibly arise. As Machiavelli teaches in The Prince, when “the malady has become incurable” there is “no longer remedy.” Future generations of Singaporeans will suffer if they fail to have a sense of these ‘historical baggages’, let alone foresee and resolve the issues when they arise at infancy. Hence, a sense of history sheds Singapore wisdom in her future dealings with realpolitik in international relations. 

Simultaneously, having a sense of history allows citizens to form a sense of identity and belonging. The social stability in modern Singapore’s social stability did not come without challenges. During the 1950 to the mid-1960s, post-war Singapore underwent a dark age of civil unrest, most of which occurred on racial lines. While still part of Malaysia, the 1964 Racial riots left 36 dead and 556 injured when violence between ethnic Chinese and Malays groups. The conflict was spurred by members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant political party in peninsula Malaysia, inciting Malays in Singapore to violently press for their ‘Special Rights.’ At that time, the local PAP government campaigned for a “Malaysian Malaysia” in the Malayan Solidarity Convention with other Malaysian opposition parties. The dark ages were formative on Singapore’s practice of “the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society” upon independence. These were the very words declared by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew in the Proclamation of Singapore. The rights of minority groups such as the Malays and Indians were ensured by the government, and these minorities were accorded political representation in parliament under the Group Representation Constituency electoral system. Housing and education policies were made such that the races intermingled and embraced diversity, and this has helped weave Singapore’s social fabric. A sense of history hence gives us the ability to better understand and reaffirm the ideals Singapore are built upon, and how we can continue to embrace diversity and not the ‘universality’ that certain peoples deem as more ‘right’ than other competing ‘rights.’ 

This understanding is even more important nowadays, especially when considering how globalisation brings about more intense and rapid social and cultural exchanges. A look back into our past can bring an awakening in the citizenry as to how we can stem incidents such as the unprecedented Little India Riots in 2014, which were sparked by migrant workers over xenophobic concerns. This is on a global backdrop of increased labour flows and migration. A sense of history hence helps Singapore to build upon the ‘Singapore Identity’, strengthening her multicultural and inter-religious roots. The mutual respect for other will be a helpful implement as the world continues its transit into late-modernity. As the Chinese proverb goes “When you drink water, remember the source.” Singaporeans should not forget how racial, religious and even ethnic harmony, not tolerance, has made it possible for them to prosper economically vis-a-vis good governance and pragmatic policies. This has allowed Singapore to remain relevant to the world despite being a small nation-state. 

History might never repeat itself, not at least in the same form. However, the process of societal development and nation building, and the conditions which shaped these processes, should not be forgotten in the least. The greatest utility a sense of history gives is in teaching Singapore and her citizenry important lessons about human nature, society and the real world. Among the team of Singapore’s founding fathers was Mr. S. Rajaratnam. He famously proclaimed in a speech that independent Singapore was “like a nun that had wandered by accident into a red-light district.” This was a harsh, yet truthful, description of our situation in Southeast Asia, a harsh geopolitical environment which has also been a traditional battleground for great and emerging powers. To continue to remain relevant to the world and thrive in a world of globalisation, Singaporeans should never forget our historical roots. They remind us that success is an act of human endeavor and should be maintained by so, not a godsend, especially to a small nation state.

JC General Paper Essays - This GP essay on Singapore's society and history is a really good read, and is well-argued and well-prepared. I really like this GP essay contributed by Goh S. W., a very hardworking and motivated student. What makes this GP essay good, and how can it be better? Thank you for reading this essay and cheers!