A THREE-METRE high statue of Sir Thomas Raffles stands, incongruously, on the east bank of the Singapore River, dwarfed by the concrete and glass skyscrapers of this island-city-state.
When Raffles claimed Singapore for Britain in 1819, he hoped to turn it into a profitable port and trading centre for the British East India Company. Instead, he was hauled over the coals by his superiors in London for taking a rash and imprudent step. But soon Chinese junks, laden with spices, silk and opium began sailing regularly into the harbour Immigrants arrived from China, India and the Malay Peninsula and the settlement flourished.
Today, Singapore is the world’s second largest port and the hub of banking, trade and commerce in Southeast Asia It is a shopper’s paradise, with its glittering, multi-storied department stores stocked with everything from the latest in high-technology electronics through to Indonesian batike and Indian saris. Last year three million tourists visited Singapore. Clearly more visitors are expected. The enormous new airport at Changi, already with a capacity for 10 million passengers per year, is being expanded to take 17 million.
Singapore now boasts living standards second only to Japan in Asia It is a fascinating example of how an ambitious and determined political leadership can mould a small country in exactly the way it wants, using sophisticated techniques of political manipulation and social engineering.
The People’s Action Party led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been in power for the past two decades. A Cambridge-educated lawyer, Lee was first elected on a socialist platform, but he has worked skillfully and single- mindedly to make Singapore the capitalist showcase of Southeast Asia Multinational companies, attracted by low taxes, draconian labour laws and a highly skilled workforce. have flocked to Singapore.
Lee describes his government as ‘social democratic’, and it certainly can claim some ‘social’ achievements, such as the large public housing programme, universal education and a successful campaign to slash the birth rate. But its claim to be ‘democratic’ is less plausible. Lee’s government has rigorously crushed all dissent and organized opposition in political parties, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
In the past Singapore’s geographical position has been seen as its greatest asset. Though geography is still important, the city state’s key asset today is probably its highly skilled, disciplined, hardworking labour force. Singaporeans have built an affluent highly acquisitive society, and they are proud of their success. Like birds in a gilded cage, they seem well housed, fed and looked after. But a political cage, no matter how luxurious, is still a cage.