FEW would have believed on this day in 1965 that a city, ejected and separated from its economic hinterland, would in years to come be hearing not existential debates but the dialectics of growth. Managing success can be almost as taxing as averting failure, the nation is learning. Once the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, health and education have been largely met, demands for a better standard of living metamorphose into expectations of a higher quality of life. Responding to these higher-order expectations, the state invested more in social development and the arts, and opened up forums of consultation to promote interaction.
In retrospect, the guiding principles evolved and the national institutions built up – like the Housing and Development Board, Central Provident Fund and Economic Development Board – have enabled an improbable nation to withstand challenges from within and without and to become something of an international buzzword for a model of a global city that works.
Today, concerns over a widening income gap, social mobility and immigration have led to some discussion in Singapore on “rethinking the social compact”. The argument is that a maturing economy, globalisation and profound demographic changes are making it difficult to achieve an equitable distribution of the fruits of success.
In any recalibration of the compass, however, it is important to take note of the fundamental values that underpin Singapore society. Considerable risk lies in placing undue reliance on models, systems or ideas that have been untested in a city with scant natural resources, a diverse ethnic mix and a not-always friendly neighbourhood. Having come thus far, Singapore will have to blaze its own path.
The Republic is close to celebrating half a century of survival against the odds because the existing social compact has served it well. Predicated on the reality that Singapore has to stand on its own, a balance was struck between individual responsibility and social security. Its institutions have been characterised by prudence in emphasing efficiency, integrity and long-term planning. They operate within a wider culture of probity and accountability in public life and cases of corruption are dealt with expeditiously. The system, of course, is not perfect, because human nature is not.
It is timely on National Day to reflect on and reaffirm Singapore’s commitment to its founding values of multiracialism and meritocracy, and its hopes of forging a democratic society, based on justice and equality, as one united people. These words resonate today and should continue to guide the national conversation on the way forward.