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The hard business of being Singapore

As the nation moves into its next 50 years, its challenges lie beyond the quantifying reach of GDP or average lifespan
Monday, August 10, 2015 - 05:50
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THE BIG 5-0 RSAF Black Knights flying in formation during the National Day Parade. What's remarkable about Singapore is not so much that it is 50, but what it has done with those years.

Singapore

FROM the vantage point of a vast and indifferent universe, 50 years must seem an awfully arbitrary and inconsequential span of time.

Even as statehoods go, Singapore's official age is unremarkable in this part of the world, where many countries gained independence within years of one another, their respective fates irrevocably linked by colonial masters and war.

What is remarkable about Singapore is not so much that it is 50, but what it has done with those years.

Over time, it has become the anomaly of its post-colonial cohort and an object of bemused scrutiny for the rest of the world. There are two paths to outlier territory - either become an exceptional failure or a tremendous success. Singapore has, for the most part, been the latter.

As the country celebrates turning 50 by methodically cataloguing its many achievements, an anxious eye is already being cast over the next 50 years, paradoxically because of how much has been achieved.

Singapore might face some formidable challenges today, but many of them are not novel in nature. Some are, in fact, regular features in the long-running undercurrent of wariness that has pervaded previous National Days.

Over the last 50 years, Aug 9 appears to have been marked with equal parts jubilation and reminders about how the bottom can fall out of this place.

One year, young Singaporeans were upbraided for being "sloppy in their work, choosy about their jobs and generally complacent about life" in a newspaper's opinion piece. This was not a gripe about millennials, but about the youngsters who would become today's baby boomers; the piece in question was written in 1975, in contemplation of National Day. Then, Singapore was only 10 years old but already an outperformer both economically and in its tendency to pre-emptively worry.

Likewise, "raising productivity" might be an oft-used rallying cry today, but workers and businesses have been urged to buck up on the stuff since at least 1985's National Day.

By the country's 40th anniversary in 2005, the issue of the widening income gap had crept into national discourse, years before trendy outrage over the one per cent emerged.

Now, what this country has spent the last 50 years steeling itself for has come to a head.

Today, as with every day since Singapore involuntarily became independent, we face an unrelenting scarcity of resources and the merciless nature of a global economy. From within, we strain to distil an identity from a populace whose demographics are in constant motion.

Fifty years spent in constant awareness of the sharp corners that outline our existence can feel like a long time.

What is different, then, as Singapore turns 50?

This sensation of gradually becoming unmoored has perhaps increased. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has expressed his preference to not be at the helm of government for another 10 years. His father Lee Kuan Yew, who for decades defined this nation, is no more. Whatever the individual's politics, these are material developments.

Even as the country's political landscape evolves, its people have changed at a far faster rate. Now, the things that Singaporeans want out of life have taken on confoundingly intangible dimensions that exist beyond the quantifying reach of gross domestic product or average lifespan.

Some of the complication comes from simply having become a big, bad city, like any other big, bad city where its people have begun to yearn for varied and sometimes elusive things - greater freedom, more meaning, less pressure.

Over the next few decades, Singaporeans, like other urban denizens, will search for these things with increasing intensity. Both wants and needs will be difficult to satisfy, and any solution for either is expected to be effected top-down. If anything has remained unchanged for the last 50 years, it is that expectation.

In the years to come, the government will have to balance populist concerns against pragmatic ones, and the people will have to make their own private peace between those two opposing forces.

To the casual observer - perhaps this same vast and indifferent universe - this is akin to being between a rock and a hard place.

Even so, this is Singapore - a country that has presided over a spectacular overcoming of odds. It is a country that is very familiar with rocks and hard places.

Perhaps, the real challenge over the next 50 years as Singapore navigates rocky terrain is making sure that it does not itself, as a result, become a hard place.

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