This is what Lee Kuan Yew said during the 150th anniversary of modern S’pore’s founding in 1969
Reflections and predictions.
In his New Year Day message on Dec. 31, 2017, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announced that the government will be commemorating the bicentenary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ founding of modern Singapore in 2019.
He said 2019 “is an important milestone for Singapore”, and should be commemorated “appropriately”, just like how we mark the 150th anniversary in 1969.
1969 – Marking the 150th anniversary
Looking back to 1969, Singapore had just became an independent nation for less than four years when it embarked on a series of celebrations that would reach a climax in August.
On Feb 6 that year, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave a speech at the banquet given by The Singapore International Chamber of Commerce to mark the special occasion.
For a master orator like him, it was an opportunity to use his powerful delivery skills to reflect on the past and set forth his vision for the future in front of local and international guests.
Perhaps more importantly, it was also a chance for him to rally them to believe in Singapore, using his distinctive rousing style, blended with a touch of self-deprecating humour.
One of his quotes wouldn’t sound out of place even if used today, ahead of the bicentennial commemoration:
“Anniversaries must not mean a harking back to some idyllic, romanticised past, though even such an exercise in nostalgia is not without its therapeutic value. For us this anniversary is a significant and formal, moment, for a brief pause, to study and scrutinise the record of the last 150 years, learn the lessons therefrom, and with confidence renewed surge forward to improve upon the past.”
Here we recount some of Lee’s reflections and bold predictions he made in the 1969 speech about Singapore and the world.
At times, one cannot help but wonder at his clarity of thought and his prescience half a century ago.
1. Singapore enjoyed the second highest standard of living in Asia in 1969 and its colonial past contributed to it
Lee highlighted that in 1969, Singapore had “over two million people with the second highest standard of living in Asia.”
He acknowledged Raffles’ contributions as a factor that contributed to Singapore becoming a centre for trade and industry:
“When Stamford Raffles came here 150 years ago, there was no organised human society in Singapore, unless a fishing village can be called a society.”
He also paid tribute to the migrants that helped to build up modern Singapore by converting a fishing village into a thriving regional centre.
“In your commemoration programme you have thought it worth mention that on that memorable day in 1819, some 30 Chinese were present to witness the ceremony. How proud they would have been to know that their descendants would be amongst the Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others who by their hard work, thrift, resourcefulness and enterprise built modern Singapore. And what satisfaction it would have given them to know that their progeny would be amongst those who came into their own inheritance. And considering the contribution they made in coverting a fishing village into a humming centre for commerce, communication and industry, it was only just that it should be so.”
2. He predicted huge changes in the post-colonial world and the re-emergence of China
Lee acknowledged that 150 years is not a long time in history, but even then huge changes had taken place.
He drew a stark comparison between 1969 and the immediate years after Singapore’s founding in 1819.
Five years after 1819, a treaty between the British and the Dutch resulted in the outer islands being given to the Dutch, and Penang, Peninsular Malaya (including Malacca) and Singapore to the British.
However, in Singapore’s post-independence era, Lee observed that things were vastly different – The Western world no longer held the same political power they did as colonial masters:
He analysed the geo-political environment of that time and astutely predicted the re-emergence of China.
“Europe can no longer decide the fate of Asia. Even America is shy of being embroiled over again in guerilla insurrections on the Asian mainland. How much more different the world will be 20 years from now, after Vietnam, after Britain’s military withdrawal East of Suez, after Japan’s self-defence forces have started to pay more courtesy visits, after China’s recovery from the excesses of her Cultural Revolution and her inexorable climb up the technological and military ladder.”
3. Singapore will use the best advantage the factors in our favour – “Our future is what we make of it”
Lee spoke about the principles that will enable Singapore continue to prosper in future.
- First, the strategic. As long as the balance of geo-political forces in South, Southeast and East Asia remain as they are, then Singapore’s strategic value will continue undiminished.
- Second, our contribution to world trading, shipping, and servicing will continue to grow and expand whilst we add an even bigger industrial sector to our economic base.
- Third and most important, the ability and industry of our young people, willing and eager to learn, prepared to work hard and pay their way in the world, finding pride and pleasure in constructive endeavour. But, in any case, they are also disciplined and determined to defend what their ingenuity and effort have created.
As what he said, “our future is what we make of it”, and these factors continue to hold true today.
4. Singapore in 2019 will not be in ruins – “We are not going to let that happen”
No one owed us a living.
Those were famous words from Lee. He spoke about this survival instinct in his speech when he boldly predicted that those who witnessed 1969’s commemorative events and still present in 2019 for the bicentenary will be proud of what have been achieved.
He spoke about “physical and spiritual ruggedness” and pledged that Singapore will not experience “unexpected and unexplainable destruction”.
“With the rapid advance in medicine and in surgical techniques, perhaps not just for transplants but also replants, it is not beyond belief that there will be many besides our young students who, in the year 2019, will recall this memorable occasion.
Those of us who will be present then can look back on 200 years and say how right it was that we worked and sweated on the assumption that no one owed us a living, that we strove so hard and nurtured so rugged and robust, so resilient and resourceful a generation.
Without this physical and spiritual ruggedness, all the fruits, the results of our labour even in concrete and steel, could end literally in ruins — ruins for the delectation of tourists in the year 2019, as they rummage in the rubble and dustbins of Singapore’s past. And they would wonder how under such adverse climatic conditions a thrusting and striving society build such a thriving city with all the grace of cultivated living. And they would be perplexed and saddened by the unexpected and unexplainable destruction, when a dogged defence could have saved it.
But we are not going to let that happen.”
5. Singapore has been and will remain more than a place on the map.
Lee predicted that Singapore in the 21st century will be “an open and hospitable city to all” and concluded his speech with a powerful rallying call and a commitment to the future.
“Singapore has been and will remain more than a place on the map. She will give cause for satisfaction to all those who chart man’s progress and who will find corroboration in Singapore’s performance that this climb up the face of the cliff to a higher levels of civilization, to a better life in a more gracious world, depends on man’s constant and ceaseless striving for new and higher goals, depends on man’s restless, organised, and unending search for perfection.”
As we approach the bicentenary in 2019, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the enduring relevance of his words.
At this point, we will leave you with his take on 1819 and history.
“Only posterity can pass judgment objectively on the wisdom or otherwise of their forbears. Only with the advantage of hindsight can people accurately analyse and assess the rights or wrongs of important decisions. Often these decisions had to be taken hurriedly and under intense pressure. But once taken, they could not be easily undone. And one particularly momentous decision changed the destiny of several millions, not all in Singapore.”
Top photo from NAS.