Lee Kuan Yew on the withdrawal of British military presence from Singapore

Founding Prime Minister laid out the options in Parliament after the British announced in 1967 that they would be withdrawing their military presence from bases all over Asia, including Singapore.

It is a problem of considerable magnitude and complexity. Put simply, it is this: what to do with this vast military complex, one naval base and a dockyard, three military airfields, and a vast army complex of workshops, supply depots and other supporting services.

For whilst we will inherit all the fixtures which have been built over the years on lands made available by the Singapore Government to the British armed services, we will also inherit more than 40,000 bread-winners and their families who have come to Singapore from India, West Malaysia, and from places as far off as Hong Kong and Weihaiwei.

With their families, they now comprise some half a million persons; three-quarters of them are now our citizens.

Both in their public statements and in discussions and communications between British ministers and ourselves, they have made it plain that they shared our interests in maintaining confidence in the continued stability and prosperity of Singapore and were anxious to assist in meeting economic problems which the run-down of their bases, according to programme, will cause.

They have stated that they would be ready to consider with us the most effective and productive uses of the economic and technical resources they could provide.

Mr Speaker, however significant the aid, the future of Singapore depends upon our capacity to maintain orderly and stable economic and social conditions as we go through the pangs of withdrawal of British base expenditure. The success of this operation depends upon three factors.

First, our ability to maintain that climate of quiet confidence and the establishment of labour attitudes and social conditions which will assure local investors and overseas investors of the certainty of their planning assumptions for the establishment and expansion of their industries.

Second, the capacity of our population to adapt and to adjust, without any whimpering or wringing of hands, as a way of life to which they have been accustomed for over 30 years comes to an end.

The least of the changes contemplated means that dockyard workers, working on naval vessels for naval commanders, who are not concerned with the time a vessel is out of service whilst undergoing repairs, have now to adjust their attitudes to work and adapt their methods of work, and also the manner in which they may be rewarded for work, to meet the needs of shipowners who want their vessels repaired in as little a time as possible, as every hour in repair means vast sums of money in loss of earnings.

At the worst, it means being able, sometimes at a very difficult age of life for the people in their middle 40s and above, to make the painful change of earning a living in a different way – from being a storekeeper or a clerk to a skilled, semi-skilled or even a manual worker.

The third factor is whether the economic aid that we have been promised will be substantial enough and utilised intelligently enough to create the maximum number of jobs.