S Rajaratnam’s Global City speech in 1972 was the eureka moment for the generation of its time


It’s an oft-repeated narrative: how Singapore transformed from mudflats to metropolis in just one generation.

Not immediately obvious was the genesis of the “how” and that it was first outlined in a speech by founding Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam in 1972.

Titled “Singapore: Global City”, the speech was seminal: Brimming with foresight, it was written in Mr S Rajaratnam’s inimitable prose and delivered with his usual panache.

The speech’s significance and influence were discussed in a video the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) for this year’s Singapore Perspectives, featuring a few prominent speakers.  Director of IPS Mr Janadas Devan calling it a eureka moment for his generation.

“It was actually a eureka moment when he announced this. My generation, I myself, read it and said: ‘Aha! That is Singapore.’ That’s why it’s important. That’s why I say that it is crucial that the people understand, can tell a story about themselves,” he said.

The beginning

Chairman of Economic Development Innovations Singapore Mr Phillip Yeo and Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee spoke about the uncertainties faced by Singapore in the late 60s and early 70s.

With the British Army – a big employer at that time – gone and with tension with neighbours in the post-independence and post-confrontation years, Singapore faced an uphill battle to establish itself in the world.

“None of our founding fathers believed that Singapore could be independent. When they spoke about the forces of history, what they meant was also the forces of geography. It was not conceivable for them that a city-state, that a city, could exist by itself as a nation. We were still floundering around for a narrative,” added Mr Janadas.

And that narrative was duly found when Mr S Rajaratnam’s delivered his Global City speech in 1972.

Ahead of its time

Besides being a eureka moment for a generation, Ambassador Chan also said that the idea of a global city – to leapfrog the region, plug into the global networks and make the world Singapore’s hinterland – was ahead of its time.

“You trade with everybody else, you work with everybody else, you invite everybody else internationally to come. You don’t get too fixated with your immediate neighbourhood. And I think that has been an extremely important, decisive and strategic move for Singapore. And for Singapore, it has been our fortune to grasp that idea,” she added.

Mr Yeo further explained the nuts and bolts of this move.

“The key was for Singapore to get out of the region, where multinationals – Americans, Europeans and Japanese – they use Singapore to produce and own 100 per cent. Singapore was one of the few countries that allowed 100 per cent for multinationals because they gave us jobs, technology and market to the world. So that’s very important. And so from that point of view, Singapore became a global city through industrialisation,” he said.

The narrative of a global city wasn’t formed overnight and was instead a slowly dawning recognition that grew, said Mr Janadas.

“When you say Singapore, a city-state. What does that mean? When you say Singapore, is a global city and this is how we will function  – by linking up with other global cities in a network,” he added.

Great foresight

He said that in his speech that the political, social and cultural problems would be far more difficult to tackle and these may be the Achilles’ heel of the emerging global cities.

“Laying the economic infrastructure of a Global City may turn out to be the easiest of the many tasks involved in creating such a city. But the political, social and cultural adjustments such a city would require of each of us to enable men to live happy and useful lives in them may demand a measure of courage, imagination and intelligence which may or may not be beyond the capacity of its citizens,” he said.

“In an era of nationalistic, racial and protectionist politics around the world, his became a voice that mattered during his time and beyond,” concluded Mr Janadas.

You can watch the video here and read the full speech here.