From survival to prosperity: How the PAP made Singapore an exceptional nation

09/12/2023

There was a time when early maps of the region showed the Singapore Strait but not Singapore itself. Subsequently, while our status as a crown colony might have laid the foundations for Singapore to become a commercial hub, we remained largely a colonial backwater, more of an entrepôt than a global city. 

How did it all change? More precisely, how did an accidental nation without natural resources grow from third world to first within a generation? Looking into the future, what must Singapore do to ensure its prosperity for the next century and beyond? 

Setting out to answer these questions (and more) is the recently concluded PPF | Insights series, launched to commemorate the birth centenary of founding prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Digging deep into Mr Lee’s psyche and exploring his ideas and values, here are three influences he had on the PAP, whose policies have helped make Singapore an exceptional nation.  

Building stability with tripartism  

Singapore in the pre-independence days was a very different place. Workers unhappy with their wages and working conditions have no qualms about stopping work and taking to the streets, inconveniencing the masses and haemorrhaging the economy. It was then that Mr Lee knew. That if left unchecked, such labour disputes would throw a spanner in Singapore’s goal to industrialise and attract foreign investments. 

For a start, the fiery antics of unions would have to end. Besides, there must be a way for all parties to come together and find common ground without resorting to table-thumping confrontations. It was against this backdrop of unrest that tripartism was formed, marking the growth of a trusted relationship between unions, employers and the government. To this day, the collaboration continues, with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) working closely with the PAP government to uplift lower-wage workers and support lifelong learning.  

By putting an end to strike actions, the PAP government ushered in an era of industrial peace. It created a stable environment that investors seek, solidifying Singapore’s reputation as an attractive business hub.  

Eschewing populist policies for difficult decisions 

There is no pussyfooting around this, but poverty and instability gripped Singapore in its post-independence years. At that time, the easiest way to guarantee survival was to align oneself with a great power in exchange for aid. However, Mr Lee had other ideas. In fact, he was adamant that Singapore would have to differentiate itself from its neighbours to become a leading nation. More importantly, he was unafraid to make difficult decisions to realise this vision. 

Over the next few decades, the PAP government embarked on numerous far-reaching policies to transform the nation. One of the most ambitious involved resettling tens of thousands of Singaporeans from squatter huts into Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, making home ownership within reach for the majority. However, such decisions were not without their critics. Farmers who moved into flats grieved the loss of their livelihood, pushing them to vote for the Opposition, recounted Mr Lee in his book From Third World to First.  

In retrospect, no policy can satisfy everybody. And moving towards a 4G leadership, the PAP will continue to stay true to its roots and not shy away from making difficult decisions. Be it imposing additional restrictions during COVID-19 or raising the Goods and Services Tax when global inflation remains high. None of these are popular decisions, and there is a high chance they might be politically costly. Unfortunately, they are necessary choices a nation has to make to ensure its survival in the long run.  

Putting Singapore on the world stage 

Finally, there is little doubt that Singapore’s geography must have troubled Mr Lee. Limited in size, how can Singapore make itself heard without getting trampled over by larger countries? It is a tall order. However, under Mr Lee and the PAP government, Singapore has managed to punch above its weight on the world stage. 

The ability to stay principled on issues and be friends with everyone gave us the most powerful passport in the world. Meanwhile, our success in domestic governance and contributions to international relations also boosted our credibility as a trusted voice to the world. These attributes have since become part of our foreign policy playbook helping Singapore become a shining red dot where we stand tall, and our expertise valued. 

For almost six decades, the story of Singapore has been one of adversity and triumph. Its exceptionalism is no manifest destiny but the result of good governance and a political will to make long-term decisions for a brighter future.  

As we march towards SG100, Singaporeans can rest assured that the PAP will continue to govern responsibility, practice fiscal prudence and reject populist measures as a crude means to win votes. Rome was not built in a day. Similarly, Singapore would not have become a prosperous city we have grown to love if it had succumbed to ill-conceived and self-serving policies.  

Photo Sources: National Archives/ NTUC via Facebook/ Gov.sg/ MFA