In order to build our future, we need to understand our past. Singapore never proclaimed independence from Malaysia, a territory it fought to unite with. On the other hand, the 9th of August was a result of PM Tunku Abdul Rahman’s convictions that the internal security of Malaysia required Singapore’s exit. PM Lee Kuan Yew did not rejoice on the 9th of August 1965. On the other hand, he wept, publicly, live on television. On this day, what Singaporeans fought for, a meritocratic, multi-racial Malaysia, will forever be a reminder of our ideals. But have we, both leaders and her citizens, remembered what Singapore was about? Have we somehow lost our way?
Here are excerpts of speeches made by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, made on National Day, to remind us of who we are.
On why we celebrate National Day
“Most newly independent countries have chosen the day of their independence as their National Day. We in Singapore have chosen the 3rd of June, not because it is the day of proclamation of our independence, for we are not independent, but because it is a day that marks a step forward in our advance towards independence. And every year on the 3rd of June, it is our hope that the people of Singapore will cease their routine daily toil, reflect on the past, assess on the present, and plan a common course for the future.”
Lee Kuan Yew, 3 June 1960, 1st National Day Message, 1st Prime Minister of the State of Singapore
That first National Day speech with Singapore on its own
“We used to celebrate the 3rd of June; then, it was the 16th of September, when we promulgated Malaysia. Then, it went back to the 31st of August because other people celebrated the 31st of August. And then it had to be the 9th of August, and the 9th of August it is, not because we wished it to be but because it was.
Every year, on this 9th of August for many years ahead - how many, I do not know - we will dedicate ourselves anew to consolidate ourselves to survive; and, most important of all, to find an enduring future for what we have built and what our forebears will build up.”
Lee Kuan Yew, 9 August 1966, National Day Message, 1st Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore
A decade of progress, GDP and more GDP, and being in debt
“Friends and fellow citizens.
The past decade was probably the most spectacular of all the ten years of Singapore’s history. There had never been such rapid transformation in any ten years. The physical landscape changed with new buildings, new roads, flyovers, traffic jams, homes, new factories. Our GDP went up, at factor cost, nearly three times, between 1965 and 1975. When we borrow from the World Bank or from the Asian Development Bank, there are no more soft loans. We are classified now as an intermediate country – not developed, not developing, but intermediate – and we pay the going market interest rate.”
Lee Kuan Yew, National Day Rally Speech 1975, 1st Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore
2 decades later, let’s just talk GDP
“Friends and fellow citizens.
In 1979, we discovered that we had held back our wages too low and too long, compared with our competitors, - Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.
We were caught in a low-wage/low value-added trap. For three years, 1979 to 1981, we had three high NWC (National Wage Council) increases. Now, in 1985, we discover they are too high compare to our neighbours. How did this happen?
We should not force wages down. What we need is wage restraint or a pause in wage increase. If wages were cut, it would mean a drop in spending power. This will cause a reduction in our GDP.”
Lee Kuan Yew, National Day Rally Speech 1985, 1st Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore
30 years later and a new PM, but we don’t need these democratic ideals either
“If in 10 years, Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea were better societies because they adopted the US model (of democracy), Singapore would hurry to catch.”
Goh Chok Tong, National Day Rally 1995, 2nd Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore
Into the new millennium, the prodigal son ascends the throne after 40 years of Separation from Malaysia. What’s first on the agenda? The economy of course
“What will Singapore be like 40 years from now? I can’t tell you. Nobody can. But I can tell you it must be a totally different Singapore because if it is the same Singapore as it is today, we’re dead. We will be irrelevant, marginalised, the world will be different. You may want to be the same, but you can’t be the same. Therefore, we have to remake Singapore – our economy, our education system, our mindsets, our city.
I will start with the economy because that’s how we earn a living for ourselves. In fact, last year I wanted to start with the economy, but my ministers told me, everybody knows you make economic speeches, say something else. But I’m coming back to the economy this year because, in fact, that’s the root of how we will solve all our other problems.”
Lee Hsien Loong, National Day Rally 2005, 3rd Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore
So what did we fight for 48 years ago? A Malaysian Malaysia? A country where no one should be left out? Where the disparity between the upper class and the lower class is reduced? Where civilisations thrive in spite of our differences? Have we even achieved our ideals of democracy, based on justice and equality?
Across the border, Malaysians have begun to reform their nation. The idea of a just and equal democracy is all they ever debate about these days.
And here we are celebrating 48 years of not being them, with an exchange rate of S$1 to RM2.50. We sold our ideals to the dollar. We achieved, happiness, progress, prosperity. Perhaps that’s all we remembered. Yes, these things makes us proud. But should we accept that our dollar is the only currency that matters? Or should we insist that the currency of justice and equality, regardless of race, language or religion, be the next lap for Singapore?
If Malaysia reforms itself over the next 10 years, where Malaysians are finally Satu Malaysia; a civilisation much like us, only more democratic, more just, more equal. Then you tell me whether we’ve succeeded at what we wanted to do in the first place or not.
Your call Singaporeans.