As it celebrate its 50th birthday, Singapore still faces challenges

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 August, 2015, 1:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 August, 2015, 1:46am

Singapore turns 50 years old today and it has every reason to celebrate. Since independence, it has gone from humble beginnings with most people living in squatter homes to being among the world's wealthiest countries. Its orderliness, corruption-free government and efficiency are widely praised and seen by others as a model to adapt and copy. But having beaten the odds does not mean Singaporeans are able to rest on their laurels and enjoy comfortable complacency; like other developed societies, daunting economic and social challenges are not far away.

Birthdays are a time for reflection. But with founding father Lee Kuan Yew having died just five months ago, Singaporeans were already in reflective mood. The challenges are familiar to Hongkongers: A flat economy, fast-ageing population and low birth rate.

Lee's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, laid out the challenges and how they might be overcome in a lecture in June. He ranked the economy as the most pressing matter of the next decade, with lifting productivity a sustainable solution: For the next 25 years, he cited the ageing and dwindling population, with raising the birth rate through marriage and having children the way ahead; and over the coming half century, protecting Singaporean identity. Immigrants will be needed to maintain growth and ways have to be found to help them fit in, while efforts have to be made to keep the best and brightest Singaporeans at home and lure back those abroad.

Singapore came into being with few natural resources after being thrown out of the short-lived Federation of Malaya; so few that it did not even have enough water to support a thriving population and industry. Lee Kuan Yew had once called the idea of an independent Singapore "a political, economic and geographical absurdity". But intractable differences in thinking on policies made for a split that meant going it alone and the obstacles had to be dealt with head-on. It got lucky with founding leaders who were honest, pragmatic, had an inclusive policy towards ethnic groups, were diplomatic in dealings with neighbours and embraced long-term thinking.

The island state is not in competition with Hong Kong; both cities need one another to overcome the testing times ahead. For Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, an election to be held before the end of January 2017 puts into even sharper relief the long-term challenges and the temptation of succumbing to short-term, populist pressures. Balancing between the two requires enlightened and disciplined leaders.