Singapore: 50 years : The National Day Parade through the years–Down Memory Lane

August 13, 2016

Singapore: 50 years : The National Day Parade through the years–Down Memory Lane

1966: Singapore’s first National Day Parade kicks off at 9am at the Padang. President Yusof Ishak, resplendent in military uniform, takes the salute, with PM Lee Kuan Yew and ministers behind him. The parade features 23,000 participants and a military parade that marches through Chinatown. According to an interview from the National Archives, a seven-man committee helmed the event.


Singapore’s first National Day Parade kicks off at 9am at the Padang. President Yusof Ishak, resplendent in military uniform, takes the salute, with PM Lee Kuan Yew and ministers behind him. The parade features 23,000 participants and a military parade that marches through Chinatown. According to an interview from the National Archives, a seven-man committee helmed the event.


The second National Day Parade, also at the Padang, sees an increase in the participation of women, with 36 female bagpipers a main draw. The women – young office workers, teachers and students – had less than five months of training. The day also features the “longest and loudest bang” in Singapore’s history – firecrackers are set off for 15 minutes by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.


Bedraggled contingents stand stoically throughout an unexpected downpour. MPs, the Cabinet and PM Lee Kuan Yew also take seats in the rain at the Padang. Mr Lee says later that he was worried about the children and asked how many had fallen ill the next day. He says in 1988 that this was his most memorable parade.

With foreign guests – Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Princess Alexandra, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Razak, and representatives from New Zealand, Britain and Australia – in the stands, this parade sets out to impress. PM Lee Kuan Yew greeting the princess after the parade, while Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee chats with her husband, Mr Angus Ogilvy.

The stars of the show from Singapore’s armoury – 18 tanks, 16 unimogs with 120mm mortars and 32 jeep-mounted recoilless guns.


Jets make their debut, with nine BAC Strikemaster jet-trainers and Alouette III helicopters flying low over the Padang. Participants and guests are asked to tune in to the radio at 5am to find out if there would be a likelihood of rain, in which case the parade would have to be postponed. This parade also features the first fly-past of the state flag, which would become an annual highlight.


This is President Benjamin Sheares’ first National Day Parade as head of state. The parade finale has a “blue-collar” theme, focusing on industrialisation and the importance of blue-collar workers.


Floats are the highlight of this parade, with the People’s Association presenting six of the 10 floats. Progress and multiculturalism are the main themes.


For the first time, the parade is held in the evening. Another first is a contingent of police and army dogs – 50 labradors and alsatians march on-leash.SAF dogs and their handlers at the parade.


The parade is seen on TV in colour for the first time, with colourful floats taking centre stage. It also features the biggest fly-past so far, involving 56 aircraft from the Singapore Air Defence Command. The parade ends with a spectacular fireworks display over the harbour.


On Singapore’s 10th birthday, the parade breaks out into “pocket pageants”, with celebrations taking place at 13 locations around the island for the first time.Bicycle acrobats entertaining the crowds at the Maxwell Road centre.


The parade is held at the National Stadium for the first time, with some 60,000 Singaporeans packed into the parade site. Contingents also march a 6km route from the stadium through streets lined with thousands of people. Singapore Airlines’ 21m replica of a jumbo jet – with 36 stewardesses perched atop it – is reportedly the most attractive float.


Celebrations are held at six decentralised locations – Jurong, Toa Payoh, Tiong Bahru, Jalan Besar, Bedok and Queenstown. However, the centres are reportedly overwhelmed by crowds.


The big parade returns to the Padang. The first troupe of women lion dancers participate in the largest lion and dragon dance performance which comprises 140 lions and nine dragons.


The parade, at six locations in the heartland, is ticketed for the first time to manage crowds that had overwhelmed the 1977 celebrations.


Back at the National Stadium with a crowd of 100,000, the parade is bigger than ever before. It is captured on TV from the air for the first time and is President Benjamin Sheares’ last parade as head of state.


Decentralised celebrations are held at six locations, with some drama reported: At Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, a platform for VIPs collapses under their weight half an hour before the parade begins, and a policeman draws his revolver to break up a fight between members of two dragon dance troupes; in Toa Payoh, a commando skydiver deploys his emergency parachute when the main one fails and two other skydivers land off target – to applause nonetheless – at an electronics factory50mfrom the stadium.


This marks President Devan Nair’s first parade as head of state. The parade is back at the Padang, but the highlight is a display of 1,800 fireworks which are set off near East Coast Parkway. While only 21,000 attend  the parade proper, the crowds lining the streets are said to be the largest in 12 years.


This is Singapore’s last decentralised parade. One commando, aiming to land at Toa Payoh Stadium, ends up in Whampoa when his parachute fails to deploy in Toa Payoh and he has to use his emergency chute.


The famous Stand Up For Singapore is first sung at this parade. A grand military column of 116 vehicles trundles from City Hall to Serangoon Road.


Despite news of a recession, about 60,000 spectators pack the National Stadium. Above: Children lining the street to catch the marching contingents at the full dress rehearsal.


President Wee Kim Wee makes his first appearance as head of state. The year sees the introduction of the popular song Count On Me, Singapore, and marks many firsts: Never before has a parade started so late – 6pm; never before has a rock group been featured – Tokyo Square mimes hits before the parade. There are also no tanks this year.


Another beloved tune –We Are Singapore – makes its debut. The year also sees a street party finale with people dancing and singing in the streets and at the Padang. About 100,000 lights are strung up around the Padang area and lit simultaneously, literally lighting up the night.


Swing Singapore, the first street party, is held on Aug 8 with about 100,000 people packing Orchard Road. Dancing is cancelled due to the unexpectedly large crowd, but Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew says in the following days that it was a mistake to cut the party short. He suggests a second party and one is held at the end of the month with about 250,000 people showing up (above). It is planned in just 17 days.


This year’s parade is remembered for the first daytime fireworks – 20 smoke strings forming the shapes of flowers, palms and willows. They are kept under wraps and come as a surprise to the crowd at the National Stadium. The Red Lions make their first appearance as a formalised team, and continue to be an NDP favourite till today.


Singapore celebrates her 25th year of independence with the catchy song, One People, One Nation, One Singapore. The parade marks Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last year as Prime Minister of Singapore. It also sees a comeback of the military mobile column, made up of a record 250 vehicles.


Mr Goh Chok Tong is greeted with loud applause at his first parade as Prime Minister. Commandos execute the highest Omega Descent from the National Stadium light towers – about 20 storeys high – and there is a heart-stopping moment when half of the Happy Birthday banner they release fails to unfurl. NDP funpacks are introduced.


The parade is specially significant to the SAF as it is the 25th year of NS. National servicemen put on an impressive show using 64 physical training logs. Super Skyhawks execute a precision bomb burst manoeuvre and commandos hang mid-air from Super Puma copters.


Mr Wee Kim Wee attends his last parade as President at the Padang, noting that he felt “not one but two lumps in (his) throat”. He had just recuperated from two operations and stepped down the following month.


The first night parade, starting at 7.15pm, is Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s first as President. It is also the first time the 25-pounder guns used for the traditional 21-gun Presidential Salute are placed inside the stadium. First mass display performance by the Singapore Civil Defence Force, with regulars swooping down via cables from the towers at the top of the gallery.


Singapore celebrates its 30th birthday at the Padang with the mobile column making an appearance after a five-year absence. The parade is a youth-oriented one.


Poet Edwin Thumboo pens a drama on the story of Singapore for the parade. Almost two centuries of history unfold in 40 minutes at the National Stadium as a cast of 4,000 play out the Singapore Story.


The Red Lions parachute into the National Stadium bearing the Asean flag and state flags of member countries for the first time. The centrepiece is a giant inflated rainbow which symbolises the pursuit of the Singapore dream. This is also the year that the National Education Show – for Primary 5 pupils – is launched.


Kit Chan debuts the Dick Lee song Home, which becomes an instant favourite. Two parade venues are rolled into one with a replica of City Hall built at the National Stadium.


Overseas Singaporeans watch the parade live for the first time over the Internet. It is Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s last parade as President. Parade committee chairman Brigadier-General Andrew Tan comes up with the NDP tattoo which has since become a National Day staple.


The first National Day of the new millennium offers several firsts – a four-day carnival, the RSAF Fighting Falcons, a new submarine – and the return of the mobile column. It is also President S R Nathan’s first parade as head of state.


Captain Christine Sim (above) is the first woman to take part in the state-flag fly-past since 1970. A colourful 80m-long “bridge” connecting an island of people to a giant, glowing globe is the parade centrepiece at the National Stadium, while Tanya Chua sings the self-composed Where I Belong.


Coming out of an economic recession, Singapore’s 37th birthday is celebrated with great joy. Parade-goers also get to sample the newly released Newater found in their funpacks.


The parade takes place at the National Stadium just three months after the Sars outbreak kills 33 people in Singapore. The crowd pays tribute to 240 healthcare workers who enter the stadium bearing glowing hearts to the strains of a specially written song – Through Your Eyes.


The 21/2-hour parade is capped with a surprise video tribute to Mr Goh Chok Tong, who would hand in his letter to the President the next morning to step down as Prime Minister. He gets a standing ovation from the crowd.


Singapore celebrates its 40th birthday with simultaneous parties at five locations – a main parade at the Padang and four other celebrations in Marina South, Tampines, Yishun and Jurong East. All are linked by a live feed. This is Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s first parade as Prime Minister.

Above: One of 12 floats depicting aspects of Singapore’s history trundling by the Padang.


The National Stadium hosts the parade for the last time before being torn down. The crowd pays tribute to former deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam, who died in February, reciting the Pledge which he wrote.


The first parade on the Marina Bay floating platform (above) gets the thumbs up, with many praising the waterfront ambience.


It is a wet parade but spirits are hardly dampened as parade-goers put their funpack ponchos to good use.


At 8.22pm, SCDF sirens sound across the island and Singaporeans – including thousands overseas – recite the Pledge.


The parade returns to the Padang. Singer Kit Chan belts out Home and Singaporeans follow with a “One Voice” moment, reciting the Pledge and singing the National Anthem. The parade is also celebrated at five heartland locations.


This year marks the final NDP for President S R Nathan as head of state. It is the first time the parade – at the Floating Platform – is held against a completed Marina Bay skyline. It is also the first time former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong do not have front-row seats. Both have retired from Cabinet and are seated behind with the MPs. The parade also gets its first female regimental sergeant major – Master Warrant Officer Jennifer Tan.


Singapore celebrates its 47th birthday with an Olympic win at the ongoing London Games. President Tony Tan Keng Yam observes his inaugural parade as head of state and MPs show up in red and white for the first time, instead of the usual all-white for the People’s Action Party and blue for the Workers’ Party.


Third Warrant Officer Shirley Ng is denied the chance to make history as the first woman to skydive onto the parade floor as part of the annual Red Lions parachuting display after cloudy conditions force the team to cancel its appearance at the Floating Platform.


Third Warrant Officer Shirley Ng becomes the first female Red Lion parachutist to perform at an NDP celebration.


Singapore’s 50th birthday is celebrated with gusto at the Padang, but there are also reflective moments as founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March, is remembered in a video segment. Earlier in the day, public warning sirens herald the broadcast of a recording of Mr Lee reading the Proclamation of Singapore.


The parade will be held today for the first time at the Sports Hub with indoor fireworks, aerial performers and a flying unicorn to wow the crowd. The show also goes high-tech – giant props will be brought to life using 3D projection mapping, while the funpack will include a souvenir booklet that can activate a free augmented reality app.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline ‘The parade through the years’. Print Edition | Subscribe

Joko Widodo prefers nuts and bolts approach

April 16, 2016

Joko Widodo prefers nuts and bolts approach

As Joko Widodo clicks through a presentation on infrastructure projects he has launched, an adviser hurries him along, warning that his time is running out. But the Indonesian President is having none of it.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 10, 2016. Indonesia on Thursday opened dozens of sectors to foreign investors in what President Joko Widodo has described as a "Big Bang" liberalisation of its economy, Southeast Asia's largest. Picture taken February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RTX26FW2

“No, it’s better I show you,” he says, pointing at photograph after photograph of port, highway and dam schemes he kick-started after years of delays caused by land acquisition problems and intra-governmental disputes.

Eighteen months into his five-year term as leader of the world’s fourth most populous nation, Mr Widodo is persisting with an approach he honed as a small-town mayor and then governor of Jakarta: driving progress, project by project, through spot checks.

“I’ve already been to the toll road in Sumatra six times to check land acquisition and construction,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times, explaining this was the only way to start work on the much-needed highway after 30 years of abortive efforts.

A rare G20 leader happier talking about cement and building permits than big-picture vision, Mr Widodo’s prosaic style has disappointed some of his most enthusiastic backers. But his focus on managing the budget, building infrastructure and trying to reduce regulation has helped see him through a difficult start to his presidency, which was beset by a slowing economy and political problems.

Investor sentiment towards Indonesia has improved of late, with its stock market and currency among the best performing in Asia this year.

Before departing on Sunday for a trip to Europe to drum up trade and investment, Mr. Widodo insists he will push ahead with his plans to deregulate the economy and accelerate infrastructure development.

“I will continue to make economic reforms, removing excessive permits, licences and restrictions,” he says, speaking sometimes in broken English.

“My commitment is to make Indonesia’s economy open and competitive.”

For much of last year Mr Widodo looked uncomfortable as he stumbled from one political problem to another, while the economy continued to weaken because of reduced Chinese demand for Indonesia’s commodities.

A dispute over the appointment of a graft-tainted police chief damaged his reputation for clean government. Policy U-turns, ministerial infighting and protectionist measures undermined hopes for reform — and his uncompromising defence of the execution of foreign drug traffickers prompted a diplomatic backlash.

Chart: Indonesia growth and the rupiah


But now the President who grew up in a riverside shack — the first democratic leader of Indonesia from outside the nation’s crony-ridden elite — is looking more at home in the palace. “I enjoy my job,” the 54-year-old says.

Not a bead of sweat forms on Mr Widodo’s forehead, even though the temperature is well over 30C and the air conditioning in the Dutch colonial-era Independence Palace is off.

A close adviser jokes that the President is a “cool customer”. Perhaps too cool, he adds, because he made a slow start to his presidency. “At the beginning, he did not know many people in Jakarta and many of the ministers initially appointed were not his choice,” he says. “But he is improving.”

Mr Widodo’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of road and bridge projects upsets those who were hoping for a bolder figurehead. However, for analysts who have seen previous plans for infrastructure investment and economic reform come up short, his approach is what Southeast Asia’s largest economy needs.

“He is not the guy who wants to come up with a grand plan, but [he is] a doer,” says Ray Farris, Asia strategist at Credit Suisse.

“I will continue to make economic reforms, removing excessive permits, licences and restrictions. My commitment is to make Indonesia’s economy open and competitive.” Mr Widodo’s focus on tactics rather than strategy has proved less effective in tackling Indonesia’s broader social and political problems.

When asked if he is concerned about rising discrimination against homosexuals, Mr Widodo’s perfunctory response is that “we respect human rights but Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country”.

As for the challenge of attracting investment from China while also pushing back against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, he simply says that “all activities that may increase tension must be stopped”, before adding that it is not only Chinese boats that regularly plunder Indonesia’s fisheries.

After a recent skirmish between Indonesian and Chinese patrol vessels near Indonesia’s Natuna islands, his cabinet members offered wildly conflicting views on how to react. Analysts say the disarray betrayed Mr Widodo’s weakness when it comes to co-ordinating more complicated policy areas.

“The question is whether he can really control his cabinet,” says Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst in Jakarta. Others warn that he needs to lay out a more convincing plan to raise the money needed to fund his pet infrastructure projects. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of focus or leadership on addressing the core revenue problem,” says Mr Farris of Credit Suisse.

Unperturbed, Mr Widodo insists that running a country of 255m people and 17,000 islands is ultimately not that different from being mayor of a city of 500,000. But is the bigger-scale job pushing him to become a stronger leader? “It’s better you ask the people,” he says with a chuckle.

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

April 4, 2016

COMMENT: I do not understand why the view of one person, albiet from the daughter of the late Prime Minister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, should receive our attention, and be the subject of this article titled, Who will end the cult of LKY?

Why should a leader who has done so much for his country  not be admired, remembered and honored by his own people for his contributions to the making of a dynamic, modern and successful Singapore. Since when has remembering and honoring a leader of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s stature been regarded as fawning or an attempt  to create a personality cult.

There is a already a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles  who established Singapore as  a British trading outpost in 1819. There should rightly also be one of Mr. Lee.  Maybe, Changi should be known as Lee Kuan Yew International Airport. But I understand  Mr. Lee has left a will which prevents this from happening.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this bind. A close and respected friend from Singapore told me recently that Singaporeans have wisely chosen to erect a Heroes’ Memorial in honour of Mr. Lee and his colleagues like Goh Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Hon Sui Sen, Eddie Barker, and others.–Din Merican

Remembering  Lee Kuan Yew

by Surekha A. Yadav

On March 21, the front page of the Straits Times carried a photograph featuring a stylised portrait of Singapore’s first, now deceased, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The installation formed, out of 4,877 erasers, was 2.3 metres wide and 3.1 metres high and titled Our Father, Our Country, Our Flag.

Now the first question that came to my mind was… why erasers?But other commentators had different reactions, with one woman in particular asking why so much column space was being devoted to a man who was determined not to see his legacy descend into a personality cult.

“I would ask how the time, effort and resources used to prepare these (commemorations, etc) would benefit Singapore and Singaporeans,” she wrote in a lengthy Facebook post criticising the adulation being heaped on our former leader on the first anniversary of his death. The post was widely circulated, but not by the Straits Times, to which she has been a regular contributor and columnist for years.

A bouquet of orchids seen on the parliamentary seat of founding father and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during a remembrance ceremony at the old Parliament. This is particularly interesting because the woman in question is Dr Lee Wei Ling, the daughter of the man represented by the thousands of erasers.

Dr Lee felt the national daily’s refusal to run her critical piece amounted to censorship and she declared on Facebook that she was effectively ending her relationship with the paper “as the editors there do not allow me freedom of speech.”

So here we have the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, the effective founder of the modern Singaporean state, telling the newspaper closest to the state off for censoring her criticism of the fawning over her late father, which is happening in the state led by her brother — Lee Hsien Loong.

On one hand, Dr Lee’s point is perfectly coherent; while Lee Kuan Yew imprinted aspects of himself on the nation he effectively engineered, he was no North Korean Kim.

For many years of his rule and influence, we didn’t see giant statues of the man downtown, no LKY international airport or monuments emerged and that strikes me as a very good thing.

The old statesman was even determined to demolish his modest family home to prevent it from becoming a shrine.

On the other, it is a little amusing that a woman of considerable education, success and stature (she is after all the daughter of the first Prime Minister and sister to the current prime minister) feels muffled.

“The editors there do not allow me freedom of speech,” she tellingly says — but have they really offered anyone, bar perhaps our paramount chiefs, freedom of speech since the dawn of the modern nation?

Dr Lee’s father famously said: “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, and schools.”

This has been the basis of the government’s media policy for decades, and our nation’s dismal positioning on global press freedom indexes is also well known, so it’s hard not to meet a sudden burst of outrage from the pinnacle of privilege without a raised eyebrow.

I’ve now seen Lee Kuan Yew commemorative badges handed out and watched a video of children at a local kindergarten being made to bow to a photo of the former PM — someone has to put a stop to this and maybe Dr Lee is the lady for the job. One way or another, the next Lee family dinner ought to be pretty interesting.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

January 28, 2016

Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

by John Berthelsen

Francis Seow, once a high-ranking Singaporean official, died on January 21, 2016 in the United States, where he had spent the past 25 years as a refugee from the late Lee Kuan Yew’s petty vindictiveness.  He died at the age of 88 in Boston, where he was an adjunct professor at Harvard University.

Singapore has supposedly loosened up in its treatment of dissidents. However, the cases of Roy Ngerng, who dared to question the operation of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund earned him a libel suit that bankrupted him from Lee’s son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and teenager Amos Yee, who was temporarily committed to a mental ward for an obscenity-filled video criticizing the country, show that it hasn’t lightened up that much.

But what Lee ordered up for Seow is a prime example of just how far the elder Lee would go to crush his enemies. After two years as the island republic’s Solicitor-General, Seow quit in 1972 and went into private practice. He was also appointed senior counsel to a Commission of Inquiry after Chinese students boycotted an examination in 1963. He had the cheek to challenge Lee on several different fronts, and he paid for it by losing his country.

Never a favorite of the Lee administration, Seow was suspended from practice twice after he left as Solicitor-General, once for a year on Lee’s instructions to his cousin, then the Chief Justice, over an undertaking given to the Attorney- General. Nonetheless, he was elected to the council of the Law Society in 1976 and became its president in 1986.

The late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, brooking no opposition, reacted negatively to Seow’s plans to restore the role of the Law Society to comment on legislation. In 1987, Lee pushed through legislation barring the organization from lending official comment on legislation unless the government specifically asked for it.

Later, Seow won a seat on the board of the venerable Singapore Turf Club. Lee in turn pushed legislation through the parliament abolishing the turf club and replacing it with his own, with the government controlling the appointments to its board of directors.

But it was his decision to represent two dozen church organizers and professionals involved with the Catholic Church in 1987 that caused the final explosion.  Lee during that period was said to be deeply concerned about Catholic liberation movements in South America and was determined to make sure it didn’t spread to his island.

The alleged offenders were originally arrested in 1986 and held for several weeks until they traded televised “confessions” of such innocuous deeds as sending books from capitalist Singapore to communist China. After several months of silence, the youths delivered press releases to the international media saying they had agreed to the confessions, and to statements that they had not been mistreated, for the right to be left alone, and that the Singapore government had broken the promise, continuing to make examples of them and to hound them.

Immediately after the stories were printed in the international press, authorities rounded them up and arrested them again.

Seow agreed to act as counsel to them. Almost immediately he was himself imprisoned without trial for 72 days and suffered “enhanced” interrogation techniques that included long periods of sleep deprivation and interrogation in freezing cold without adequate clothing, which landed him in the hospital in fear of a heart attack. Reportedly authorities were afraid they had endangered his life.  The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Parliament, the UK Parliament, several US senators and others delivered stinging criticism of the Singapore government, to no avail.

Seow was accused of receiving political campaign funds from the United States to promote democracy in Singapore and meeting with Hank Henderson, then a US political secretary, to further democracy in Singapore despite the fact that at the time the US remained one of Singapore’s staunchest allies. Henderson was vilified on the front page of the Straits Times for having fathered a “love child” in the Philippines despite the fact that he was married to another woman. Henderson had actually adopted the baby, who was born before his then-current marriage. He was forced to leave the country.

A Catholic priest involved in the situation was also trashed in the Straits Times for having been observed entering the home of a single woman and leaving several hours later, in the middle of the night.

Lee Hsien Loong, then the Defense Minister, held a press conference to detail Seow’s transgressions, including one that he was “seen entering the home of the Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent.”  Later that year, the correspondent was refused an additional work visa and was forced to leave the country.

After his release, Seow ran for parliament as a member of the Workers Party, which Lee hated, with his group constituency losing marginally to Lee’s People’s Action Party. Eventually Singaporean authorities descended on his law office and collected virtually every scrap of paper in it.  He was ultimately accused of 60 counts of tax evasion, impelling him to flee the country for the United States. On top of that, at the time of his arrest, Seow was involved in a relationship with a Singaporean businesswoman who was financing a business deal through Bank Nationale de Paris. The bank suddenly dropped her line of credit and forced her out of the business deal. Bank officials at the time said the government had nothing to do with aborting the transaction.

Harvard took Seow in as a visiting fellow. He conducted research on human rights and the rule of law, publishing several books, one of which recounted his detention, To Catch a Tartar, and continued for the rest of his life to pound the Singapore government for its lack of civil liberties, and meeting with Singaporean student groups overseas. 

“He was a necessary milepost in the development of Singapore and of the rule of law and democratic accountability in Asia,” his nephew, Mark Looi, wrote upon his death. “One day hopefully his native country will recognize this.”


Singapore: In Search of Some Big Ideas

January 4, 2016

Singapore: In Search of Some Big Ideas

by Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), enters 2016 enjoying the comfort of a magnificent electoral victory in the 2015 general elections. In that election — the first since the death of patriarch Lee Kuan Yew — the PAP won almost 70 per cent of the popular vote. It was not the ruling party’s highest-ever vote, but coming off the back of the 2011 general election, in which the party scored its lowest vote since independence (60 per cent), it was a tremendous relief.

Since then there have been official efforts to puncture any nascent sense of complacency, both in Cabinet and among PAP supporters. But the government still enters 2016 knowing that it has another five years to fix the problems created by half a decade of policy and administrative errors that cost it so dearly in 2011.

Managing Success and Spreading the Benefits

The 2015 general elections showed that in the absence of a tried and tested alternative, Singaporeans are ultimately willing to forgive almost any policy or administrative failure. This leaves the government with a relatively free hand to tackle the rather formidable challenges on its desk. Significantly, many of the challenges it faces are municipal and small-picture in nature, reflecting the limited horizons of politics in the city-state. These include building new flats and railway lines; breaking the weekly cycle of train breakdowns; keeping a cap on both the rate of immigration and the cost of living; installing and spreading a new raft of welfare benefits without building an expectation of entitlement; avoiding man-made floods in downtown Singapore; and spreading health coverage while keeping costs down. These are the front line challenges in Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew.

Even in the international arena, the front line issue is remarkably ‘domestic’: stopping the haze from Indonesian forest clearance. The Singapore government has no direct control over this but the government is universally expected to fix it. Such is the burden of cultivating an image of being all powerful.

Seeking New Ways of Doing Business

Lurking behind these small-picture issues (which are, of course, important in everyday life) lies a series of challenges that are very much big picture and long-term. Most notable is finding new ways of doing business. So much of Singapore’s business model for the last half-century or more has been based on being ahead of the pack, but now the ‘pack’ is catching up.

The Port of Singapore rode the first wave of containerisation, but now everyone is containerised. Changi Airport set a new standard as a regional hub, but its edge has now been blunted by Dubai. Singapore pioneered export-oriented industrialisation, sucking in American capital and spewing forth goods for American consumers, but neither American capital nor the American consumer market is quite so rich these days — and in any case they have plenty of other options now.

In the early 1980s Singapore was also ahead of the world in investing in China, and made itself integral to a China-based international manufacturing network. Singapore is still integral, but Chinese growth has slowed to less than 7 per cent per annum, and — just as in the case of the United States — China has many more options now.

Lee Hsein Loong

In Search of New Big Ideas

Singapore is now desperately in need of some new big ideas, but finding them is easier said than done. The government has seen these challenges coming since the 1990s and has made many attempts to build alternative sources of enterprise for the island, but with limited success. Its efforts to establish itself as a hub for biotech research have returned very little. Its attempts to become a regional education hub have suffered many failures, most notably the collapse of the University of New South Wales Asia in 2007. And the ongoing life of its educational successes (such as Yale-National University of Singapore College) depend entirely on the government continuing to pump big money into its ventures.

Combating Complacency

Singapore has had more success turning itself into a medical tourism hub, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps it is indicative of the problems faced by the post-Lee Kuan Yew generation that the government’s most successful ‘new economy’ venture is a pair of casinos — which is really not a very new idea at all.

In the meantime the efforts to limit the inflow of foreign guest workers is making it much harder to conduct business because the economy is still geared to the tired old model that relied on cheap and compliant labour.

Singapore- No Tolerance for Corruption

Given these challenges, it is perhaps remarkable that one of the more significant dangers for the government is a return to the complacency that led it to this point in the first place. If the general election of 2015 was full of rainbows for the government, the biggest cloud on the horizon now is complacency. A nice problem to have, perhaps, but one that could prove inimical to good government Singapore-style.

Michael D. Barr is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review


Happy 50th Birthday, Singapore

August 9, 2015

Happy 50th Birthday, Singapore

LKY-tribute-2Dr Kamsiah and I join friends  and well wishers of Singapore to extend our sincere congratulations on the 50th Anniversary of Independence. We admire your many achievements and pray that Singaporeans will continue to prosper in peace and harmony.

We have one request to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet and that is Singapore should honour its founding father, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew  Kuan in a significant way. We suggest that  they should rename Changi International Airport. After all, it was Mr Lee who took the bold decision to relocate to Changi from Payar Lebar.  What a fitting tribute it will be for Southeast Asia’s Statesman of the 20th century. He will be remembered every time a jetliner touches down in Singapore.–Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

As Singapore turns 50, a proud nation prepares to party

The Republic of Singapore Air Force helicopters fly past with the national flag during a Golden Jubilee celebration rehearsal in Singapore August 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Edgar Su

Festooned with countless red and white flags, Singapore kicks off an extravagant celebration of its 50th anniversary on Sunday, an occasion of national pride the city state’s ruling party is expected to exploit to call an election next month.

It will be the second time this year that Singaporeans have come together to reflect on the extraordinary success of a tiny nation, after they mourned the death of first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in late March.

An island of 5.5 million people that sits just north of the equator, what was a post-colonial backwater at independence from Malaysia in 1965 is now a global business hub whose economic and social model is the envy of nations around the world.

The government intends to showcase its success in an elaborate parade that will include a flypast by fighter jets and fireworks for an audience of 200,000 as well as millions watching on television from their living rooms.

It’s only 50 years for a small nation like us, so we have achieved so much. It’s a year that Singaporeans will want to remember forever,” said Yang Jie Ling a 17-year-old student.

The government has granted an extra day of public holiday, and handed out commemorative tote bags stuffed with national flags along with snacks and games from Singapore’s yesteryear.

Regional leaders attending the festivities will include Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss.

The official logo for the celebration is a red dot, a symbol of pride and defiance since the 1990s when an Indonesian leader was reported to have referred to Singapore dismissively as “a little red dot” on the map. The image, with “SG50” in white characters, is ubiquitous, adorning banners, buses, cakes and a host of goods in shops.

A recording of Lee Kuan Yew reading the Proclamation of Independence, the document that announced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, will be played on all radio and television channels at 9 a.m. (0100 GMT)

Lee’s son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is widely expected to call the next election as early as September.

His long-ruling party suffered its worst showing at the polls in the last parliamentary election in 2011 due to discontent over issues from a widening wealth gap, sky-rocketing property prices and an influx of foreign workers.

Political analysts expect Lee’s party to win more votes this time, in part thanks to the patriotism and feel good factor of the anniversary celebrations but also the government’s efforts to address issues irking the public.

Still, when the banners are taken down, Singapore will return to debates over how to keep the economy growing while combating a low birth rate, anger over prices and a backlash over many years of liberal immigration policies.

(Additional reporting by Natasha Howitt; Editing by John Chalmers, Robert Birsel)