Flying the flag, living the dream

The flags have been fluttering all week long, red-and-white Singapore flags strung out like bunting on roadsides and hung out from windows and balconies, draping every building in sight. “Happy 45th birthday, Singapore,” proclaim billboards and banners. “Live our dreams, fly our flag” exhort others, showing the smiling faces of Singapore’s leaders.

The hour is approaching, as I write this, when air force planes and  helicopters will fly past, bearing the state flag while thousands cheer at the National Day parade. The leaders waving to the crowd will be dressed in spotless white, the colour of purity and the choice of the ruling People’s Action Party to show it stands for a clean government. The government that Singapore has known since independence; the party has never been out of power.

If there is drama in history, the Singapore story is a sentimental comedy where, after early vicissitudes, the dramatis personae are basking in peace and prosperity. The singers and dancers who will entertain the crowd after the military parade will be celebrating 45 years of independence that began in a most unlikely fashion – with Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, biting his lips to hold back tears as he announced the island’s separation from Malaysia on August 9, 1965. The video can still be seen on YouTube. That’s the genesis of National Day: Muslim-majority Malaysia did not want overwhelmingly Chinese Singapore to upset its racial balance.

The outcome could not have been sweeter. The glitzy National Day parade, with parachutists airdropping and dancers gyrating amid laser lights, is a spectacular display of the wealth and showmanship of one of Asia’s richest nations. One wonders what memories it will bring to Lee Kuan Yew, now all of 86 years old and a minister still in his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s cabinet. Will he be recalling the early years of uncertainty? The television cameras that zoom in on him at every National Day parade cannot capture the thoughts flitting behind the age-lined face that has seen so much.

Singapore has had its share of trials and tribulations and not everyone has pulled through to share the fruits of prosperity. About a quarter of the more than 30,000 workers affected  when the Royal Navy pulled out of Singapore following the pound’s devaluation in 1967 were Indians and Malaysians who had to leave with retrenchment benefits, according to a local newspaper report  in 1974.

The newspaper report was about the Singaporeans who remained and the new jobs they found. That’s Singapore, letting bygones be bygones. There are others who have come and gone. That and a low birth rate have kept unemployment down to   2.3 per cent. About a third of Singapore’s three-million-strong labour force are foreigners, who are brought in and sent back depending on whether they are needed or not.

There is an ebb and flow not only of foreign workers. The landscape is constantly changing, too.  An old building where I stayed for a year has been torn down, a new one coming up in its place. Another apartment building where I lived for a long time was being sold, I heard last year, to a developer who planned a new condominium. Two gleaming towers now await occupants on what used to be open ground near my home. There is no eternal rest even for the dead. Graves have been dug up , the remains removed, from one of the largest cemeteries to make way for houses.

It is the dynamics of a city, which is thriving at present and planning for the future with no time to dwell on the past. The prime minister in his National Day address from the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton, Singapore’s tallest public Housing Board apartment complex, outlined new schemes to prepare students and workers for good jobs and a brighter future. He spoke about the need to attract more immigrants to expand the talent pool while at the same time promising to control the inflow. His only reference to the past was to note the economy has rebounded strongly from the recession.

He ended by wishing everyone a happy National Day. That day is dawning. The darkness outside my window while I had been writing through the dead of night is fading. It is time to get up and smell the coffee, not that I need the caffeine when I am already charged up with anticipation about the day ahead. There is something about Singapore that hooks you. “Remember, we are descendants of immigrants too,” the prime minister reminded his fellow Singaporeans.

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