Singapore has replaced Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city according to a cost of living survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It caps a remarkable transformation for the Southeast Asian city-state, from impoverished British colony to one of the world’s most prestigious resides.
In February 1942, the Japanese Army captured Singapore, marking one of the lowest points for Britain during the Second World War. When the occupation ended in September 1945, and the British returned, Singapore constituted a largely-rural collection of islands, agriculture dominating over other forms of commerce.
Rather than the sprawling mega-city of today, Singapore was made-up of a series of kampongs, small hamlets and villages of wooden huts surrounding a plot of land usually reserved for subsistence farming.
In June 1948, the Malayan Emergency began when British colonial forces attempted to stop a guerrilla insurgency carried out by the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malaysian Communist Party, which had support in Singapore.
During the 1950s, Singapore agitated for greater self-governance, led by the energetic and inspirational Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP). Awarded self-governance in 1959, Singapore unilaterally declared independence in August 1963 with the intention of joining the newly-constituted state of Malaysia which had developed out of the Federation of Malaya. Union with Malaysia did not work out, however, and in August 1965 Singapore separated from its neighbour, being admitted into the United Nations (UN) a month later.
The constant political jostling and appeal for indigenous rights after WWII prevented a serious economic overhaul in Singapore which, with a fairly well-educated and industrious Chinese-majority population, had the potential for significant growth.
In the midst of the independence campaign, however, Lee Kuan Yew endorsed an important plan for economic development. In 1961, Dutchman Albert Winsemius visited the country as part of a UN Technical Assistance programme. As Lee notes in his memoirs, Singapore was still in its infancy at the time:
We were then heavily dependent on trade, especially entrepot transactions…Things were so bad that when a local manufacturer planned to expand his cotton-spinning textile mill to include weaving and finishing, it was big news because it would increase the labour force by 300. We were desperate for jobs. Tourism was then an infant industry, as most tourists visited developed countries. (Lee Kuan Kew, 2000, p.180)
Winsemius suggested a plan for industrialisation, which was launched immediately. After going it alone in 1965, Singapore embarked on decades of unprecedented growth, creating a skilled industrial base that relied on market expertise rather than cheap labour and low-end products; a regional financial centre was established and a number of multinational corporations were attracted to headquarter in Singapore; agriculture was gradually eradicated as free land was gobbled up for commercial enterprises and high-rise residences. The export-driven economy, coupled with the need to import virtually all raw materials, also helped Singapore develop one of the world’s largest cargo ports.
All this from a country reliant on rudimentary cotton mills back in the early 1960s. Of course, high living costs are not necessarily a good thing but, given that Singapore has the third-largest per capita GDP in the world, its citizens can afford the high prices. Quality of life has improved almost incomparably since the dying days of British colonialism.
Without a visionary leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, a convenient geostrategic location, and the timely arrival of a pragmatic Dutch industrialist, Singapore’s position in the world today would almost certainly be less significant.
Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story (2000)