2. On what made Singapore a nation: Luck, History and Leadership (SG50+ Conference 2015)

Dr Zakaria: When you watch what’s going on in the Middle East today where, from Syria to Libya, what has collapsed is not just the state but the nation. There are simply not many Iraqis who believe in Iraq as a national project, Syria as a national project, Libya as a national project. So what do you think made a nation in the case of Singapore where this polyglot population, people who had migrated here for reasons of colonial trade? PM: Partly good luck, partly good history, partly good leadership. Leadership has a lot to do with it. It is not something which would have happened on its own. History has something to do with it because if we had not gone through those experiences before independence in the 1950s and early 60s – the troubles with the left-wing and the communist unions and riots, the difficulties with the communalists in Malaysia, the feeling of oppression, of helplessness, of not mastering your own destiny, which caused us to decide that we will be masters of our destiny. And then if we had not had good luck along the way to have America engage in the region, the Vietnam War last long enough so that we could establish ourselves, and Southeast Asia become a region of peace and stability with a stable government in Indonesia after Sukarno when Suharto took over, giving us the possibility as a small nation to prosper in peace in the international community of nations, I don’t think we might have made it. And as Lee Kuan Yew used to say, if he did it again, he might not be as lucky the second time. Dr Zakaria: How fragile is the accomplishment. How much do you worry? PM: We worry all the time. People say we are paranoid, which I suppose we are and we need to be. Because you are at a higher level, you expect to be at a higher level. You don’t expect to go back to where you were in the 1960s. And yet, it is not natural that you stay at this place. Is it to be expected that the population of 3.5 million citizens and maybe a million foreign workers will have the best airline in the world, the best airport in the world, one of the busiest ports in the world, a financial centre which is one of three or four key financial centres in the world, and an education, healthcare and housing system which gives us a per capita GDP which is, at least by World Bank calculations if you look at PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), higher than America or Australia or Japan. It’s an entirely unnatural state of affairs and one which we should count our blessings for, if not every day at least every election. [Laughter]

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