Most people would agree that turning 49 years old puts you firmly in the middle-aged category but not when it comes to nation-building. The country of my birth, Singapore, hits this milestone this month – not quite an adult but definitely no longer an infant state.
Singapore has exceeded expectations in its almost half century. The British had originally meant for the city to be part of Malaysia but we were booted out in 1965 because of racial tensions, becoming one of only a handful of sovereign city states in the world. It was fast progress – and this remains at the heart of the national ethos.
Our anthem “Majulah Singapura” means “Onwards Singapore” in the Malay language and on a recent trip home I couldn’t help but marvel at the continuing pace of change. In the five years since I moved to Toronto, Singapore has relentlessly added skyscrapers and other landmarks including the iconic Marina Bay Sands, the almost sci-fi Gardens by the Bay and the string of shopping centres along Orchard Road. Currently Changi International Airport is embarking on Project Jewel, a massive mixed-use development.
Singapore, it seems, continues to wait for no man. But there’s growing consensus that maybe it should. While the unemployment rate is at just 2 per cent, income inequality here is among the highest for OECD countries. A liberal immigration policy has led to an influx of more than 300,000 residents since 2010, which has proved challenging in terms of social cohesion. Last year, Singapore experienced its first race riot in 40 years and many question the state’s reliance on migrant workers. Public transport is bursting at the seams.
As a result of all this, a growing number of young Singaporeans are pausing to reflect and rethink about where we want to be heading as a country. More and more are eschewing once-respected nine-to-five jobs to pursue their passions fulltime – from fashion to literature and coffee. The old public housing estates of Outram Park and Tiong Bahru have become creative hotbeds for many to showcase their products. The city is finally investing in a different kind of cultural capital and it is a change we should welcome.
I think that soon this new brand Singapore will be as recognisable as our flourishing skyline. It might take a few years, even decades, but I’m confident we’ll get there. “Majulah Singapura”, indeed.
Jason Li is a researcher and writer for Monocle’s Toronto bureau.