SPEECH BY PRESIDENT TONY TAN KENG YAM AT LUNCH FOR GOVERNMENT REPRESENTATIVES ATTENDING THE NATIONAL DAY PARADE ON 9 AUGUST 2015
Your Royal Highness
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Thank you for joining us today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. A Golden Jubilee is a significant milestone, particularly for a young nation like ours. We are delighted to celebrate it with our friends who have made important contributions to our development. Thank you for your steadfast support and friendship through the decades.
I would like to make special mention of the countries which established diplomatic ties with us in 1965 - Australia, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand and the UK. We are also delighted that PM John Key is here today. He shares the same birthday as Singapore, although he is four years older.
Spirit of our Pioneer Generation
Looking back at where we were fifty years ago, Singapore has come a long way. Our early years were difficult and our survival was very much in doubt. Our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had expressed his deep apprehensions then when he said
“We faced tremendous odds with an improbable chance of survival…
We inherited the island without its hinterland, a heart without a body”.
As an island city state, we had no natural resources; a weak economic base; a small and largely uneducated workforce; and little defence capabilities.
But Mr Lee and our founding generation of leaders overcame our limitations with guts, conviction and perseverance. The people shared their vision and resolve. Together, our pioneer generation tackled our challenges with stout hearts. Together, we transformed vulnerability into advantage. First, to make a living with whatever little we had. And second, to protect this island city-state that we now call home.
I was in Australia pursuing my graduate studies when Mr Lee Kuan Yew announced Singapore’s independence. My wife was with me. I remember that, although anxious about what was to come, we were excited that Singaporeans could now chart our country’s future as an independent nation and we looked forward to returning home to Singapore after my studies to play our part in building a nation that we could call our own.
One important skill a fledgling nation needed to quickly master was diplomacy. This was no mean feat. When our first Foreign Minister Mr Rajaratnam was asked to give a press conference, he asked Mr Lee Kuan Yew “What shall I tell them?”. Mr Lee’s reply was “Never mind Raja. Just wear a tie, and you’ll think of something.” Such was the tenacity and enterprising spirit of our pioneer generation.
The Role of ASEAN
Singapore could not have made it on our own. We are grateful for friends who have supported us during our crucial formative years. In particular, we were fortunate to have like-minded neighbours who believed that regional security and cooperation were critical to promoting economic growth and strengthening the long-term development of Southeast Asia.
This shared vision gave rise to the formation of ASEAN. With Indonesia playing a critical role through its diplomatic efforts, the five Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore gathered in Bang Saen, Thailand to engage in “sports-shirt diplomacy” as they discussed the draft ASEAN Declaration over golf, and followed up with successful negotiations that led to the signing of the ASEAN Declaration in Bangkok in 1967.
Over the decades, ASEAN has remained the cornerstone of Singapore’s foreign policy. This is crucial to our security and economic well-being. ASEAN provides the architecture to underpin regional stability, and integrates the regional economies internally and with the world.
Support of Other Regional and International Friends
We are equally grateful to our other regional and international partners for their friendship and assistance. The Commonwealth welcomed Singapore as its 22nd member, a few months after our independence. It enabled us to connect with governments which shared a common background and language. When the first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was held here in 1971, Singapore was provided a valuable opportunity to raise our international profile.
In the same year, the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand signed the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). At a time when Singapore was still developing our Armed Forces, the FPDA helped to assure our security. Today, the FPDA remains an important multilateral defence forum for regional security cooperation.
Singapore also benefitted from technical assistance and expert advice from international organisations. The late Dr Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist, led the United Nations Survey Mission to Singapore in 1961 and later helped formulate Singapore’s economic policy. The International Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Development Bank awarded us funding for key infrastructure projects. The Colombo Plan scholarships sponsored young Singaporeans, including many of our serving and former Cabinet Ministers, to study in countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This helped build our human capital.
Giving Back and Furthering Cooperation
Having grown and progressed with the assistance of our foreign friends, we decided to pay it forward by starting the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) in 1992. The SCP shares our developmental experiences with other countries, in many areas ranging from sustainable urbanisation to public governance to human resource development. We were delighted to have welcomed the 100,000th SCP participant to Singapore in July this year.
We worked with like-minded countries to initiate several inter-regional mechanisms, including the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), the Asia-Middle-East Dialogue (AMED) and the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC). These platforms have helped to foster greater dialogue and cooperation among different countries and regions.
In the late 1990s, Singapore spearheaded the signing of bilateral and multilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) to strengthen cross-border trade and investments, and to ensure that the world economy remained open. Amongst the FTAs we signed was the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership or P4 Agreement, with Brunei, Chile and New Zealand, the precursor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.
In 2003, Singapore was hit by the Severe Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. Our health agencies worked closely with the World Health Organisation, the Communicable Diseases Centre in the US, as well as governments in the region and beyond to combat the pandemic. This highlighted the importance of coordinated responses towards global crises. In this spirit, we have established a Regional Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief Coordination Centre to coordinate efforts towards large-scale emergencies, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal.
Looking to a New World Ahead
Your Royal Highness
In March this year, Mr Lee Kuan Yew sadly passed away. Many Singaporeans very much wished that he could join us in our Golden Jubilee celebrations, and share in the joy and pride of a young and dynamic nation that he and his colleagues fought hard and dedicated their lives to build. Though Mr Lee is no longer with us, his spirit and that of the pioneer generation live on, vibrant and strong.
Mr Lee once said that as a small country, Singapore has to live with the world as it is, not as we wish it should be. Looking ahead to the next 50 years, the world we live in will become even more complex and inter-dependent. The specter of terrorism inspired by religious extremism, climate change, the risks of pandemics, and cyber and trans-national crimes, are just some of the generational challenges we have to tackle. New and difficult challenges will also emerge. These demand a more vigilant and coordinated international community that works in close partnerships to devise creative solutions to address regional and global problems; and to make the world better for future generations.
We are deeply honoured by your presence today. As we stand on the cusp of a new era, we look forward to further deepening relations with you.
Thank you for making the Singapore Story possible.
May I now invite you to rise and join me in a toast:
- To the continued peace, success and prosperity of our countries; and
- To our enduring friendships