19 September 2003

Singapore's Qin Shihuang

Merlion turns 80; scribbers, biographers, hired pens mythologise; flags wave, hymns are sung, and there was a voice from the heavens saying, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased". Well, this might as well be the headlines concerning a minor event that transpired earlier this week.

You might've thought that the mythologising of leaders died out with Stalin, Lenin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung (who can hardly forget the North Korean myth that says the mountains burst out in song during the birth of the Great Leader?). In our little democratic and capitalist island at least, this wonderful tradition of deifying god-kings and philosopher-kings is still very much alive.

To commemorate the eightieth birthday of the abovementioned Merlion, the living person was instantly transmogrified into an icon and a myth by the fawning press and members of the "international business community" - which mostly consisted of Hongkong businessmen who long for a strong leader.

One local journalist even went to the extent of saying that Singapore would be nothing if not for this great Merlion; if we had any other leader as our first post-independence Prime Minister, Singapore would either end up as "a nation of sake drinkers" since Lim Yew Hock would've probably sold Singapore as easily as he sold Christmas Island to a foreign nation, or "a nation of wine-guzzling idealists espousing liberal views" if the liberal David Marshall had been at the helm... i.e. incompetent and drunken and so unlike the Pragmatic Singaporean that we have all learnt to stop fearing, and love. Now, this journalist is lower than a snake's belly, by insulting the memories and denigrating the leadership, capability, and honesty of two of Singapore's pre-independence Chief Ministers. Do we really need to villify and diminish previous leaders so that we can recognise the worth of one leader?

Now, the Merlion has been credited for leaving his mark in history by being 'indispensable' to Singapore's development. Let us take a look at a few of these claims.

1. The Communist Issue. Mostly formulated as "The Merlion slew the Communist Tiger and saved Singapore in the 50s and 60s. Without him, we'd be a Red Nation, and democracy would've been poorer in the region".

Wrong. The British undertook strong, violent, and often dirty Anti-Communist efforts in all their colonies and ex-colonies during the 50s and 60s. In Canada, India, Burma, Hongkong, and Malaya... the British waged a de facto "take no prisoners" war against the Communist threat. In all occasions, the Communists were imprisoned, killed, and their credibility completely destroyed.

Singapore would've ended up beating the Communists without the Merlion, and would've employed the same strong-arm tactics that the Merlion used.

2. Independence as a separate nation. Formulated as "Without the Merlion, Singapore would be either part of the Indian Administration, or the Federation of Malaya".

Wrong. The British had a clear pattern for partitioning their ex-colonies before granting independence. The US and Canada used to be a single British Colony. So were Iraq and Kuwait. Israel and Palestine. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Malaysia and Brunei. Most of the time, the terms of independence set by the British would ensure a speedy split within the original single colonial posession.

3. Industrialisation. "Without the Merlion, Singapore would never have been a truly urban, industrialised, first-world-wannabe nation."


Firstly, Singapore has NEVER been a rural place during its modern history (aka After Raffles). Singapore was a strongly urban area, and was increasingly so with the massive influx of immigrants. As an independent nation, industrialisation would've 1. been the natural fate of a highly urban population, and 2. would've been the only way out.

Secondly, Singapore was granted independence in the 1960s, a period when Asian and African colonial posessions were quickly and ignominously divested by their former European masters. The United Nations, IMF, and the World Bank, were instrumental in the international project to help these new nations industrialise. Singapore received financial assistance from the US, technology transfer from Taiwan and Japan, and teams of UN experts were instrumental in drawing up the first Singapore Urban Plan, of which all future Urban Plans in our country rested on.

Was Singapore the creation of one central, indispensable man? The biographers, mythologisers, and hired pens would have you believe so. Please don't.

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