To the class of 2126, we have made it! Who would have thought that Singapore would have come this far and who would have thought that we could even be the first batch of students to graduate from the Raffles School of the Freedom of Thought? But we have.
Just a few decades ago, Singapore was still a rural community. The Singapore economy had hollowed out, after Singapore’s golden age in the late 20th century, and there were only a few of our fore-parents who continued to tend to the land in Singapore in the late 21st century.
I would like to take this opportunity to remember our history.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Singapore reached its peak of excellence, where the people enjoyed a high standard of living and lived at a time where we could hold our own in the world, even as we were just a tiny red dot. Our economy blossomed and because of our strong legal and regulatory framework, many global companies chose to invest in Singapore. Singapore was a booming trade economy, and was one of the world’s most reputable air and sea hubs. Singapore was then a shining example for many around the world, who had wanted to emulate Singapore and our success.
We were well-positioned between the then-developed and developing economies, where we could provide a relatively low-cost hub for multi-national companies (MNCs) from the developed countries, while allowing ourselves to be a transitionary port-of-call for businesses and migrants from the developing countries.
As time grew by, we had developed a well-skilled workforce, trained to become the leading workers of the 21st century. However, the education system at that time had developed such a strong focus on rote-learning, examinations and scores that it had developed pools of workers who were able to efficiently complete administrative tasks but were inept at thinking on their feet and devising solutions for the knowledge economy.
Now, in the 22nd century, this is what we have been taught, that education is the foundation and cornerstone of any society. We must always build a critically-thinking population of youths, who are proactive in seeking out knowledge and who are active thinkers and solution-makers. Indeed, as history had shown, when businesses started leaving Singapore in the 2030s, Singapore was left with a pool of workers who had to start all-over again by themselves and who had to relearn how to think, but who were hard-pressed to do so. We lost many generations and decades to the flawed education system of yesteryears. Singapore will always be remembered as having produced one of the best mathematics and science scores in the world at that time, but where only a few could get ahead while the rest stagnated.
2020s: Bursting Of The Housing Bubble
Many of us would have remembered stories from our grandparents about how the housing bubble had burst in the mid-2020s. Many had warned the then-government since the late 2000s that the speculation on housing was running out of control and that it would be detrimental to the economy if housing prices went wayward. Still, the then-government only introduced piecemeal changes aimed at reducing the demand among the poor, whilst allowing the rich to continue to buy property and speculate prices upwards.
Housing prices continued to grow until the late-2010s, before prices started to stagnate. More than a quarter to one-third of the populations were holding on to bad debts and couldn’t repay their loans. After nearly two decades of wages which had remained depressed and stagnant, while housing prices continue to exacerbate at levels far beyond the growth of wages, the proportion of Singaporeans who could no longer service their debts had their houses repossessed increased by leaps and folds.
Meanwhile, the migrant workers were beginning to leave the country, as they saw for themselves the danger that the Singapore economy was going into. The then-Housing Development Board was left with a glut of flats, which eventually led home prices to collapse, and the housing bubble finally burst in Singapore by the mid-2020s.
2030s: Economic Stagnation
That was only the start of Singapore’s economic U-turn. After two decades of rising rentals, businesses were beginning to move en masse to nearby regional cities in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok. Jakarta, Manila and Ho Chi Minh City. As we had learnt in Singapore’s political history, because of the then-government’s direct handling of the economy as a key economic player, the Singapore government was in effect directly competing with the other local businesses and MNCs in the market. Because of the government’s direct competition and its size, it prevented small businesses from growing because the unabated increase in rentals could not allow them to sustain their businesses. Meanwhile, global businesses were beginning to be stifled as rents rose. Due to the depressed wages, employees lost their drive and commitment at work and productivity dropped to its lowest in Singapore. Singapore was then ranked as having the lowest productivity levels among the developed countries.
Even though the government had continued to increase the funding they dispense for start-ups to drive innovation, this still weren’t able to kickstart local innovation as the root cause of the lack of start-ups wasn’t primarily in funding. Fundamentally, the massive costs, such as high rentals, required to start a business turned many potential business owners away. Also, the years of structured education had inculcated among Singaporeans a rigidity in thinking, which did not allow for the flexibility required to operate a business in a fast-changing environment.
Reducing Taxes On The Rich To Increase Jobs
As such, when businesses started leaving in the late-2020s, there was a growing gap in the economy which couldn’t be filled. In a bid to continue to make Singapore attractive for investors and the wealthy, the government reduced corporate taxes to 0% and reduced the tax rates for the wealthy. Meanwhile, the lower- and middle-income earners were made to shoulder the burden of increasing taxes. Singaporeans were told that in order for Singapore to continue surviving, we should have to reduce taxes on the rich so that more billionaires would come into Singapore to set up businesses, and create jobs for the local economy to spur the economy forward.
But this never happened. The wealthy were beginning to realise how the economic policies of Singapore were being mismanaged and had started to leave, taking their wealth with them. The income inequality continued to widen at an even faster pace. Meanwhile, as more and more of the rich began leaving, the Singaporeans who were left here struggled with their low wages and rising prices.
However, the politicians then continued to pay themselves million-dollar salaries and refused to take a significant pay-cut. They also refused to reduce rentals. As the government was in the business of maximising profits from the domestic market, wages were depressed to their lower levels while prices were at their maximum. With a dwindling population of high-income earners to prop up the economy, the government-linked companies were fast making losses, which in turn, were causing the government’s investment companies then, Temasek Holdings and the GIC to also make fast losses.
2030s: Revolution in Singapore
This caused the people to also lose their CPF’s savings as their savings were invested in their government’s investment companies. As the government went into panic-mode and continued to increase taxes on the low- and middle-income earners to make up for the losses, and as the people continued to lose their CPF savings through these losses, a mass protest broke out. Singapore saw its largest protest ever as thousands of Singaporeans tore through the streets into Orchard Road and marched for weeks, chanting for the government to step down. The throng of protesters reached a peak of more than 1 million Singaporeans and residents, demanding for revolution.
Finally, the government stood down and re-elections were called. Some of the politicians took their money with them and scotted out of the country. They followed the thousands who could who had fled and the thousands who would follow.
The re-election was held where Singaporeans voted in majority of the politicians from the Worker’s Party, Singapore People’s Party, National Solidarity Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. However, the Singapore economy by the late-2030s was in very bad shape, and as much as the newly-elected government tried to reduce rents and taxes and pumped in whatever money was left in the reserves to drive the economy, there was only as much as can be done. They had tried their very best but they were picking up the pieces left by the mismanagement of the previous government.
When they finally managed to open the accounts, it was only then that they realised how much money had withered away from Singapore.
Crucial Point: General Election 2015
We know that the crucial election in Singapore was in 2015. Calls were made for Singaporeans to bring in a more diverse representation in government, so that the government could change the policies to benefit more Singaporeans and allow Singapore to be a more equal society. However, as 2015 was also Singapore’s 50th anniversary from the 1965 independence, the “feel-good” atmosphere created resulted in many Singaporeans who become inclined to voting for the ruling party. The opposition won only 28% of the seats, less than the one-third required to block changes in government.
Emboldened, the then-government, ran by the ruling party, rampaged with policies to curb the development of new online news sites and increased the performance bond of existing online news sites to $300,000. “Alternative” news sites thus had to close down. The ruling party also harassed members from the opposition parties, leading to the opposition winning even lesser votes at the next general election in 2020.
From then on, Singaporeans lost their source of “alternative” news information and there weren’t enough politicians from the other parties who could represent them, until the revolution tens year later.
2040s: The Wealthy Leave Singapore
By the 2040s, most of the wealthy had migrated out of Singapore. The Singaporeans who had families and relatives in other countries were also managed to escape out of Singapore. Some Singaporeans who had bought property in Johor left for Malaysia but had difficulties finding jobs initially. Fortunately, some Singaporeans brought their businesses over to Iskandar and were able to tide themselves over the change.
Meanwhile, there were about 500,000 left in Singapore. The migrant workers had returned to their home countries en masse. More than a million of the wealthy had fled. And more than a million had gone into the surrounding countries.
The then-Malaysian government had decided to designate Malacca as a key economic node. Many of the shipping lines diverted from Singapore to Malacca. Many Singaporeans also left to find jobs in Malacca, and in Iskandar.
By the late 2040s, many Singaporeans were living in poverty. The Singaporeans who remained in Singapore left to find work in Malacca and Iskander as construction workers and domestic workers. They then sent money back to sustain the local population.
Most Singaporeans took up farming to develop local produce to sustain themselves. Pulau Tekong, Pulau Ubin, parts of the Central Catchment Area and western Singapore were converted into farmlands.
2050s: The Singapore Economy Hollows Out
By the 2050s, Singapore was relying predominantly on rural farming and guest workers who were sending money back into Singapore. The Singapore economy had hollowed out, as Malacca overtook Singapore as the regional port and Iskander became the regional economic hub.
In 2065, a hundred years after Singapore’s independence, the then-Singaporean government negotiated a treaty with the Malaysian government for Singapore to be absorbed back into Malaysia. The Malaysian government would allow Singaporeans access to the Malaysian schools and take on jobs in Malaysia. Malaysia in the 2060s had grown economically strong. Race-based politics was also a thing of the past as the different races had learnt to work together to manage the country together. As more Singaporeans left to study and work in different parts of Malaysia, the population in Singapore dwindled to less than 200,000 people.
At the turn of the century, things started looking up for Singapore again. The Malaysian government decided to focus its attention on developing Singapore again. An economic plan was developed for Iskander to expand into Singapore. A local autonomous government was instituted in Singapore. For the first time, the people in Singapore were able to elect their own local government after many decades. The children of those who had left came back to help rebuild Singapore.
Protecting The Right And Freedom To Equal Education
Today, we stand in the school where the “first” generation had built. They had built the Raffles School of the Freedom of Thought to enshrine the freedom and integrity of learning. Today, we remember that the ability to think shouldn’t be just for the confines of a few “elites” but for all. Today, we learn that for our society to grow and develop, all must be equal and all must be respected.
Our school’s founding leaders have also reminded us how Singapore had tried to grow itself as an educational hub in the 2010s, but foreign universities which were brought in had left because they did not want to hold simply to the economic ideals that the then-government had wanted, but wanted to enshrine learning. The Yale-NUS College had also left in 2026, after 10 years of being in Singapore, because of the restrictions that they had faced in not being able to form political organisations and critique the politics in Singapore. This had smacked in the face of the type of liberal education which they were built on.
Today, our school faces the Hong Lim Park, home to some of the most ardent protests in Singapore a century ago. Our school is situated here so that this will serve as a memory to us to always protect our the integrity and rights of the people in Singapore, and to remember that no one is above all, and all is equal.
A Society That Is Unequal And Divided Will Fall
Our history has shown that a society which becomes highly unequal would one day tear itself apart, as Singapore had in the early part of the 21st century. We must never repeat the same mistake again where the political leaders then had not listen and brought Singapore down an unequal path. The unequal education system, coupled with higher taxes ladened on the poor, created a chasm that could not be filled but by revolution. By then, it was too late. Singapore collapsed. The people had many other opportunities earlier but because they have learnt to become docile and to be led by fear, they had not stood up to protect themselves until things could no longer be contained.
Today, as we reflect, we know that many paths could have been taken differently and Singapore need not have collapsed in the mid-21st century. In 2015, if Singaporeans had voted for a more diverse representation into the government, they could have formed a government which would be able to bring more parity to the Singaporean society then. Policies could have been amended to allow the education system to be more equal. Examinations could be reduced to allow space for all students to learn critical thinking skills, so that all of them could learn to create solutions for Singapore.
The country could have implemented minimum wage, or allowed their unions to become independent, so that they could negotiate with companies on fairer wages to remunerate their workers. The government could take reduce rentals, and reduce their direct participation in the economy.
If the government had then allowed for a freer media, where Singaporeans could be more informed and involved in their politics and society, they would also be able to partake in creating solutions for their country. The government would have been able to respond to the people’s needs with more sensitivity and would have been able to prevent the housing bubble from happening. Even when the economy collapsed, the people would then be able to have the resilience to pick themselves up and to locally innovate to build up a new economy in Singapore, if they had been given the intellectual space to do so.
Singaporeans Need To Learn From Our Past Mistakes
Today, we have learnt the mistakes of the government of then. Today, in Singapore, our government is made up of different representations and parties. It is enshrined in our constitution that there must always be a diverse representation in government, and that a number of seats must always be set aside for minority groups or key populations, such as for the low-income, the elderly and workers as well.
Today, all the estates of governance are also independent so that they can truly check on each other. We cannot have another episode where the Attorney General’s Chambers becomes used as a tool by the government to whitewash the government’s responsibility. We cannot allow the Law Society to become so crippled that it cannot advocate against injustice. We cannot allow for the Internal Security Act to be used frivolously by a government with unrestrained power.
Today, we know of a history which is not written by who is in power but from many sources and thinking, and we know that we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. If I have a message that I could send to my friends who were living in the period in the 2010s in Singapore, I would say this to them:
“Dear friends, we have lived in a time of fear for too long. For too long, we have been told that Singapore would fail, but we have time and again, succeeded, as long as we come together and work together. The key to Singapore succeeding is not in protecting a group of people and enshrining their power. It is not in allowing some people to get ahead of others, in a “meritocracy” that favours a particular group of people over others.
Time and again, and over history, we have seen that societies which are the most equal will create a lot more possibilities. Societies where the people are free to speak and think will come together and work for the society’s future with more resilience and commitment. My friends, if we could live in the 2010s again, I wish that you had made the right choice, to go beyond the fears that you had been taught to remember, to look beyond and think about what you would really want.
Singapore is at the crossroads. We can build a new future with all of us, committed to making it happen. But in order for us to do so, we need to allow everyone to be given the opportunity. Our government needs to be honest with us and share with us what’s really going on in Singapore. We need a fair and just government that can represent the rights of all, and not just of a few. We need to put in a government that will enshrine equality and fairness, and work towards listening to the poor, the elderly and the workers. A government which will look out for the “weakest” in society will ensure that the society will grow together.
You have a choice, Singaporeans. You can set things right.”