Cockeye leading to supposedly parallel paths to independence

I refer to the 13 Jun 2014 Straits Times article “US and S’pore: Parallel paths on the road to independence” by Professor Peter A. Coclanis.

Professor Coclanis was far off the mark when he likened Singapore’s path to independence to America’s long and tortuous one.

• America had to go to war for its independence, Singapore on the hand, never fired a single shot for our independence. If professor Coclanis could refer to US’ peace treaty with Great Britain in 1783, surely he must know that Singapore had no such treaty with Great Britain?

• American independence leaders put their lives on the line for their people, Singapore’s leaders merely received independence without ever getting into harm’s way.

• American independence leaders wanted independence. Singapore leaders didn’t even want independence; we were kicked out of Malaysia.

• American independence leaders were either joyous or relieved when independence was finally won. For one Singapore leader it was a moment of anguish and an occasion for crying on national television.

The difference between American independence and Singapore independence is as different as day and night. The similarity that Professor Coclanis finds in Singapore’s independence situation and that of America’s reads more like fiction than fact.

Professor Coclanis’ claim that newly independent Singapore struggled to establish credibility in the international community holds no water:

• Singapore joined the United Nations just one month after independence

• The following year, in 1966, Singapore joined World Bank, IMF and the British Commonwealth

• Another year later in 1967, Singapore joined the newly formed ASEAN

The rapid inclusion of Singapore in all major international and regional organizations after independence suggests that Singapore did not struggle with credibility in the international community. Professor Coclanis might be interested to know that the Singapore flag had already been raised at the 1960 Rome Olympics when Tan Howe Liang won us our first ever Olympic medal.

Professor Coclanis’ characterization of post independent US as being surrounded by powers that are suspicious, potentially hostile and far stronger militarily than itself seems to give the impression that then Spanish colonized Mexico was all out to conquer the US. How could that be when Spain supported America during the Revolutionary war with weapons, supplies and even opened up a separate front against the British?

Professor Coclanis’ reminder of large government debts at America’s independence has no parallel in Singapore where our debt at independence was only 2.7% of our GDP then:

• its real GDP has increased … since independence – from approximately S$3 billion (US$964 million) in 1965 … Singapore’s foreign reserve has also grown consistently … the 1965 amount (approximately S$12 million) … The government’s financial situation changed from a deficit of S$80 million in 1965 …
[Population Policy and Reproduction in Singapore: Making Future Citizens, Shirley Sun Hsiao-Li, page 42]

Professor Coclanis wrongly characterized Singapore in the mid-1960s as being every bit as dire as US in the mid-1780s:

• Lee Kuan Yew himself had admitted to businessmen in Chicago that Singapore was already a metropolis in 1967. How could such grand boasting be consistent with a dire situation?

• Singapore’s 1965 per capita GDP of US$5,317 (Penn World Tables, average of output GDP and expenditure GDP) when adjusted for purchasing power parity already put us in the Upper Middle Income category of World Bank’s classification of countries. We were already at the cusp of becoming First World at independence. How could that be a dire situation?

• Our per capita GDP in 1960 was already $1,330 which gave us a middle-income status.
[Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control, page 166]

Professor Coclanis may have mixed up our 1965 unemployment rate with our 1959 unemployment rate when he claimed that Singapore’s 1965 unemployment rate was 14%.

• In 1959, the unemployment rate was estimated at 13.5%. It receded gradually but was still near 10% in 1965.
[The Singapore Economy Reconsidered, Lawrence B. Krause & Koh Ai Tee & Tsao Yuan Lee, page 5]

• As late as 1959, the unemployment rate was estimated at 13.5 percent.
[Singapore Tax Guide, Ibp Usa, USA International Business Publications, page 172]

Whatever the case may be, Professor Coclanis’ figure is a tad higher than most that can be found online:

• High unemployment rate, estimated at about 10 %
[MTI Insights 1965 – 1978,

• Data compiled by Fields (1984) show Singapore’s unemployment rate declined from 9.1 per cent in 1965 …
[Trade, Jobs and Wages, Hoon Hian Teck, page 7]

• First, the period of the mid-1960s was a period of conspicuously high unemployment rate for Singapore. Year-to-year variations show an unemployment rate that ranged between 8.1 and 8.6 per cent (Chew, 1986: 136).
[The Newly Industrializing Economies of East Asia, Anis Chowdhury, Iyanatul Islam]

• … unemployment rate of 12.3 per cent in 1965, newly independent Singapore …
[Domestic Political Structures and Regional Economic Co-operation, Harold A. Crouch, page 19]

Professor Coclanis could have explained how the post war baby boom led to a sharp increase in young adults seeking employment 20 years later.

Professor Coclanis’ characterization of our post independence neighbours as being powerful and deeply suspicious is problematic because:

• Just the month after our independence in September 1965, Indonesia experienced a coup and Singapore friendly Suharto took power while Singapore unfriendly Sukarno lost power. Lee Kuan Yew himself credited Suharto for providing 30 years of stability in the region. Professor Coclanis’ characterization of newly independent Singapore’s neighbourhood as being tough was thus inaccurate as Konfrontasi had effectively ended with Sukarno’s deposal by Suharto.

• The British were still around in 1965. They had 50,000 troops in Malaysia and 80 warships versus Malaysia’s own forces of 30,000 regular troops and 15,000 reserves. It was unlikely that the Malaysian military then was more powerful than the British who were there to keep peace. In any case, they had a common enemy which was the Malayan communists who never fired a single shot in Singapore.
[The Defence of Malaysia and Singapore: The Transformation of a Security System, 1957 – 1971, Chin Kin Wah, page 98]

• The same year that the British pulled out in 1971, Malaysia and Singapore were joined together in the Five Power Defense Pact which suggests cooperation rather than suspicion.

• British agreed to S$367 million (£50 million) of British loans and grants (for Singapore defense). Singapore would take over radar network and Bloodhound missiles from RAF. Singapore received 12 jet trainer aircraft the following year and a squadron of Hunter Mark 9 aircraft operationally ready by 1971. 6 fast patrol boats were ordered for the Navy.
[The Defence of Malaysia and Singapore: The Transformation of a Security System, 1957 – 1971, Chin Kin Wah, page 151]

• By 1971, Singapore has had 6 years of training by Israelis and 4 years worth of National Service. By 1970, Singapore had two brigades comprising one tank regiment, six infantry battalions and one artillery battalion. It also had a reserve brigade of three infantry battalions. Not at all toothless or powerless.

Professor Coclanis wrongly referred to Singapore’s leaders at independence as our founding fathers. The Cambridge dictionary refers to a founding father as someone who establishes an important organization or idea.

• In our case, Singapore isn’t just an idea but is a real physical organization that has existed since 1819; our leaders at independence cannot claim to have established it in 1965.

• A name change from State of Singapore to Republic of Singapore in 1965 also cannot qualify as an act of founding just as each name change from RTS to SBC to TCS to MediaCorp TV cannot qualify as an act of founding.

• Our independence in 1965 was akin to the break off of a subsidiary company from its parent company. There is no founding in so far as the new company is concerned, only a change in ownership. For example, Frasers Centrepoint Limited was demerged from the F&N Group in 2013. Do we say Frasers Centrepoint Limited was founded in 2013?

The title of founding father can also be an honour bestowed on individuals to whom the people of the nation owe the debt of their freedom and independence. Lee Kuan Yew himself said in his memoirs that we were already ¾ independent in 1959 and we achieved the last ¼ independence when we were kicked out of Malaysia in 1965. We neither owe our first ¾ independence in 1959 nor the last ¼ independence in 1965 to our leaders in 1965 because full internal self government in 1959 was the culmination of the work of mainly the Chinese educated, the Left Wing and the working class from 1945 to 1959 while 1965 was a gift from Tungku Abdul Rahman.

To be a founding father also entails that noble sacrifice of putting one’s life on the line to fight for the independence of one’s people, something our leaders at independence never did. Between Lee Kuan Yew who worked for the Japanese and Lim Bo Seng who died fighting them, who is more befitting of that noble title? We should not cheapen what it means to be a founding father by bestowing it onto someone unworthy.

Professor Coclanis wrongly attributed our thriving let alone survival to ways found by our leaders at independence when clearly, those ways were to be found in a report entitled “A Proposed Industrialization programme for Singapore” written by Dr Albert Winsemius and his team from the United Nations.

Professor Coclanis wrongly attributed our constitutional order as being the creation of our leaders at independence when the bulk of it was simply inherited from the British.

Professor Coclanis wrongly attributed the dampening of ethnic tensions to the work of our leaders at independence when Singapore never had ethnic tensions between the Chinese and Malay races throughout our colonial years until the years of power struggle between Lee Kuan Yew and Tungku Abdul Rahman. Dampening of ethnic tensions can be attributed to the divorce of Lee and Tungku which eliminated the source of that tension and allowed the former peace between the two races to gradually return over time.

Professor Coclanis didn’t seem to realize that the similar market friendly policies and capitalist development via property protection, transparency, probity, contract enforcement and rule of law were the similar products of English law and English institutions most notable of which are the free market principles of British economist Adam Smith.

While Singaporeans can agree with Professor Coclanis that we can take pride in having developed more quickly than the US, what is worth knowing is the Flying Geese theory of Industrialization referred to in Ezra Vogel’s book which Professor Coclanis either didn’t know or couldn’t care sharing. Britain, the first nation to industrialize took the longest to industrialize because there was no other country to learn from. Germany, France and later the US industrialized quicker because they could see what Britain was doing and so could skip re-learning what Britain had already learnt. Then later when Japan industrialized, it too learnt even quicker because it had even more experiences from more countries to learn from and could skip even more steps. Then when the four East Asian dragons of Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore came along, they learnt even faster based on the same flying geese theory of industrialization. Finally today, we have China growing at rates that surpass even those of the four East Asian dragons.

To conclude, it took a lot of imagination, truth bending and cock eye for Professor Coclanis to see so many parallels between American Independence and Singapore Independence.


4 Responses to “Cockeye leading to supposedly parallel paths to independence”

  1. GG Says:

    If we owe a debt to anyone it is to people like Gandhi and the Indians as well as the Africans who started the Independence movements that inspired the world.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I admire your indefatigable efforts at putting the real history of Singapore out. The ‘war’ declared by that paper general sometime back has begun. O-ed articles like the one you lay bare is just the beginning. There will be more insidious attempts to revise history in the coming year when the so-called 50th year of independence celebrations kick off. The torrent will be real challenge to you in terms of time and effort. I hope you do not give in to the deluge.

  3. GingerBaker Says:

    Yes your efforts are much appreciated in the face of so much misinformation.

    btw, re yours: Professor Coclanis might be interested to know that the Singapore flag had already been raised at the 1960 Rome Olympics when Tan Han Liang won us our first ever Olympic medal.

    I believe you are referring to tan HOWE liang, a weightlifter who won a silver medal in the 1960 Olympics.

  4. trulysingapore Says:

    Updated and thanks

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