The hands that built Singapore: 55 years of challenges, dreams and hopes for the nation
Have you ever wondered what goes into the building of a nation? It’s easy to say “good governance”, but I’ve begun to realise that its people are just as important too.
I would liken it to dragon boating. While the person giving the commands controls the direction of the boat, it boils down to how the crew members row their oars.
So as Singapore celebrates her 55th birthday this year, let’s get to know some of these crew members, taking a closer look at the many different lives that have contributed to the building of this nation.
THE CHALLENGES FACED BY OUR PIONEERS
Alice Chan, 78, was in her mid-20s when Singapore first gained independence. But unlike most countries, our nation’s independence was not a cause for celebration – it was a forewarning of the challenges we would face.
“Mr Lee Kuan Yew signed an agreement for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. But after two years, we separated. Mr Lee was heartbroken,” says Alice as she recounts how she teared along as the late Prime Minister broke the news on national TV.
“We were also very sad because Singapore did not have foreign investments and we could only rely on our own import production. We felt hopeless and were very worried.”
Richard Koe Bek, 67, also echoes similar sentiments: “Our future was uncertain because of security issues. There were riots and jobs available were hard labour as not many were educated.”
But the Singapore we know today is “worlds apart” from the Singapore he knew back then, Richard notes. Compared to the attap houses he lived in during the 1950s, Singapore is now an oil refinery, sea, air, financial and IT hub with world-class infrastructure.
“Thank God the people can put their trust in the government. From a poor, unknown, third world country to a first world country today… it’s like a miracle.”
Alice also credits our success to external help. “We attracted many foreign talents to invest in us and Singapore became a trading port,” she says. “This helped to build Singapore and we became a strong country.”
While Singapore has weathered through some tough storms, it doesn’t mean the rest of that the voyage will be smooth sailing. And speaking on the challenges that Singapore faces now, we cannot ignore the biggest one in a generation: COVID-19.
“When COVID-19 struck, we had to think of how to keep the place clean and sanitised,” says Ah Qing, a Vietnamese cleaner who has been working in Singapore for 2 years. “So we swept the place, cleaned the chairs and door handles so that everyone would be safe.”
Also battling the pandemic in the frontlines is Evelyn Peng, a doctor in a local hospital’s A&E department.
“Being part of the frontline response to a crisis like COVID-19 is something I’ve never faced in my career before,” she says.
“But to have participated with the rest of the nation in overcoming the outbreak will be something that I will remember and be proud of when I look back at this in the future.”
Since the start of the year, we have been tested on our response and resilience as a nation like never before. Nevertheless, from the least to the greatest, everyone has been playing their part in keeping Singapore safe.
“COVID-19 has proven how Singapore stepped up in being a caring community,” affirms Pastor Isaiah Fadzlin (Faith Assembly of God), having witnessed how Singaporeans started helping one another in the crisis, regardless of nationality.
“I believe that’s what we are and who we can become: a loving nation not just for ourselves but to the nations around too.”
THE DREAMS WE ALL SHARE
“I wanted to be a hairdresser but my guardian did not allow me to,” says Alice with a wistful smile. “She said it was not a decent job. So I became a seamstress and then a factory worker in a production line for a fragrance company.”
Alice soon quit her job after getting married to be a stay-home mother. But little did she know, a seed had been sown.
Years later, her granddaughter, Audris Quek, would start her own clothing brand, continuing in the clothing industry.
As a fashion entrepreneur, Audris believes that her role in nation-building involves showing others that chasing one’s dream in Singapore is possible.
“I feel safe and empowered to chase my dream as a young Singaporean,” she shares, describing how Singapore herself achieved the dream that many thought was impossible.
“Our nation came from a third-world country to a first-world country and embodies what it’s like to be small but mighty,” she beams. “I hope the small business that I run will also carry and reflect the same message and power as Singapore!”
Pastor Isaiah affirms the importance of having a dream: “I believe that in all of us there is an ability to dream. I am a dreamer myself and I believe that my role is to motivate and create an opportunity for people to go for their dreams.”
He tells a memorable story about helping a woman in his community to achieve her dreams: “One particular woman came to us for help and for one whole year, we provided daily necessities.”
Soon the volunteers realised that she was the sole breadwinner of her family who lived in a cramped one-room flat. But what was interesting was that the family actually came from a well-to-do background in the past.
“The husband was introduced to drugs, and that’s when the whole family started to go downhill. It was very difficult.”
The woman shared that one of her dreams was to move out of that one room flat and to have her own home for her family. So Pastor Isaiah prayed for the household and eventually, the family was able to find a bigger home and moved out together with the help of the church.
Nishanthi also had a similar dream. “When I first married my husband, my husband was working in Singapore while I was in India. So the situation was very sad for me.”
Her husband, Sivakumar, first came to Singapore as a general worker 20 years ago before working his way up to his current position as a human resource manager in the maritime trade. Today, his contributions help cement Singapore’s reputation as an important shipping hub within the region.
Nishanthi was eventually able to fulfil her dream of reuniting with her husband when she found a job as a lab analyst in Singapore. She has also embraced the opportunity to take up part-time studies as well.
“I’m thankful for Singapore because it is a big opportunity for me to live, work and study here with my husband and my child,” she says.
Full of gratitude, Nishanthi adds that she wants to play an important role in building the nation up. That is something she has been consciously doing in Singapore, by taking on an active role in the community she now lives in.
“Whatever I can do, I will do. Thank you Singapore!”
OUR HOPES FOR SINGAPORE
Besides personal aspirations, many Singaporeans also expressed the kind of hopes they had for the nation as it evolves.
“I hope to see a more inclusive community where people of all backgrounds, shapes, sizes can be represented,” special needs therapist Lim Ziying says.
“Every life is important and their life stories should be recognised. This makes up a more vibrant Singapore where we can learn from and support each other, forming a united nation.”
Local singer-songwriter Krysta Joy D’Souza also carries similar hopes.
“As an artiste, I believe that building Singapore means building up the people through the expression of art,” she says.
“For me, that could look like writing songs that can bring a sense of comfort and encouragement to those who listen. Songs that can unite people regardless of the different backgrounds we are from.”
Others also share about the importance of building up the next generation.
“After I got married, I became a full-time mother and housewife. I brought up my children and they are building Singapore. They are who I am proud of,” says Alice, a proud member of Singapore’s pioneer generation.
She continues: “I hope that through the way I brought up my children, they would love their country and serve and build Singapore.”
Looking at the generations that have come after her own, it seems Alice’s hopes for the future are certainly coming true.
As a father of three young kids, Norman Ng shares that his role in building Singapore lies in building strong families: “Nothing brings us more joy than to know that we are building a foundation that’s strong enough for our children, one they can stand upon and continue building up.”
His wife, Debbie Ng, adds: “Every single day that we impart values will leave a legacy for our children and the generations to come when they become parents in the future as well.”
That is a sentiment preschool teacher Joey Tang agrees with: “I believe that my purpose is to reach out to children and families who are from broken families, especially children with special needs.
“This is more than just a job. It is a ministry I serve God in.”
As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. But neither was Rome built with just a few pair of hands.
Nation-building involves each and every individual coming together, each with their hopes and dreams, and playing their part for the country. It also requires us to look out for one another and be united when challenges arise.
55 years ago, our pioneers rose to the occasion. So, too, did the other Singaporeans who came after them and have gone before us.
So as we rise to take the baton as a new generation and sail into a new day, let’s look back and be grateful for the Singapore we’ve inherited. And may we, in turn, pass on an even better Singapore for the generations to come.
Big or small, we all have a part to play. Together, we can build a better tomorrow. Happy National Day!
THINK + TALK
- What is one thing you’re thankful for Singapore?
- What do you think your role is when it comes to building the nation?
- Describe the Singapore you would want to leave for future generations.
- Say a prayer of blessing over our land.