Colombo Telegraph

Singapore, 1505 And How We Go

By Ravi Perera

Ravi Perera

For a Sri Lankan to fly to Singapore is to become aware of human possibilities. However unhopeful the circumstances; in space, resources and even cultural attributes, a people can still rise to world standards. This small island with just   5.4 million people is an economy of US $ 281 Billion while the visitor’s much larger island, with its 21 million on board, has barely reached a modest US $ 68 Billion economy. Possibilities   that stand before a Singaporean today are good as any in a First World country. Whether it be education, health, career opportunities, entertainment to travel he has choices which are second to none. For the Sri Lankan mind-set   which   lays   great store by “history”, here is a country which came into existence only in 1965.When Stamford Raffles arrived in these parts in 1819 what is now Singapore was a rocky little island with a population of about 1000 Malays and perhaps a few dozen Chinese.

Five centuries ago, in 1505, when the Portuguese moored somewhere near the shores of where Colombo is now situated, the excited subjects reported to the King “There is in our harbor a race of people fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets of iron and hats of iron; they rest not a minute in one place; they walk here and there; they eat hunks of stone and drink blood; they give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or lime…”

The strangers also brought a new awareness of other and different possibilities to the natives.  Standing before them were a small band of men, neither tied to their place of birth nor family line of business.  From the Iberian peninsula in Europe  they  had sailed against the winds ,  around  the cape to the   Asian shoreline, a distance which would have been  incomprehensible  to a people living a life in  which they hardly moved more than  twenty miles  from their place of birth. To the natives, Anuradhapura or Kataragama, if they were aware of the existence of these places, were excitingly distant. The former had by then receded into an uncertain legend while Kataragama , even when Leonard Woolf wrote about  that part of the country four centuries later  was  jungle territory, rough and primitive.  Much later, after the Motor car and sealed roads changed the paradigm of internal travel in the island, they still remained distant places, now mainly due to poor road conditions.

The Sri Lankan visitor to Singapore arrives after just three hours of flying, no necessity for a deeply humiliating entreaty for an entry Visa. Changi International Airport (formerly a RAF base) renowned world over, will tell him he is now in a place moving to a different beat. Everything he sees and experiences will only emphasize the gap between the two countries.

In 1965, when Malaysia expelled Singapore from the federation prompting the simultaneous declaration of its independence by the island nation, there was no hint of the economic miracle that was to follow. In fact the previous years there had been terrible race riots between the Malays and the Chinese living on the small island. Its neighbours, both Malaysia and Indonesia were drawn deeply into its affairs. The new country  also faced enormous challenges, unemployment was running at about 15%, housing was a huge problem with squatter settlements coming up everywhere, education levels were poor even by the standards of the region and  above all it obviously lacked any natural resources, including land.

The Sri Lankan visitor will be struck by the confident use of English names on the streets and facilities of the former colony. Scotts Road, Orchard Road, Marina Bay, Robertson Quay, Roacher Canal all built by the British, although now transformed beyond recognition by the Singaporeans, have retained their original names.  Along the broad, clean and modern thoroughfares the Singaporeans drive their fast automobiles confidently. There are no struggling three wheelers, zigzagging motorcycles or leisurely pedestrians impeding their progress. There is a visible system at work, giving a certain style and dignity to the drivers.

When his dumbfounded countrymen reported the arrival of a very alien breed of men, Parakrambahu VIII, the King of Kotte in 1505, probably did not realize that it meant the beginning of the end of his accustomed way of life. The visitors also brought with them a huge array of new possibilities for his people. However resisted or resented   the changes and influences that the Portuguese and other subsequent colonizers brought, they set in motion processes which are still shaping our history in a more profound manner than generally given. It is very unlikely that the King and his court fully appreciated the scope of the transformation that unplanned landing of the Portuguese sailors were to begin.

Although very different in history Singaporeans also had to deal with a colonial legacy. But unlike us they did not attempt to undo the past or resort to superficialities like changing street names. What is important is what you make of the future. And our Sri Lankan visitor will be forced to agree that the Singaporeans have arranged their future (and of course the present) very well indeed. Even a simple comparison between the exports of the two countries; Singapore’s high value adding and high-tech while Sri Lanka’s agro and low  wage based products will tell the tale.

Searching  for insights into the marvelous achievements he  sees around him the Sri Lankan may purchase the famous book  “ From the Third World to the First” authored by its former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to read on his flight back to Colombo. Lee Kuan Yew, a legend in his own life time, is credited with being one of the main architects of modern Singapore .In that insightful book there is a description of the inauspicious beginning of the Sri Lankan Airline during the JR Jayewardene era which perhaps may hold a clue. This fanciful venture has through the years burnt up billions of our resources which could have made such a difference had they been invested in more useful projects.

“He had some weaknesses (refers to then President JR Jayewardene). He wanted to start an airline   because he believed it was a symbol of progress. Singapore Airline employed a good Sri Lankan Captain. Would I release him? Of course, but how could an airline pilot run an airline? He wanted Singapore Airlines to help. We did. I advised him that an  airline should not be his priority because  it required too many talented and good administrators  to get an airline off the ground when he needed them for irrigation, agriculture, housing, industrial promotion and development, and so many other projects. An airline was a glamour project, not of great value for developing Sri Lanka. But he insisted. So we helped him launch it is six months, seconding 80 of Singapore Airlines  staff for periods three months to two years, helping them through our world-wide sales representation, setting up overseas offices, training staff, developing training centres and so on. But there was no sound top management. When the pilot, now chairman of the new airline, decided to buy two second hand aircrafts against our advice, we decided to withdraw. Faced with a five-fold expansion of capacity, negative cash flow, lack of trained staff, unreliable services and insufficient passengers, it was bound to fail. And it did.”

An airline in the 1970s may not have been exactly what men in iron hats and jackets represented in 1505. Nevertherless; a certain inadequacy in the grasp of the foreign idea suggests itself. Anybody can manage an enterprise however large, as long as he is loyal or better still, a kinsman.

Every experience, whether it be alien men ship-wrecked on our shores or a sparkling aero plane flying high above, offer possibilities. But because of the foreignness of the idea does perfect understanding elude us?

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