Singapore’s Ambassador to Taiwan Addresses at NTU His Country’s “Hard Choices”

Mar. 21, 2019

Written By: Herica Huang (黃翊筑)
Photo Credit: International College Provisional Office


On March 21, 2019, Ambassador Simon Wong Wie Kuen, the representative of the Singapore Trade Office in Taipei, shared with NTU students, faculty, and alumni his analysis of the how Singapore had achieved such a miraculous transformation since it gained independence in 1959. Ambassador Wong argued that the reason why Singapore had been able to overcome ethnic and linguistic divisions as well as poverty to become one of the world’s most prosperous countries was its success in making hard but successful choices, and having a leader in Lee Kuan Yew who could make those difficult but wise decisions. These decisions had enabled Singapore gradually to build its links to the world beyond Singapore. “Look out, and look to the world,” Ambassador Wong declared in his inspiring message.


Ambassador Simon Wong Wie Kuen, the representative of the Singapore Trade Office in Taipei, delivered the first Ambassador Day Speech this semester. The International College Provisional Office of National Taiwan University (NTU) hosted the event, led by Professor Ding Shih-Torng, Vice President for Academic Affairs; Professor Chan Kuei-Yuan, Deputy Vice President for Academic Affairs; and Professor William Stanton, Chief Adviser to the International College Provisional Office. In opening remarks Vice President Ding welcomed the visit of Ambassador Wong and his willingness to share his ideas and experience, and told the NTU audience “We opened the door for you to enter NTU, and this door will lead you into our international world.”

Ambassador’s Presentation

Ambassador Wong began his talk by presenting videos of Singapore, which showed sharp contrasts in scenes of the country before and after Singapore’s independence. The visual representations helped to show the clear transformation of a “third-world” country in the 1960’s into one of the most prosperous and successful countries in the world today.

Unlike many countries, Singapore had not sought independence, and it came unexpectedly. Singapore had been part of Malaysia, but in 1965, the Malaysians told the people of Singapore to leave on short notice. “Suddenly at midnight, they (the generation of Ambassador Wong’s father and grandfather) were Singaporeans. They were no longer Malaysians. At midnight, we could no longer cross the border. ” Ambassador Wong observed that at the time remaining in Singapore seemed like a mistake, and it seemed that nothing could change the seemingly hopeless situation in Singapore. At that time, Singapore had a small population with diverse ethnic groups, a low GDP, a lack of resources, and a literacy rate as low as 29%. At that time, in fact, Singapore had the second worst economy among the Southeast Asian countries.

The first Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, also had to leave the Malaysia where he had spent his entire previous life. Despite how he felt, he knew that as a leader, he had to act to ameliorate the situation. He had decisions to make, and indeed he began making hard choices which few initially understood or accepted.

Behind Singapore’s Transformation: Hard Choices

Prime Minister Lee recognized the problems that Singapore faced, which included anti-colonial sentiment, ethnic and linguistic divisions among the people, and poverty.

Most of the people of Singapore belonged to one of three major racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. These groups did not interact much with each other, and even when they did, racist feelings toward one another often ended up in confrontations and fights. In order to solve this problem, Prime Minister Lee decided he had to act to force the disparate communities to become integrated with one another. He did so by making the hard decision to make English the main common language of the country whatever language individuals might to speak at home. People did not quietly accept this decision, however, and there were angry public protests. 77% of the population were Chinese who thought that speaking English would be unfair to them. Prime Minister Lee was nonetheless a strict leader, and he did not change the rules he had established because of the majority’s opinion. Instead, he continued to believe that everyone able to communicate in one language, English, would help build a connection among all the ethnic groups and unite the people of Singapore.

Another challenge Prime Minister Lee faced was that every ethnic community lived in its own separate community district. When he began, moreover, most people were too poor to move or to find better housing. To support his plan to unite the different ethnic groups, he made the difficult decision to make everyone live in public housing – estate housing – and to allow no one to choose for themselves where. The attraction of acquiring a new home at and inexpensive price in contrast to the poor housing in which most people lived was a strong incentive. Moreover, the housing would increase in value over time and when, people finally sold their apartments, the profits were theirs to keep. Public housing also played a crucial role in helping improve relations among the different races. Because people were not able to choose which houses they preferred, and therefore could not choose only to live next door to neighbors belonging to their own ethnic group, all the ethnic communities were successfully merged. Over time people became more understanding of, and caring for, people from different backgrounds.

In order to convey better the situation the people of Singapore faced at that time, Ambassador Wong shared two accounts of his personal experience as a child. The first story was about the time soon after independence when Prime Minister Lee announced that English would be the language of the country. Ambassador Wong’s mother, he recalled, went to the Chinese-language school he was attending and took him out of his class where he had been very happy. Nonetheless, his mother grabbed him by the hand and took him to a school where English was taught. Because of the new policy of speaking English, everyone wanted to enroll their children in the English-language schools to ensure they would have a better future. The school did not, however, see what was so special about her son, and quickly rejected him as candidate for enrollment. Ambassador Wong’s mother clearly understood, however, that if her son did not learn English while he was in grammar school, he would not be able to attend and English-language secondary school, and this would affect his ability to meet the requirements for university applications, jobs, and basically, he would not have a future. To avoid this situation, Mr. Wong’s mother knelt before the principal and begged for him to give her child the opportunity to attend, until the principal agreed.

The second story concerned what happened after everyone was sent to live in public housing. No one was able to choose their neighbors, meaning no one was living next to the people of the same race. Race relations at the time were tense, but living next door or nearby people of different races helped people to understand and help each other. Ambassador Wong himself became friends with children from different backgrounds because when his parents were busy, they would ask the next-door neighbor to help take care of their children, and his parents in turn would return the favor. Such behavior was so common that conflicts between people of different decreased, and antipathy toward other races became aberrant.

As the problems between different races were increasingly solved, the biggest threat to social harmony were rumors. Once, for example, there was a rumor that a Malaysian daughter had been kidnapped by a Chinese mother. That single sentence started a fight. It turned out, however, that the Chinese mother had taken the Malaysian girl home because the girl was standing alone, waited for a someone to pick her up at a specific place for a long time, but no one had shown up. The Chinese mother had simply shown sympathy and understanding for the girl, and was only trying to help someone whom she thought was in need. After this experience, Mr. Lee made another hard choice which is still valid now, suppression of free speech. This choice did not mean that people could not say anything, but rather, if people spread rumors that are provocative, the government has the right to fine or arrest them.

The Influence of Hard Choices

Most of the hard choices that Mr. Lee decided to take are still in effect to this day. Ambassador Wong pointed out that, as a matter of fact, the strict Singaporean laws that many people had heard about were the result of the hard choices made by Prime Minister Lee. The Ambassador Wong pointed out that such infractions such as littering could lead to a heavy fine on the first occasion. On the second occasion, the person would be required to wear a shirt saying “I am a litterer” or other attention-grabbing slogans and then be required to sweep the street for an hour. Although it sounds silly and peculiar, this law had proved effective because no one wanted to be shamed and embarrassed in such a manner.

Suppression of free speech had slowly evolved because of improvements in technology. The Singaporean government not only focused now on what people said out loud, but also on what people said online. In 2016, the Singaporean government found online “The Real Singaporean” Facebook page, a community site created by two Australians living in Singapore, in which pictures of a fight between a Filipino group of people and an Indian group were posted. Australia refused to shut the page down, claiming it was a matter of freedom of speech. Singapore nonetheless had to do something about this because it was causing animus between Filipinos and Indians in Singapore. The Singapore government therefore sued Facebook, and the two Australians behind this page were arrested and put in jail for seven months.

Contemporary Singapore

Singapore’s continuing goal is to lead the world economically. In order to achieve this, attracting tourism plays an important role. Ambassador Wong gave the example of the newly expanding Jewel Changi Airport. It is not only a regular airport where people come in and out to catch a flight, but also a place for people to eat, to shop, and to get together. The Ambassador showed a short clip about how the airport’s plans which would soon include 280 retail stores and restaurants. This concept would help Singapore’s the country’s economy grow because it would become more than an airport, and would be an attraction in itself bringing in more visitors. The more people visited, the more consumption there would be..

Another interesting fact that the Ambassador shared the government’s role in the Jewel Changi Airport project. The government had not interfered or been involved in anything related to building the project. The government had only provided the land. Not having the government subsidize the project, Singapore could use the funds otherwise spent to strengthen the country’s defense forces, raise the country’s education level, and provide more subsidies to poorer communities.

Questions Concerning Current Conflicts among Ethnic Groups

Although ethnic rivalry problems might not be as serious as they were in the 1960s, different ethnic and racial groups still cause some problems. Ambassador Wong said that to address these issues when they arose, Singapore maintained Community Service Centers and Community Arbitration Centers in every district of Singapore. The Service Centers help children, families, and the elderly in their communities with any problems they might face, whether it was a complicated and large-sized problem, or a simple and small issue.

The Community Arbitration Centers are where people went to talk to someone about the problems they might face with their neighbor. Big problems such as different religions, or small problems such as such as the smell of chili cooking coming from an Indian kitchen and annoying the Chinese neighbor were all raised and arbitrated. Through these community services, people were not only able to solve the immediate problem, but also able to understand and respect each other more by opening up to the other party, and sharing their cultures, traditions, beliefs, and ideas, rather than simply blaming the other party.

Current Hard Choices

Although many hard choices had already been made since the sudden independence of Singapore, Ambassador Wong noted there would be many more to come. Some of the hard choices Singapore is already facing or soon will face, include:

  • When the current minister – the son of Lee Kuan Yew — steps down, the future leader of Singapore will be the first hard choice Singapore will have to make. The younger generation of Singaporeans will have to take charge, stand up, and decide for themselves.
  • The ongoing trade war between United States and China may give Singapore a difficult choice to make, deciding on which side it will stand.
  • Singapore’s low fertility rate — the lowest in the world — and the need to fill an increasing number of jobs will require immigration, and this will lead to additional challenges and problems.

Ambassador Wong emphasized that absent Prime Minister Lee’s difficult decisions and hard choices, Singapore would not be what it is today. The Ambassador insisted Singapore is not merely a crown in the Asian community, but rather also in the global community. Hard choices might be difficult for many to accept when there are so many different opinions. It is very challenging to please every single person, so hard choices are essential. Putting aside the ideals of how best a government should govern, and being inflexible on the hard choices, had helped Singapore improve tremendously. These hard choices might sound very strange and even unbelievable, but it was what had to be done. The Ambassador concluded that, in the final analysis, “hard choices are all about the give and take.”

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