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  • The Singapore of My Dreams
  • Tommy Koh (bio)

This essay is on the Singapore of my dreams. My dreams have obviously changed over the years. I will begin with my school boy's dreams.

A School Boy's Dreams

I grew up in colonial Singapore. After the Second World War, my parents sent me to a Chinese primary school. After a few years, because of my unsatisfactory progress, my parents decided to switch me to the English stream. I spent a bridging year in a Catholic school and then joined the Outram School, which was then a government primary school. I completed my secondary education at Raffles Institution (RI).

What were my school boy's dreams for Singapore?

First, I dreamt that one day Singapore would be independent and we would be able to rule ourselves. I was greatly influenced by the anti-colonial struggles and nationalist movements then taking place in Asia and Africa. I remember debating the merits and demerits of colonialism with one of my expatriate teachers in RI.

Second, I dreamt that one day Singapore would be without slums and all Singaporeans would have access to good housing, clean water and modern sanitation. I had relatives living in Bukit Ho Swee1 and they lacked all three. I used to accompany my mother and aunt to visit them. I am very glad that this dream of mine has come true.

Third, I dreamt that all families would earn enough income to enable them to live decently. After the war, there were a lot of poor people in Singapore. [End Page 305] Today, the situation is vastly different. If we use the internationally accepted criteria of US$1 per day or US$2 per day, there are no poor people in Singapore. However, the reality is that for the bottom 30 per cent of our population, life is very tough. We should do more to help our poor and disadvantaged families without undermining our work ethic and our culture of self-reliance.

Fourth, I dreamt that one day we would live in a society in which the law would be just and people did not fear either the gangsters or the police. In those days the rule of law was weak and the people lived in fear of both the gangsters and the colonial police. I was angered by the sight of the police going around arresting the hawkers. I wrote an article for my school magazine, The Rafflesian, protesting against such arrests and pleading that the government should create places for the hawkers to ply their trade. I suffered my first experience of censorship by the British Director of Education and was told that my article could not be published. Today, the rule of law in Singapore is strong, with good law and order, an honest and competent police force, and an independent and non-corrupt judiciary.

A Young Man's Dreams

I was one of the lucky students who, in 1957, was admitted to study law at the University of Malaya, in Singapore. I graduated in 1961 and spent a year as David Marshall's law pupil. In 1962, I was admitted to the legal profession and hired by the Faculty of Law as an Assistant Lecturer, joining my classmates, Thio Su Mien and Koh Kheng Lian. I then spent a year at Harvard Law School and another year at Cambridge University. I came home in 1965 when Singapore unexpectedly became independent, fulfilling one of my schoolboy dreams. Singapore was, however, faced with an uncertain future because the conventional wisdom at that time was that an independent Singapore was not viable. Singapore's independence was therefore greeted by both cheers and tears. I was one of the minority who believed that an independent Singapore would succeed.

What were my dreams for Singapore as a young man?

First, I wanted independent Singapore to survive and to be accepted by the international community as a new member state. Three years after our independence, I was sent to the United Nations, in New York, as Singapore's Permanent Representative to help secure this agenda.

Second, I wanted Singapore to succeed economically, to create enough jobs for our unemployed...


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pp. 305-312
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