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Singapore Dreams In India's Susegad State

Why these supercharged fantasies continue for famously laid-back Goa.

Singapore Dreams In India's Susegad State
Singapore Dreams In India's Susegad State
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Believe it or not, from the very moment the British established Singapore as a separate Crown Colony in 1946, it has remained the focus in discussions about the future of Goa.

At that very beginning of decolonisation in Asia, the Portuguese dictator Salazar found a lot to like in what was happening in the British-ruled port city — its new Legislative Council included only six (later nine) elected seats out of twenty-five, and only British subjects were eligible to vote. Meanwhile the colonial system remained dominant. Salazar figured this an excellent model for the four-centuries-old Estado da India Portuguesa.

Even after the Council yielded to a fully-elected Assembly, and the UK Parliament passed the 1958 State of Singapore Act accepting the establishment of an independent state, Salazar still looked for a Singapore-type solution to the increasingly thorny Goa crisis, as Nehru and Krishna Menon grew progressively restive about the last colonial "pimple disfiguring the face of India". The Portuguese dangled promise of a NATO port at Mormugao to his allies, and it took a Russian veto to stymie the US/UK-led United Nations resolution demanding withdrawal of Indian troops after their mercifully bloodless takeover in 1961.

In the immediate aftermath of Indian annexation, the Goan freedom fighter (he famously got into a fistfight with the colonial Governor General) António Anastásio Bruto da Costa led a group demanding "Goan Goa" with "full sovereignty" to be achieved via "natural right to a plebiscite." This "third force" also looked to Singapore as a model of what might be possible in Goa.

With those political questions resolved, visions of Singapore continue dancing in the minds of a very wide range of contemporary observers of India's smallest state. As India Today — the national media outlet that gets Goa most consistently wrong — ludicrously put it in 2013, "the steady march of urbanisation, experts predict, will turn tiny Goa into a Singapore-like city state miraculously untouched by the woes of overpopulation and urbanisation."

Why these supercharged fantasies for famously laid-back Goa? Perhaps the promise of manageable size, with per-capita GDP and human development statistics dramatically higher than the neighbours? Both Singapore and Goa are centuries-old pockets of globalisation, with relatively cosmopolitan leanings. If it could happen there, it could logically follow that it can also happen here.

By that line of thinking all that is needed to make a similar miracle happen — to conjure up a skyline of skyscrapers in place of soaring coconut groves — is someone like Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of one the most astonishing and unlikely development booms in human history, who died earlier this week. Lee is gone, but Singapore dreams still crowd the imaginations and aspirations of millions of people, around the world, perhaps not most improbably in India's siesta state.

Leaving aside that nothing like it could ever happen in Goa, there's a lot to admire about what Lee achieved in his highly unlikely country, just 700 square kilometers in size (Goa is three times larger). In an overtly ruthless manner allowing no space for dissent or opposition — his son now rules — he turned Singapore into one of the most powerful financial centres ever seen, a magnet for talented people around the world who are attracted by spectacular infrastructure, hyper-efficient administration, strong regulatory and legal frameworks. In just over two generations, Singaporeans have leapfrogged everyone else to become the third-richest people in the world.

While the naked, ever-present iron fist of authoritarianism played its role in enjoining his people to march along with Lee, that cannot explain everything. Generations of Singaporeans persevered alongside to bring to life an entirely original national personification, a modern state where Chinese and Indians and Malays and Europeans could all belong. Look at Singapore's neighbourhood, look at India, including Goa — xenophobia and ethnic prejudice everywhere — that hard-won cosmopolitanism is an outstanding achievement.

Lee Kuan Yew's new Singaporean identity is personified best by Edwin Thumboo, the "unofficial poet laureate" who steadily created a national cultural framework that now stands very coolly, confidently distinct from the parts that have gone into its making. Aptly, Thumboo is "Chindian", part-Tamilian and part-Chinese. During the tumultuous 1950s, he was tried by the British for sedition, and Lee Kuan Yew was his defence counsel. The lawyer's life work was the making of Singapore, his former client meanwhile created a literature to match, like these verses from his ‘Catering for The People'.

It's dismal.

But we have to work at a destiny. We stumble.
Now and then. Our nerves are sensitive.
We strive to find our history, break racial
Stubbornness, educate the mass and Educated-
Evacuate the disagreeable. Bring the hill to valley.
Level the place and build, and generally cater
For the people…
Set all neatly down into Economy.
There is little choice—We must make a people.

We have a promising amalgam—
Youth, anger, a kind of will, a style of politics,
And bargain hard, sell common and unlikely things,
Are kind or rude or merely reasonable. Some stay
Awake to match the moon; eat bats, chateaubriand;
Sing old songs that have the rhythm of the sun;
Beatleize the stage; turn traditional and keep our
Streets soft with the quiet of the night.

We are flexible, small, a boil
On the Melanesian face.
If it grin or growl, we move—
To corresponding place, keeping
Sensitive to trends, adapting.
To these delinquent days.

Thumboo visited Goa for the first time in 2014, and liked it enough to come back at the end of the year for the Goa Arts and Literary Festival. The poet found the colonial architecture particularly interesting, visited several houses, and embarked on a long poem about them which he read out at the festival inauguration.

When Thumboo talked about Goa in comparison to his and Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, it was in a framework of nostalgia and loss, with perhaps more than a little regret. One evening, he was entranced by a purple-gold sunset lighting up the Mandovi waterfront. He urged his walking companion — distinguished Malay-language novelist Isa Kamari, who was also attending the festival — to take photographs, one after another after another. Thumboo shook his head. "Clean air," he said, "we don't have these anymore. It has been too many years since I've seen a sunset like this one in Singapore."

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