Some people say that Singapore is a great nation, and when pressed for justification, talk about how clean, efficient and safe Singapore is, about the world-class airport and harbour, about the lack of corruption, etc. In the aftermath of the financial crises in Europe and US, they also point out how Singapore now has much better finances than western countries.
They are mistaken.
Being able to walk safely at 2 am is not the distinguishing point of a great nation. If it was, North Korea could become a great nation.
Neither is it about having many -hubs or -polis. Or world-class this or world-class that. Or having the best airport in the world. Or the busiest harbour in the world.
It’s not even about the lack of corruption.
Being a great nation is not about having the largest land area, the largest economy or the mightiest military power. If it was based on such quantitive criteria, the greatness of nations would just be a ranking by size, economy or military power.
A small country like Israel can be a great nation. On the other hand, a powerful country like China can be not a great nation.
What makes a nation great? It’s not pure economic or military power. And I might add, not how many Nobel Peace Prizes or Olympic medals per se either.
What makes a man great? It’s not how much money he has, but what contributions he has made to his community, to society. It’s about his generosity. It’s about his ideas, how he changed the world with them, how he made a difference.
Since a nation is nothing more than a collection of people living within a set of physical borders, we can measure the greatness of a nation in the same way. By the contributions they have made to the world, to mankind. And by their generosity, how their ideas have benefited the human race.
Hence I brought up Israel. The greatness comes from their spirit. What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, they bounced back. And even before the Holocaust, when they were persecuted in ancient history, they bounced back.
They are survivors.
But beyond just surviving, Israel is so creative, it’s a holy land of technology, equal to Silicon Valley. Companies like ICQ came from Israel. And the influence of Jews in the world, in banking, in politics, is just amazing, considering how few of them there are. They certainly punch well above their weight, to use an expression of our former PM.
Next, China. In history we learned of China’s great inventions like gunpowder, we learned of how refined Chinese society and culture was during the Tang dynasty, etc. But I can’t see any great contribution China made to the world, how it made the world a better place through its ideas. Perhaps the imperial examination system to select the best civil servants? But the reality is that political power remained under dynastic emperors, and it was always corruption or political intrigue that brought down the dynasties. Having the best and brightest ministers could not stop it.
When I think of modern China, Mao basically returned China to the Dark Ages, and the current leadership is just old wine in new bottles. People are deprived of their freedoms, they can’t read what they want, the great firewall of China shows that nothing has really changed. When I see how China bullies Taiwan, how China “liberated” Tibet, it makes me feel sad to be Chinese.
Next, Great Britain. You know it’s great because they are so convinced of their greatness they named their country so. But why is Britain great?
Once it was a superpower, an empire upon which the sun never set. But that is no more. Anyway greatness is not about military power.
I think Britain is great because of how it changed the world. The English language for one. It’s what we use here, and it has made human communication much easier, made advances in science and technology much easier.
Other things which make Britain great are regularly cited by our politicians. The English system of law and justice, not just the laws they left behind, but the principles themselves. Presumed innocence, right to a free and open trial, judicial independence.
The political system itself– the separation of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, even if it did not originate in Britain per se, is a legacy they left behind in the colonies, along with an honest and efficient civil service to support a country’s progress.
Next, the United States. I know America has a lot of enemies, and a lot of people hate America for what it has done (eg Iraq), hate its arrogance (eg lecturing other countries about human rights), etc.
There are also people who point to America’s problems– drugs, guns, crime, even the current financial crisis- as evidence of no-greatness or soon-to-be-lost greatness.
But if you can look beyond these, I think you can see that America really lives up to its tagline as the “land of opportunity”. In 2008 a black man was elected to the highest office in the land, something unimaginable as recently 40 years ago when there was still racial segregation. We all know of the poor immigrants who have made it big in America, starting companies in their garages and then changing the world. While one should not belittle the ingenuity and hard work of these entrepreneurs, one should also realise it is the system which made it possible for them to succeed.
America has also made great contributions to the world. Europe was a shattered land after WW2, America through the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe.
America did the same for Japan under the Occupation. Think about it! Rebuilding a country that had deceived and attacked you brutally at Pearl Harbor instead of asking for war reparations! Offering friendship and a security umbrella to an enemy. In fact, some Americans think the US was stupid to help Japan and create a competitor economy that threatened to overtake the US economy in the 70’s.
America has also been extremely generous apart from the huge amounts spent to reconstruct Europe and Japan after the war. Whenever there is any natural disaster, America always provides aid, from both government and non-governmental organisations. Americans are always one of the first on-site to provide disaster relief. The Peace Corps and other such organisations are filled with Americans who really desire to help the world.
The ideals that America stands for- freedom, liberty, human rights- have changed the world, and in my view, for the better. It’s not wrong for people to aspire to be free, to have freedom of speech, religion, assembly and to enjoy free and fair elections.
Americans’ various scientific and business inventions and ideas, ranging from the telephone and the transistor, to business innovations such as MBO and Six Sigma, have revolutionised and changed the world. So too in the field of music, entertainment, sports, etc.
America has made so much contributions to the world its greatness unquestioned. I believe those who think its days of greatness are numbered due to the current financial crisis are ignoring how America has always bounced back. From the Depression. From the oil shocks and stagflation of the 70’s. And even from its humiliation in the 80’s in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, loss of influence and when it was the world’s greatest debtor nation under threat of being overtaken by Japan as the world’s largest economy.
If a country has the right system and the right spirit, it will correct itself and bounce back, stronger and better than ever.
As for Singapore, I think one can easily evaluate the country using the above yardsticks and decide for oneself whether it can be considered a great nation.