Singapore marked 50 years of independence on Sunday with nationwide celebrations, including a huge military parade and firework display that will pay tribute to former founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.

As fighter jets screamed through the sky and nationalist songs blared, leaders made speeches and people took advantage of free rides on trains and buses.

Singapore became a republic on Aug 9, 1965, when it was ejected from the Malaysian federation following a stormy two-year union.

While marveling at the island’s leap from a poor colonial port to a wealthy metropolis, Singaporeans are also grappling with an influx of foreign labor and a rising cost of living.

“This is a milestone. Coming from an older generation that has seen Singapore through the early years of independence, I know it took hard work by our leaders to get here,” said William Nathan, 70.

The celebrations kicked off on Sunday morning when sirens blared at 9:00 am local time before national TV and radio stations broadcast a 2012 recording of Lee Kuan Yew rereading the original declaration of independence.

“At 50 years, as we stand at a high base camp, we look back and marvel at how far we have come,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised message.

The government intended to showcase its success in an elaborate parade that was to include a flyover by fighter jets and fireworks for an audience of 200,000, plus millions watching on television from their living rooms.

The weekend of celebrations was scheduled to culminate with fireworks after a military parade.

The sense of unity and pride in Singapore’s achievements was to be reinforced with a bouquet of flowers being placed on Lee Kuan Yew’s seat, and a five-minute video tribute about his life and political career was to be played at the start of the event.

His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is now facing a general election next month.

Lee Hsien Loong, who took over as premier in 2004, said on Saturday the festivities will “celebrate how we turned vulnerabilities into strengths” and “journeyed from Third World to First”.

The premier will be joined by leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the parade at the historic Padang grounds, facing scenic Marina Bay.

The prime ministers of Malaysia and Thailand, along with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla are among regional leaders attending, along with officials from China, Australia and Japan.

Former colonial ruler Britain will be represented by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Prince Andrew, while the United States has sent former trade representative Ron Kirk.

When the population boomed to over 2 million in the 1970s from 1.89 million at independence, Lee vigorously campaigned for women to have only two children, fearing it would impede economic growth. He also carved a place for a second language in the English-language education system to make Singaporeans more marketable.

But as Singaporeans grew more educated and wealthy, and wages rose, the ruling party looked to the rest of Southeast Asia for manpower to keep the wheels turning.

A government policy paper in 2013 predicted that foreigners will make up nearly half of the population of nearly 7 million by 2030.

The People’s Action Party, which Lee Kuan Yew co-founded, has ruled uninterrupted since independence and is widely credited with turning Singapore into one of the world’s richest countries.

Lee, a British-trained lawyer, came to power in 1959 as prime minister when Britain granted the island a degree of self rule and stayed as premier until 1990.

AFP – AP – Reuters

(China Daily 08/10/2015 page11)