It’s a curious time here in Singapore. 50 years have passed (now going on to 51) and every time I talk to someone, the same question has popped up. What does it mean to be Singaporean? Why should I be proud to be here? It’s such a captivating mystery for so many reasons, the most prominent being that we’re becoming politically more active and our guiding principles for voting are starting to shape.
This question is very much tied to another question : Do I love Singapore? For some, knowing the answer to the first question helps provide the response for the second. For me, they’re independent. I know I love Singapore, but in a more adult way. As a kid, you love as a kid. You love without prejudice, and without reservation. But as an adult, your love is tempered. You choose to love because of all the reasons you choose to put over the reasons that would push you away. You choose to accept the problems and the blemishes. This consideration is important, because while I do not know yet what it means to be Singaporean, my love for Singapore remains. Because I as I continue to try to discover the Singaporean spirit, I’m presented with both the attractive and ugly sides of my fellow people and I choose to continue to love them because we have a shared identity somewhere. I wouldn’t call this so much nationalistic as much as I think it is simply in preservation of what I feel strongly to be home.
I have come to some interim conclusions though. Some conclusions based on recent history and some based on history as we know it. I think these are important conclusions to accept, lest we face a Trumpesque bigotry or a Brexitesque xenophobia.
The first is that Singapore isn’t homogeneous. Who we are is simply not tied to the 8 defining characters of personal identity: Ability, Age, Ethnicity, Race, Religion, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Socioeconomic Status. John Cena recently conducted a video for Americans on the 4th of July (Link Here) asking them to close their eyes and identify a typical American. Where most people would identify a white able-bodied straight male in the U.S., I asked myself what we would answer in Singapore. Do we accept that we no longer just have Malays, Indians and Chinese as Singaporeans? So what if they’re the majority races, why do we not include the rest in our conversation of Singaporean representation? Do we accept that the Singaporean narrative cannot be a patriarchal one, about how men have built this country and that women are allowed to be oppressed through institutions that do not stop sexual assault and allow casual statements on rape and a gender hierarchy? Do we accept that we do have people who are not heterosexual, and that regardless of our religious views that they exist and consider themselves Singaporeans too, that they have gone through NS or school with us and deserve rights just as much as anyone else? These are not Western ideas, these are humanist ones. Singapore isn’t the same fishing village that we started off as that could be easily segmented. No, we’re nuanced, we’re diverse, we’re richly different and we need to find our common spirit away from the social identifiers.
The second is that being Singaporean is an attitude. Think about it, when you picture the ‘What does it mean to be ________’ for most developed countries, you picture an attitude rather than a physical trait. And that’s good, because while it’s important to celebrate diversity and provide spaces for people to celebrate their identities, the political question of ‘Why am I proud to be here’ must be tied to a secular, neutral but values driven aspect of being Singaporean. Is it that we overcome adversity, because hell yeah we do. Is it that we pack more of a punch that it looks like, because this little red dot has done so much for its size. Is it that we celebrate all, because that would be amazing. Finding something common and innate is difficult. But it must be done, for being a Singaporean is a mighty title these days, and it must stand for something.
Finally, the answer to my questions is not stuck in the past. One of my biggest grievances is that some of the biggest campaigns to find the answer to the questions has involved rehashing stories from the ‘good ol’ days’ and making us look to our forefathers. Yes, we’ve done great stuff to come where we are, and we should learn from them. But for all the great strides that we made in the past, we also took steps backwards in arenas of social progress and political maturity. And we’ll continue to make strides forward, and some steps backwards. That’s the way things are, that’s how societies evolve. History teaches us not to emulate the past but to grow from it. Is our future so grim (hardly, based on the work I’ve been seeing at EDB) that we need to be constantly reminded of our past in a form of propaganda to soothe our uncertainty? We need to look at everything: past, present and especially the future and realize that there is a continuum of experiences, each playing an important role in shaping our national identity, and that all must be appreciated to truly answer the questions.
I’ve provided some conclusions to what it is NOT to be Singaporean. I haven’t really given any more clarity into what it actually is, but the danger I’ve seen is that people fall into the traps of the incorrect conclusions way too often and that provides only problems for the country. The answer won’t be some major announcement, nor some big statement. It would be something that’s said once, maybe twice, and it will echo in the hearts of every Singaporean. The truth of the matter is that we’re getting closer to the answer and we must keep talking. We must keep discussing issues of importance; political, social, interpersonal, all of them. We will form a truer representation of who we are through that, and then we can finally demystify the great mystery. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to finally say what it means to be Singaporean?