In a straits times article published on 2nd january, written by William Wan (http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/pink-ic-and-red-passport-not-enough-make-you-singaporean-201), William Wan reflects upon what it means to be a Singaporean. He notes how “cultural identity can be a source of division, focused as it is on the differences between communities, including race, practices, food and socio-economic status”. Hence, Singaporeans have to recognise and accept that “Singaporeans have to find a delicate balance…We have to foster an identity that is embedded in our cultures, yet not over-emphasise differences that inherently exist among the different communities.”
This is exceptionally true and it could be the reason why Singapore clings on to our identity as a country that is multi-cultural and multi-racial, even though they may not be true in some aspects. While tolerance is seemed as an unsatisfying and imperfect solution to our diversity, assimilation is seen as a naive approach for a country with a presence of such distinctly different cultures. Forcing citizens to abandon their cultural roots for a unified identity may only incite mistrust among races and religions because it raises the question of: Who has the power to decide what identity Singapore should take?
The government has often taken a top-down approach in addressing the issue of nation building. On national day, the narrative of how Singapore grew from a fishing village to a modern metropolis is presented to Singaporeans time and again, as an attempt to remind us where we came from. As William Wan writes, “The default solution, almost inevitably is to present a medley of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil songs that we sing in school on Racial Harmony Day and at the National Day Parade Celebrations.” These narratives are almost seen as commercialised especially when they are used to publicise Singapore’s culture in the aspect of tourism. It is questionable if these narratives and ethnic songs are truly representative of the Singapore Spirit.
Admittedly, a lot of what Singapore is today is created under the Lee Kuan Yew regime. This ranges from housing, economy to ideologies. Singapore is also often described as a miracle. “A mere 50 years ago, Singapore didn’t even exist as an independent state. We were Malaysian then and, before that, subjects of the British Crown. Before the more recent waves of immigrants, fewer than half of us could claim that our parents were born here. ” While this is a miracle that many Singaporeans are proud of, it shows why the problem of culture is such a difficult question for us. Apart from a geographically strategic position on the world map and a successful port, we do not have natural resources and land. As a result, a lot of Singapore’s success relies on policies and opportunities that are created with the vision of the government. The economy was a priority back then, anything related to identity and culture could wait. Ironically, this pursuit of economic progress was exactly a factor that attracted a large influx of immigrants in the past, which also contributed to the current problems of culture and national identity in Singapore.
However, as a nation matures, it is important for Singapore to find its own identity, from a bottom-up approach.
In sociology class, one definition of “culture” appealed most to me. Culture is defined broadly as “all the ideas, practices, and material objects that people create to deal with real-life problems”. Perhaps this is why instead of characteristics like multi-cultural or multi-racial, Singaporeans identify themselves more with attributes such as hardworking, kiasu or practical. This is because they are the attributes which have helped us overcome daily problems or crises such as the 2009 economic crisis or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
I like this definition of culture, because it suggests that perhaps National Identity is something that just is, not something we have to consciously find or even create. It is something that is embedded in our daily lives as we solve problems, no matter how big or small they are. When citizens of two races meet at the lift each day, they are once again reminded of their distinct differences through the colour of their skin, and the language they speak. However, the conscious decision to accept each other’s presence each day, regardless of whether it is merely tolerance, or true assimilation of the races, is what makes Singaporeans uniquely Singaporean. When the economy is down, and Singaporeans become more aware of their finances, it is how they will go the extra mile to seek for discounts in supermarkets or shopping malls that depict the Singaporean Spirit of kiasuism (fear of losing out).
In the last part of his article, Willam Wan provides his opinion on what National Identity means to him. “The only thing that matters, the only thing that should matter, is that one makes the decision to be Singaporean, to call this island home, and to contribute to making it our best and only home.” In recent years, blogposts such as a letter written in 2012 by a Singaporean blogger, Zing, about leaving Singapore and another article, “Why I’m leaving Singapore” written in 2013 by another blogger, Danny Dover, reflects the trend of young Singaporeans leaving Singapore for other countries with supposed better prospects.
While individual choices ought to be respected, my personal opinion leans toward William’s opinion. I believe that while identity is becoming a fluid concept because of globalisation, what makes Singapore uniquely Singapore is how Singaporeans learn to take ownership of the problems we observe in this place we call home. It is my hope that we will choose to stay even when things get rough, and not simply leave when things do not go our way. After all, the grass is greener where you water it.