It’s National Day.
Your newsfeeds are crammed with opinions and posts about people’s feelings towards Singapore. (This is also going to be one of them, if the trigger warning helps) What i’ve always found problematic are the flat characterisations: you’re either for Singapore, or you’re against it. You either love “how far we have come thanks to Mr Lee Kuan Yew” or how “this is a really oppressive place with no soul”. I’ve mulled on this quite a bit. I’ve been pulled in both directions, and more. I would like to imagine that my feelings about my nation and my country are far more complex and difficult than that. True love shouldn’t be easy.
I grew up in Singapore. I’ve been through the same phases your “average”, angsty Singaporean in his twenties has been through. In this National Day entry I reflect on the different parts of this short road I’ve walked as a young Singaporean, on the 51st birthday of this strange animal at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.
Little Proud Heart
There has been the obedient adulation, which you breed into the kids in primary school, tempered occasionally by the puzzling disgruntlement at home about the gahmen raising the COE ERP BTO rates again. It begins with the videos they show you about Troubled Years, the pictures they shock you with, taken during the Japanese Occupation (decapitated heads! Sook Ching! We must never rely on anyone else!!), the linear narratives of growth and prosperity, held in check by iron discipline, sheer tenacity, raw mettle, and the fury of a Crying Man.
The National Education reaches an orgasmic (orh-hor) crescendo when they bring you in Primary Five to the NDP rehearsal. For the first time in your life you’re in a stadium filled with thousands of people, singing the same song, saying the same pledge you’ve said all your life. You see the sheer splendour of your nation, laid out in coordinated harmony. And although the flashcard displays bore you, the military parade and the singalong climax at the end of the Parade makes your little heart burst with pride for your young nation. And then the fireworks bloom, fierce and radiant in the muggy evening sky of your childhood. And you sing until your lungs are hoarse, We are Singapore, Singaporeans.
In secondary school your adolescence colours everything in tenuous shades of grey, backlit by the volatile, rashy glow of teenage angst and insecurity. Singapore sucks, you intone. Lee Kuan Yew is a dictator, you declare with a thrill, exhibiting the new vocabulary and opinions you borrow from the unhappy uncles who occasionally dispense their opinions around your neighbourhood. It’s cool to be a rebel, even one without a cause or a brain. We are such an authoritarian government. Your whole reading list is English and Western.
It’s cool to study “International” (Western/European) History in secondary school and junior college. ASEAN is boring, and so is the same ol’ Singapore Story. The First and Second World Wars. The Industrial Revolution. The Cold War. Nuclear age. Intercontinental ballistic missiles. Cuban Missile Crises. Domino theories. Freedom. Liberty. Fraternity. All the faraway places: Berlin. Potsdam. Yalta. Midway, maybe. All the faraway names on your adolescent tongue: Churchill. Truman. Stalin. Khrushchev. It’s so cool and so sexy.
You have a faint inkling about some communists and “Chinese chauvinists” in the Singaporean past, but you’re not so sure, it’s all a blur. Anyway Singapore’s past is boring. Some racial riots. Some Barisan Sosialis. Lim Chin Siong. Some Said Zahari. Leftists. All so political.
Boring, you conclude, repressive. You roll your eyes at the social studies syllabus in secondary school, but dutifully recite the Principles of Governance and do well in your ‘O’ Levels.
“With My Life!”
And then you go to serve in the army.
One evening early in your Basic Military Training at Pulau Tekong, amid sirens and turn-outs, you are presented with your SAR21 rifle, a Singapore-designed, Singapore-made weapon. With this rifle, you are made to declare, you will defend your country, with your life. You swear an oath of allegiance. You’re mildly confused. Nobody has asked you if you wanted to defend Singapore. But the point is that you, along with your nation, never really had a choice in the matter.
After the ceremony your platoon commander takes your group to a quiet seashore with a view of the Singaporean mainland. So many little lights. It’s been nearly two weeks since you’ve been ripped from your family and your girlfriend. You see a view of mainland Singapore. It’s a distant universe of warm, homely lights. Somewhere in that distant universe is your family. Your heart aches. You miss home. You miss your grandmother, who won’t knock you down. You miss your girlfriend, who won’t knock you down. You miss your cousins, who, shockingly, won’t knock you down either. Your officer points to that faraway shore.
Someone back home is waiting for you to come home safely, he says quietly, these are the people you must learn to defend in your time here. There is a stark, homesick but resolute silence on that Tekong beach that evening. There’s a whole platoon of recruits watching the dim lights in the horizon that is the mainland. Because we love our land and we want it to be free, to be free.
Of Obligations and Opportunity Costs
But don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of time and opportunities in the Army for one to become disillusioned, frustrated and angry with Singapore. It isn’t such a straightforward, state-sponsored jaunt in (more) national indoctrination. But it’s in these two years that you struggle to reconcile these things. Some people give up, and resign themselves to finishing their national service obligations. It’s easy to suck thumb.
Or you can try to wrestle with what it means to be Singaporean. Because giving the two years of your prime, of your weekends, of your fitness, of your relationships, isn’t easy. You sit in the Ops Room during DO duty on a Saturday wondering about opportunity cost. You blister in the Sai Yok heat and reflect on how steel is tempered by fire. You endure the breakup and think bitterly about sacrifice and recognition. You clash with egos and wonder about “One people one nation one Singapore” (like that can be ossifer one ah??)
In university, you finally come into contact with the tumultuous, contested histories, swept under the carpet of The Singapore Story. You read about Lim Chin Siong. Your professor asks you to consider what labelling someone as ‘Marxist’ or ‘Leftist’ actually implies. You start to realise the Crying Man wasn’t joking about hatchets, knuckledusters or cul-de-sacs.
You are outraged at racial injustice. For a few weeks you plot to be a social activist, but then you realise it takes too much effort. You nod your head fervently at Alfian Sa’at’s poetry and scorn Thumboo’s writing (like that can be poet ah??). We are nothing but pathetic, floppy merlions, you thunder. Economic machines. For a while you understand the disgruntled uncles in your neighbourhood. Fellow countrymen, united in discontent! You almost become a social justice warrior.
You roll your eyes as you overhear your friends explain to exchange students again how “the food in Singapore is really good!!” as if this is the only thing that matters. Later you sheepishly replicate this on exchange, when you finally realise how bland and uninspired Western food can be (like that can be called delicacy ah??).
A few days after Lee Kuan Yew passes on you get your first taste of mob justice when trusted friends come to your facebook wall and claw at your eyes, for your dry observation that Dead Men don’t read Facebook posts (SELFIE: “I queued eight hours for him but it’s nothing like the thirty years he put in, THANK YOU MR LEE!!!”). For an (irrational) fear of being arrested by the ISD or torn apart by uncritically critical online keyboard warriors, you later type a long teary reflection on nationhood. Fellow countrymen.
So what does it mean to be Singaporean?
We all believe in our little fictions; sometimes it is the only way to make sense of a world too absolute and too concrete.We make our own narratives; in time and in turn, our narratives come to shape us. This is the dangerous, potent power of stories.
There are many stories. None of them are true.
Not the one about some beard in the sky. Not even the one where they drove all the communists into the jungle and bombed them to kingdom come. Not even the one about Ah Kong building the country from a fishing village to skyscrapers, starting with one kelong, two kelong, then a rubber plantation…
None of the stories of Singapore are true. Yet that doesn’t invalidate them. We need stories to tell, so that they can help us figure out who we are, or what we want to be. I’m uninterested in the Singapore Story they feed to the children, not because it is “propaganda”, but because there are dimensions to our pasts which do not only involve great men.
I’m talking about the Singapore Story which belongs to all of us, which is in actuality a patchwork bricolage of all our stories. A mosaic that is contradictory and confusing, which will never actually make sense.
There were the karayuki-san from rural Japan and the rickshaw coolies from famine-stricken China. There is the abused domestic worker from Indonesia and the misunderstood construction worker from Bangladesh. There is the schoolboy too frightened to show his parents his grades, the numbers a savage indictment of his self-worth. It is the mother who wakes up quietly everyday at 4am to do the laundry before she goes to work at 6am. It is the auntie who has to work the night shift to support herself because her children left her years ago. It is that colugo (‘flying lemur’) blinking on a dappled tree at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. It is the grove of giant technicolour trees which have sprouted at another monetary blister on the south of this island, attracting tourists like rabid fruitflies.
It is the River and how its odours has changed over the years, along with the boats that ply its length. It is the dissident who was and was not a Communist, depending on who you asked. It is the exile looking across the Johor Straits, unable to return home (“We are Singaporeans too”).
There are many Singapore stories to tell, and I’ve heard or read or listened to some of them. They aren’t easy to understand. Sometimes there are many characters, all with varying, changing agendas. Not fifty shades of grey, but perhaps a thousand shades of red-and white; a hundred different faces of the crescent moon; not just five stars arising, but a whole skyful of them.
I’ve mulled awhile on this. There are crazy, disagreeable people who live on this island. It is disquieting way the cost of living seems to keep rising. It is uncomfortable to see how my Malay friends are still quietly discriminated against in certain ways. Old people working the night shift on Chinese New Year’s Eve at a Macdonalds light a very deep melancholy in me. Our politicians say ridiculous things sometimes (thumbs down maaannn). What little remains of our endemic, “spontaneous greenery” is quite the joke, especially when one spends $1billion to build air-conditioned domes for foreign plants instead.
But I’ve learned something watching and listening to the Singapore stories of my parents and my grandparents. Love isn’t about perfection. Love isn’t about the best fit or the perfect match. Love is acceptance and commitment. Love is stubborn staying-on, even through the most boring and painful periods, when you may not feel anything anymore. Love is compromise – and family, as Stitch once taught us, is making sure nobody gets left behind.
Nationhood is a complicated kettle of imaginary worms. There is nothing “natural” or linear about nationhood. Singapore did not receive heaven’s mandate. It only sort of received the/a people’s mandate, and even then the circumstances of our Merger and Separation remain contested and convoluted. We were pushed away, thrust out, or walked out, depending on who you ask. Nationhood is difficult and complex.
A French theorist writing in 1882, Ernest Renan, once asserted that the nation comes down essentially to
“… actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the heritage that has been received in common” – Ernest Renan, “What is a nation?” 1882
I once scoffed at Renan. How could something so great as a nation be held together by something as intangible as consent, something which takes place in your head? Since then I’ve realised that the most ambitious monuments and projects are first birthed in dreams before they are clothed in the corporeal shells of the material world.
I think it comes down to choices. And so I’d like to let you know that I’m proudly and unabashedly Singaporean, for all its polished, technocratic warts. We all believe in our little fictions; sometimes it is the only way to make sense of a world too absolute and too concrete.
Fifty-one years ago a small little country broke from a greater union, kicked out because it did not show due deference to its older brother. People muttered, failed state. People said that Singapore won’t make it. A man cried on television. But fifty-one years ago, a people, thrown together by chance, stood together and stuck it out, even when nobody thought they could do. First they built a state, and then slowly, brick by brick, song by song, story by story, they built a nation. In the face of ridiculous adversity they believed.
I choose to believe in this country so insecure it was crazy and daring enough to raise gleaming skyscrapers and glass domes from the sea. I choose to believe in a nation forged not from common blood or common colour, but common hardship and struggle. I choose to believe in this grand endeavour, only 51 years young.
Because this is my country and this is my flag – and I am Singapore, Singaporean.
Happy National Day, friends!