Happy 49th Birthday, Singapore

Let's find the the real joy of Singaporean society together.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh| August 09, 03:52 PM

Every year in the days leading up to August 9th, a maelstrom of emotions swirls deep within me. I am never quite sure how to react to Singapore’s National Day.

"But why are you singing Stand up for Singapore?” asks my Chinese Peranakan wife, who is indifferent towards the patriotism, but wholly enthusiastic about the day off. It’s subconscious, I say, a reaction to hearing the catchy tune somewhere in July, the month of cheesy patriotic jingles in Singapore.

My fundamental problem with National Day has nothing to do with Singapore per se. Rather, I am generally skeptical about nationalism and patriotism, and their expressions anywhere in the world. Nationalism’s slippery slope to fascism -- from Adolf and Idi to Perkasa -- seems to far outweigh any benefits.

I prefer to exist, naively, in an idealistic parallel universe where borders are fluid and the oneness of humanity is cherished. With ethnicity, religion and culture already dividing the peoples of the world, why cloak ourselves with another layer of differentiation?

There are also particular, localised reasons for my ambivalence. And it is, indeed, ambivalence, not just doubt, because National Day has first always made me warm and fuzzy inside.

This was especially true in secondary school and then again in army, when I was part of the official National Day celebrations. Every week for six months leading up to August 9th, we practised under the sweltering tropical sun, cursing the teachers and officers who must have drawn the shortest straws on our behalf. We all kenna arrow, and for Singaporeans the National Day arrow is the biggest one out there.

[quip float="pqright"]I imagine it is like being part of an orchestra in which every musician is deaf[/quip]

In school I was part of a giant contingent of students seated in a matrix on one end of our giant Kallang stadium, holding giant “flashcard” books with coloured pages, flipping them on command so that people sitting on the other side could watch a series of giant mosaic images whir by in technicolour brilliance. With shades of North Korean discipline and pomp, it was one one of those rare group performances where the artists are not in the slightest way privy to their product. I imagine it is like being part of an orchestra in which every musician is deaf.

In army, where I served my mandatory National Service, I was part of an infantry troupe that had to march into the stadium and then stand at attention on the field as paratroopers skilfully landed in the gaps between us. The most frustrating thing was that practice was held every Sunday, our only full day out of camp. In other words, for almost half a year leading up to August 9th, our weekends kenna burn. (We were eventually compensated with offs-in-lieu, but still.)

On both occasions, months of grumbling and hard work reached an irrepressible climax on National Day. We felt proud and revelled in that shared sense of a team accomplishment, all washed down with free Iced Milo. Like the citizens of small states everywhere, I imagine, each of us was swept up in a defiant nationalistic wave as every fibre of our being screamed the mantra of our birth: We are small, we have nothing, yet we made it.

Meanwhile, simply staring at the Singapore flag has always made me proud. As with many Singaporean creations, it is less about aesthetics than symbolism. We prefer victories of substance over style. Our flag cannot boast of the minimalism of Japan’s, the harmony of Jamaica’s or the outrageous exceptionalism of Nepal’s bi-pennoned flutterer.

[quip float="pqright"]Singapore is perhaps the only non-Islamic state in the world to have a crescent on its flag[/quip]

But in Singapore’s flag one observes the accommodation, the tolerance, the space afforded to different communities. Singapore is perhaps the only non-Islamic state in the world to have a crescent on its flag, there largely to please the Malays, most of whom are Muslim. The flag is coloured red, and has stars on it, largely to satisfy the Chinese. But the flag’s bottom half is white, and it has five rather than three stars, so as to differentiate it from the (now defunct) Communist Party of Malaya’s flag. It is a flag of compromise. (The Indians? We’re the ones sewing the flag.)

And so every July I stroll around Singapore humming and singing Stand Up For Singapore and We Are Singapore and feeling rather chuffed when I glance at the millions of flags festooned around the city.

[quip float="pqright"]There is a superficiality, even hypocrisy, about so many things in this ostensibly beautiful, peaceful, successful city-state[/quip]

But every time I take pause, and think about the idea of Singapore and the real achievements of Singapore, I feel a soul-sapping hollowness inside. There is a superficiality, even hypocrisy, about so many things in this ostensibly beautiful, peaceful, successful city-state. There is, quite simply, a lack of honesty in Singapore about Singapore.

On National Day, thousands of Singaporeans will engage in the same rousing homage to our country, the singing of Majulah Singapura, our glorious national anthem. I just love belting it out, more so because it evokes two of my favourite memories from secondary school, where we had to sing it every day. First, watching my perennially light-headed Malay teacher actually fall asleep standing up while the anthem was playing. Second, seeing one of my best friends punctiliously freeze and come to attention in the corridor mid-run on the way from Malay class to the toilet because the anthem started playing. When it finished, we noticed a puddle below his dripping navy blue shorts.

This digression into man’s primal urges is partly to shine a spotlight on Malay—a dying language in Singapore. Although many in our parents’ generation speak a bit of Malay, few in ours do. “Even the Malays there don’t like to speak Malay,” is a snigger I hear from Malaysian Malays, bristling at the apparent cultural dilution of their Singapore brethren.

The Malay language in Singapore is like a cultural antiquity that we dust off and parade shamelessly whenever we want to show how diverse we are, how tolerant we are, how local we are. The only times the vast majority of Singaporeans will ever use Malay is when it creeps into Singlish, our delightful creole, as in my two uses of kena above. And, of course, when we sing Majulah Singapura.

Even if ordinary Singaporeans could tell you that Majulah Singapura means “Onward Singapore”, odds are they would have no idea that “Maju” is the root word, or that it has connotations of progress and advancement. They would also not know how to translate the rest of the song.

In other words, come August 9th, you will see throngs of Singaporeans rise to sing a song whose meaning they don’t know in a language that they use only in that context. There can be no better demonstration of the Singapore nation’s superficiality.

Bear in mind that this is not a work-in-progress. If anything, it is a work-in-extinction. By 2050, will anybody in Singapore still speak Malay? When I was growing up, signs around Singapore were either only in English or in all four national languages. Today, from gardens to government buildings, one will also see many signs in only two languages: English and Chinese.

The decline of Malay points to a bigger existential crisis for the Singapore nation. Is Singapore a country with a strong local identity? Or is it Southeast Asia’s premier city? Or is it a pan-Asian city serving the whole region? Or is it a truly global city?

When economists today analyse Singapore’s socio-economic challenges, there is much reference to Singapore being the only global city in the world without a natural hinterland to act as a necessary cost-pressure valve. But more than that, Singapore is also the only global city detached from its immediate geographic neighbourhood.

[quip float="pqright"]Singapore today is more of a Chinese city and more of an Indian city than it is a South-east Asian city[/quip]

When somebody flies into Singapore, there is little indication that one has just entered the middle of South-east Asia. A pitiful minority of Singaporeans speak any South-east Asian language. By comparing the influx of corporations, peoples and cultures, one can argue that Singapore today is more of a Chinese city and more of an Indian city than it is a South-east Asian city. By contrast, can you imagine Hong Kong without Cantonese influence? Or London without British?

This is partly why Singapore does not have a deep, indigenous service brand or culture. In this blur of culture and customs, there is no strong local anchor on which to hang language, gestures, expressions. As I contemplate Malaysian Airlines (MAS) going bust, I lament the loss of true Malayan hospitality in the air.

Sure, MAS has a plethora of problems, many stemming from gross cronyism and mismanagement. But for all its flaws, on board MAS I have always encountered genuine Malayan hospitality. I use Malayan because it is not Malaysian or Singapore but something that once was commonplace in both. Though it is easier to identify than describe, I would like to hazard that Malayan hospitality melds the best of our three cultures: The gentleness of Malays with the gregariousness of Indians and the generosity of Chinese.

[quip float="pqright"]The Singapore Girl, after all, is no longer just from Singapore. Today she could easily hail from Chennai or Chengdu[/quip]

The hospitality on Singapore Airlines, by contrast, is different. While terribly efficient, it never feels as genuine, authentic or coherent. Instead it is a patchwork of service cultures. The Singapore Girl, after all, is no longer just from Singapore. Today she could easily hail from Chennai or Chengdu. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and it simply reflects the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the city (while mirroring the approach of the Gulf airlines). But the question it begs -- a microcosm of the country’s own personality conflict -- does “the Singapore girl” imply something uniquely Singaporean, or does it simply mean any girl who happens to live and work in Singapore?

On SIA the duplicity of the local Singaporean staff is also laid bare. When they serve you, they sport a faux Americana accent. When they chatter at the back of the plane, Singlish emerges. This makes me smile and cringe at the same time. Why aren’t we prouder of our creole? Don’t visitors to Singapore want to learn a smattering of Singlish from “the Singapore girl”?

In our bid to welcome the world, we shy away from expressing who we are. To use Singlish is backward, parochial.

Rather than carve out a specific national identity, or attempt to develop a “cultural ballast”, as Lee Kuan Yew once put it, Singapore has kept itself malleable, engaging in social, cultural and economic shape-shifting in keeping with global currents and tides.

Many would argue that this is precisely what has allowed Singapore to prosper. For this group, the vulnerability rhetoric of “small country, no resources” resonates. Singapore has no choice, so it goes, but to submit to the whims and fancies of multinational corporations and the forces of globalisation.

Maybe. But in our headlong embrace have we forgotten who we are?

There are many other areas where honesty is lacking. We take pride in having attained the highest average per capita income on Earth, but then forget that almost a third of the population has difficulty retiring while a tenth has trouble putting food on the table. We claim to champion creativity, inclusiveness and freedom of thought but when those freedoms are under threat -- as in the recent brouhaha over the intended pulping of supposed gay-friendly children’s books in the National Library -- few defend them. We boast of ethnic tolerance -- and put the crescent on the flag -- but then continue selectively importing more Chinese into Singapore so that the Indian and Malay proportions in society never grow too big; in the process validating critics who believe any Chinese pre-eminence is not simply market-driven, but also government-directed.

On August 9th, one may observe the veneer of a strong, cohesive Singapore nation, a people united in the idea of Singapore. But the only thing I’m certain of is that for each individual, from the Malay-speaking 10th generation Hokkien to the Hindi-speaking 1st generation Marwari, the idea of Singapore is different.

[quip float="pqright"]Perhaps therein lies the beauty of this tiny city-state, an amorphous, heterogenous vision that represents many different things to many different people.[/quip]

Perhaps therein lies the beauty of this tiny city-state, an amorphous, heterogenous vision that represents many different things to many different people. But how long can the pursuit of money serve as the only social glue?

My own reason for celebration this National Day is that I see the hypocrisy and superficiality coming to an end. To complement Singapore’s many undoubted accomplishments, we are now—buttressed by alternative media and a more demanding electorate—finally entering the age of honesty.

Among many other things, I see ordinary Singaporean tiring of the old vulnerability rhetoric. Increasingly the negative conception of “small, no resources, fragile ethnic balance” is being turned on its head for a positive one. “Small, agile, multicultural”—how do those competitive advantages allow us to compete in the world, proudly, as Singaporeans?

Despite what the triumphalists will proclaim on National Day, Singapore, an inchoate nation city-state, is far, far away from finding itself, much less attaining true success and stability.

But we are slowly getting there, and the real joy of Singaporean society today is in hearing disparate groups and minority voices finally speaking with confidence. Traditionally passive, reticent Singaporeans are no longer accepting answers blindly; we all want to live the question, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, the 19th C Bohemian-Austrian poet:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”


Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze and co-author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. He is currently working on a book about China and India. Sudhir sits on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.sg


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