National Day and the dilution of our collective story

I could count no more than 20 flags displayed outside their flats in the block opposite mine. This and the recent debate that has risen from Feng Tianwei winning the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics, made me think what it means to be a Singaporean.

Why has it been difficult for some Singaporeans to accept Singapore Table Tennis Association's women team's victories as Singapore's? Could it be because 10 of 23 athletes (including Feng Tianwei) competing in nine sports at the London Olympics were part of the Foreign Sports Talent (FST) scheme, and so reflect the present Singapore society, where 4 in 10 are foreigners?

I lived as a stranger in a foreign land for some years, and so know first-hand how that feels. Where there were very little Asians (much less Singaporeans), my family and I had no choice but to try and assimilate as fast as we could, and eventually, we became good friends (like family almost) with some in the community.

These friends taught us where to shop, where the good deals were, where the good restaurants were, why people behaved a certain way, what the local customs were, how to drive in the snow, who to go to when you had to get something done, how you adapt when the seasons changed, and so much more.

As there were no enclaves of Asians with whom to click, we learnt the cultures, customs and values of our good friends - we appropriated them as our own so that we could assimilate. Although we lived in the foreign land only for a few short years, very soon our friends in this foreign land, came to view us not as foreigners, but as one of their own.

Perhaps that's what irks Singaporeans the most - that people who come here from foreign lands do not need to know the Singapore stories, because they are strong in numbers to stick with the stories they have grown up hearing. And without knowing our stories they are perhaps never going to be like us.

Maybe Singapore Government's lax immigration policy's greatest disservice is, the dilution of the collective story of an entire generation.

I remember an incident from my childhood. My father who was born in India and eventually became a naturalised citizen in the early 60s, asking a Chinese stranger who was carrying his child in the lift, 'pompan (perempuan) ke jantan (lelaki)'? And I remember the Chinese neighbour answering my father in Malay with a smile.

I did not understand the language or the question then, but thinking back now, I am amazed at the effort he took in learning the lingua-franca then. I am still amazed by the ease with which my mother, a third-generation Singaporean, strikes up a conversation with total strangers in English, Malay or Hokkien (her forefathers were Sri Lankan Tamils) in bus-stops and markets. They were both eager to know stories, stories that would give them a sense of connectedness with the community.

Even I grew up hearing stories. Stories that I heard as I interacted with the fishmonger in the pasar, stories my friends and their parents would tell when I visited them for Hari Raya or Chinese New Year, stories my friends told me in school or when I was serving my national service. And over time, you put all these short stories together and you have created in your mind, a narrative of customs, cultures and values.

Today, our Prime Minister in his National Day message asked Singaporeans to remain open with accepting foreigners, and foreigners to acquire our social values and adopt our social norms.

But it will remain a challenge for Singaporeans to accept people who are so different in their values and social norms. And in a tiny city-state where there is a large enough number of foreigners to form enclaves, there is simply very little incentives for the foreigner to know the Singapore story.

When that happens, people don't want to do their National Service, they find migration greatly attractive, they don't want to hang their flags, the sense of being a nation is weakened. 

The perceived inequality between the foreigners and the locals too, does very little to assuage Singaporeans fears.  

A former national boxing champion for example, tells how his invitation to the Commonwealth Games some years back, came without any perks; that he had to take his own leave to participate, and when he wanted to resign to concentrate on winning a trophy for the country, he was told that he'd be given $400 only if he won.

'If it's not for the money offered she (Feng Tianwei) will not be here representing us', the former sportsman comments on his Facebook.

So, at the end of the day, what does it mean to be a Singaporean? Is there something that we all can identify with as being Singaporean?

Some would say it is the food that binds us - I'd say that although the food's good, if that's the only thing that binds us, then that is very superficial.

I'd argue that the thing that makes us Singaporean is our belief in a common narrative - a narrative of equality, peace, progress, justice and democracy. And for this narrative to be passed down the generations, we need enough story-tellers.  Without enough of them, what you'll get is only a very diluted narrative.

Why, even our National Pledge tells a story: 
"We the citizens of Singapore
Pledge ourselves as one united people
Regardless of race, language or religion
To build a democratic society
Based on justice and equality
So as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress
For our nation."

And this is not merely an aspiration. 

Happy National Day Singaporeans!


Gary said…
Has the govt not made a pariah of the local narrative in its eagerness to attract foreigners in relentless pursuit of its GDP ambitions?
db said…
Dear Ravi,

Thanks for a great article and wishing you and your family a Happy National Day! :-)

market2garden said…
~Maybe Singapore Government's lax immigration policy's greatest disservice is, the dilution of the collective story of an entire generation. ~

market2garden rvplm 2012.08.10

PS: Last time commented here was Ministerial Political Salary.