What Defines a Singaporean?

by singaporearmchaircritic

Two mainland Chinese were caught sitting in the first class compartment on a Hong Kong train although they had only paid the normal fare. When the ticket inspector explained to the fare dodgers that they each had to pay a HKD500 fine, the male passenger hollered, “Get your leader to come over! (叫你們的領導過來!)”. The ticket inspector coolly riposted, “Sorry but what we have here is a system, not a leader! (對不起,這裡只有制度,沒有領導!)”. And he proceeded to make the fare dodgers pay the due fine (source).

If I were a Hong Konger, this episode would fill me with pride. A Hong Kong ticket inspector stood his grounds and defended an important distinction between Hong Kong and mainland China – a respect for and adherence to established rules and regulations that cannot be circumvented through guanxi (關係, literally “relations”), i.e. who you know.

This anecdote also set me thinking: how would we Singaporeans respond in the same situation? Confronted by a brash and cocky foreigner challenging our norms and values, would we be able to hold our heads high and defend what is important to us?

So Much for Upholding Our Values

The authorities’ handling of the curry incident that enraged Singaporeans sometime ago may provide some answers. That the absurd settlement – the Indian family shall cook curry only when their Chinese neighbor is not at home – was not forced on the Indian family is not the issue.

As many Singaporeans had noted, the issue is this: the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) should not have taken up the case in the first place.

The CMC should have responded in the same manner as the Hong Kong inspector: tell the Chinese complainant that he or she did not have a case because here in multi-ethnic Singapore we have always lived by the principles of mutual respect and tolerance.

As we all know, the CMC did not. After allowing our values to be trampled upon by newcomers to our society, it even extolled the case as a “success.”

The muddled response from the CMC, a Ministry of Law agency, only goes to show how much Singaporeans can rely on a government body to defend our values, norms and way of life.

This is ironical, given that the government has always told Singaporeans not to take racial harmony for granted (read speeches here, here and here). Racial harmony is the exalted ideal enshrined in our national discourse built on shared historical memories. We are always told that it is of utmost importance because what is at stake is not just our domestic peace but also the nation’s survival as a predominantly Chinese society flanked by two predominantly Muslim societies.

In Search of the Singapore Identity

It was heartening to see Singaporeans rise to the occasion in response to the curry dispute. Flor Leow’s call to Singaporeans to Cook and Share a Pot of Curry on Facebook was an innovative and fun way to bring across to new migrants our message of love, tolerance and appreciation of a multi-cultural way of life, all embodied in a pot of curry.

What spoiled the pot of curry, however, were the name-calling and racist remarks made by some emotionally-charged netizens.

It is also disappointing that the incident did not spark further debates on what constitutes the Singapore identity. If you disagree with me that the Singapore identity has yet to evolve, ask yourself: how do you define a Singapore identity? Surely it cannot be just based on Singlish, or a love for food, or kiasuism?

In other words, we should ask ourselves: exactly what ideals and values do we Singaporeans believe in as a nation, and for which others should respect us?

In the 47 years since our Independence, this task has been left to the government. As early as 1988, Goh Chok Tong mooted the notion of “shared values,” which had not caught on among Singaporeans including myself:

  • Nation before community and society above self
  • Family as the basic unit of society
  • Community support and respect for the individual
  • Consensus, not conflict
  • Racial and religious harmony

And the government’s justification for this set of values was to counter “the growing influence of Western culture on Singaporeans in the 1980s” which “led to concerns that the younger generation would not share the values and outlook of their parents and community.”

On hindsight, perhaps why the set of values had not caught on was partly because it sounded suspiciously like self-serving government rhetoric, and partly because some values were already ingrained in us.

Anyhow, if the top-down imposition of a set of values didn’t work back in the 1980s, it will never work in today’s context when skepticism towards the ruling party is at a high. In fact, things have come to a stage that the PAP can do nothing right in the eyes of its critics; its every move, well-intentioned or otherwise, is greeted with cynicism by a significant portion of the populace.

So my point is this: Singaporeans have to take ownership. We have to define our own identity instead of leaving it to the government.

Who are We?

In 2004, a group of concerned Hong Kongers, mostly professionals, issued a statement on Hong Kong’s core values: “liberty, democracy, human rights, rule of law, fairness, social justice, peace and compassion, integrity and transparency, plurality, respect for individuals, and upholding professionalism.” Since then, these values have become a part of the Hong Kong discourse that sets the city and its people apart from mainland China, and invoked whenever Hong Kongers feel their city’s autonomy is under siege.

In Singapore, sadly, no such group has come together spontaneously to articulate what it means to be a Singaporean. This is also a result of the government’s tight control on speech, silencing Singaporeans whose stance diverges from that of the ruling regime.

As long as Singaporeans are not compelled and empowered to speak up and define our own identity, we as a people cannot progress.

We are at a critical stage of nation building due to the large influx of foreigners that has brought about drastic social changes and tensions. Before we lament that outsiders or newcomers do not share or respect our values, norms and way of life, we must first be able to articulate what these are.

While the curry incident shows that Singaporeans do indeed know what we cherish as a people, nationalism has to be proactive, not reactive. Nationalism that is “thin” in content, and stoked whenever a people feel insulted by criticisms and stinging remarks, can easily degenerate into xenophobia. That is not a path Singaporeans want to take.

We can perhaps start from our national pledge and think about how we Singaporeans, not our government, define the universal values written into it:

The Singapore Pledge

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.

What are the duties and the rights of a Singapore citizen? What do we mean by a “democratic society”? Is Singapore already a just and equal society? What do “happiness,” “prosperity,” and “progress” mean to us? How do we ensure we stand united, and that no citizen, regardless of race, language and religion, is left out in our pursuit of these goals?

There are no easy answers to these questions. And the discrepancies between our answers and the government’s will complicate the quest for a national identity. For instance, while Singaporeans may prefer a broader definition of democracy that encompasses freedom of speech, human rights and other civil liberties, the ruling party may subscribe to the narrow definition of an “electoral democracy.”

But one day, when we find the answers, we will be able to hold our heads high and confidently say,

“We are Singaporeans, and these, are the values we uphold.”

Here’s wishing all Singaporeans and residents in our island-state a Happy National Day.