Many years ago (some time in the early 80s, before the world-wide web), I read an article about the Singaporean Identity (in a printed magazine): What it means to be Singaporean.
It was a reflective piece with interviews of various personalities, of which I only remember Toh Chin Chye being one of the more prominent interviewee.
The article concluded (IIRC) that the Singaporean Identity was still emerging, still being defined, and it was a long and on-going process, and it cannot be rushed.
I mused about that for a long while and accepted that it was probably a reasonable conclusion. Anyway, SG was about 20 years old or a little over, then, so it was probably premature to try to pin down a distinct SG identity.
But the point is that thinking about the Singapore Identity is not a new thing and it has piqued the interest of many.
“... (Our identity) has to come from a shared sense of what is it Singapore stands for, what we want to achieve together, and that comes from our shared experiences, our bonding through these shared experiences, becoming one people, becoming comrades, more than friends. It depends on how we grow and live together ... how we overcome crises, whether it’s SARS, MERS or the global financial crisis, how we help one another in times of need (and) how we celebrate successes together, in SG50 and as we did during the SEA Games.”
Not exactly definitive, but it does provide some way to "test" any candidate for "Singapore Identity" - something we stand for, a common objective, and shared experience.
Kishore Mahbubani thought about what it meant to be Singaporean and wrote a piece on it: What is a Singaporean? In it he admits:
I know that I am a Singaporean. But I do not know what a Singaporean is.
A Singaporean is someone who drinks water from Malaysia, breathes (smoky) air from Indonesia, eats pork from Australia, chicken from Brazil, rice from Thailand, live in flats builit by Bangladeshi construction workers, cleaned by Sri Lankan and Indonesian maids, surf the internet on IT infrastructure maintained by Indian IT engineers, watch Korean dramas and American movies, listen to Canto-pop from Hong Kong, and whose children and elderly parents are cared for by Filipino or Myanmarese maids.
What does it mean to be Singaporean? What is the Singaporean Identity? What is our shared experience? What does a Singaporean STAND for?
"Well, a Singaporean will STAND (in line) for good food."
For some, it is only the juxtaposition of being Singaporean and being able to compare with another culture, that the salient characteristics emerge. Like this Postcards from China blogpiece.
And it is true that sometimes, only with distance, can one appreciate what is taken for granted as part of the milieu in which one lives.
Only when there is a contrast does the obvious emerge.
Sometimes, only the absence of the essential can one come to realise that it is essential. The fish in the water does not think about the water until it is out of it. If it thinks of it at all.
Three things - The Usual Suspects
Ask Singaporeans what is the Singaporean Identity, and 3 of the the top 10 things that are likely to be mentioned, are Food, Singlish, and Kiasu-ness.
Because "Singapore Identity" translates or mistranslates to "Singapore Culture", or "Singaporean Characteristics", or sometimes even to "What I miss most about Singapore".
What is the quintessential Singaporean Identity?
Well, being Kiasu is an easy answer, and the wrong answer. Kiasu-ness is a caricature - like the French are snobbish/rude, the British are stoic, the Americans are arrogant, the Chinese are inscrutable, etc.
It will do for a caricature, if you need a character that is instantly recognisable as Singaporean, for comedic purposes. But it is not the sum total of being Singaporean.
If being Singaporean is simply being Kiasu, Mr Bean should be given honorary citizenship. He's as kiasu as Mr Kiasu, and funnier. And Mr Bean's appeal is that his kiasuness is instantly recognisable and claimable by many cultures or groups. So it appears that kiasuness as a label may be unique to Singaporeans, but not the characteristic.
And, it is not what we stand for, what we want to achieve together, nor is it what binds us together.
"Singlish" is another easy answer. And while that is what makes one immediately identifiable as "Singaporean" overseas, it is probably an incomplete answer as well.
"At the bank the teller was trying to explain something to me about my account. I did not understand. She tried again. I still did not understand. Then she lapsed into Singlish, and it was perfectly clear."
Again, it is not what we stand for, or what we want to achieve together. It's like saying being Jamaican is about speaking Jamaican English, which is very distinctive, and immediately identifies one as being Jamaican or at least having spent one's formative years there.
Kiasuness and Singlish are at most Singaporean IDENTIFIERS but it is not our Identity. Just as Jamaican English is an identifier. Or maybe I am being too picky?
But I think "Singaporeanness" should be a perspective, a philosophy, a way of life, a way of interacting with life, a way of living life.
It should be what we stand for, what we are trying to achieve, and our shared experience.
Imagine that you have a team of Singaporean working together, and you bring in an American. What does he bring to the team? Innovativeness? Open-mindedness? An ability to break the rules? Leadership? Rebelliousness?
Now imagine that there is an mixed group of people from different countries and culture. One of the member is Singaporean. What does he bring to the group that is distinctly Singaporean? His Singlish? I hope not. His kiasu-ness? Chilli crab?
I came across this comment from the opinion of a German soldier in WWII on the various opposing soldiers. This was what he wrote:
Russians: Propaganda depicted them as subhumans, not worthy of any degree of respect. Experience showed them as capable soldiers. He did note that because of the cruelty inflicted on the Russian people by large portions of the German military (in particular, the SS) the Russians were returning the favor as they entered Europe. When I asked if they were feared, all he would respond with is that he was glad he was able to surrender to the Americans instead.
English: Competent, professional, but a bit slow. British forces tended to only attack with absolutely overwhelming force, and while he respected their individual skill, he held British commanders as overly cautious.
Americans: "Enthusiastic amateurs with a disposition to aggression I'd never seen in any other nation's sons." If there was something he noticed different between Americans and the other European Allies, it was how they reacted to an attack. The other allies would immediately return fire and edge their way to a more favorable position. Americans would immediately return fire, bring a punishing rain of artillery or air power on top of whatever they were fighting, and move to counterattack as soon as the rain of death ended. While he did not believe that an American infantryman or tanker was particularly skilled compared to British or German counterparts, they more than compensated for it with sheer, unadulterated, unapologetic combat aggression.
This led me to wonder, how would the SAF fight? Would an observer write:
"For the most part the SAF fought methodically, systematically, tactically and with great discipline, which belies that fact that they have never been in a shooting war before. Their professionalism and discipline are a credit to their training. And they were able to draw upon a reserve of passion and tenacity when necessary to do the impossible. Or near impossible."
Something like that? I hope so.
But even if this is so (or will be so), this is not quite the Singapore Identity I am seeking.
Yes, our core identity will inform how we fight as soldiers, as the SAF, but the emergent persona in war or conflict may overwhelm the characteristics of the Singaporean in normal circumstances.
But I can imagine that professionalism and discipline may well be part of the Singapore psyche.
Screw the experts. What do we, non-experts, average Singaporeans, think about the Singapore identity at SG50?
Here is the 2003 NDP booklet, with quotes from everyday Singaporeans. The comments are a good sample of what Singaporeans think about when asked, "what are the things that make us Singaporean?" Their answer?
Food. Singlish. Kiasuness. Multi-racialism. Multi-lingualism. HDB. NS. Among others.
'We don't have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors,' he said three years ago in an interview with the International Herald Tribune, 'a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.'
Nope. Not very hopeful of Singapore being a nation (though no one asked him what he meant by "nation").
When Tom Plate wrote about Lee Kuan Yew, he sought for a cultural reference point for his mainly American audience to understand LKY. He settled for explaining that LKY was the "Clint Eastwood" of Singapore Politics. Which I thought was quite apropos.
If we needed a cultural reference point for Singapore as a people, as a nation, what would this cultural reference point be?
Tyrion, from the series, The Game of Thrones, is a dwarf, the second son of Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock. Tyrion's mother died giving birth to him, and his father was less than happy to have a dwarf as a son. He was unwanted by his father, and even when his elder brother (heir to Casterly Rock), joined the King's Guard and took an oath not to marry or take on a lordship (hence giving up his birthright to be future Lord of Casterly Rock), Tyrion's father still did not name Tyrion heir.
As a dwarf, Tyrion was "handicapped" in the martial arts. He would never be a knight of any stature.
He realised his shortcomings, and also realised that knowledge is power and he can use knowledge to offset his disadvantage. So he educated himself, read widely, and learn as much as he could about the world.
He looked at the world honestly and without self-deception. When people called him "dwarf" or "imp", he did not let himself feel insulted. Much like how Singaporeans took to being called "a little red dot" and turned the intended disparage into a badge of honour.
Singapore is like Tyrion Lannister, the Dwarf, the Imp. We were cast out of the Federation just two years after joining it, unwanted. Like the Imp, we were handicapped with no resources, little land, and no birthright. We became strong by using our knowledge, our wits, our clear-eyed view of the world. We did not get to where we are today by demanding respect, but by earning it. Like Tyrion, we are aware of how the world sees us and we are not discouraged, nor intimidated by it. It is what it is, and we deal with it the best we can, and our best is pretty damn good!
So Singapore is like... Tyrion?
You may disagree.
Or you may say, "Tyrion, who?"
But even if you agree, so what? Would it help us to say "Singapore is like Tyrion"?
So the above is just a means to an end - understanding the qualities that make Singapore, Singapore -
Clear-eyed view of the world,
dealing with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,
understanding (and accepting) our place in this world and not thinking too highly of ourselves, yet not being intimidated or discouraged by it.
We see the world as it is, and we deal with the world as it is, objectively, pragmatically, and unromantically. At least that's what I think Singaporeans should be/should do.
But do we?
Well, we do, professionally. A civil servant (I think he was from MFA) recounted a comment from a foreign government officer who said that Singaporeans are meticulous and incredibly well-prepared for any negotiation or discussion, studying and analysing the issues from many angles if not all possible angles. And then coming to a rational, logical decision.
I was proud of our country (and countrymen) when I read that. It means that regardless of what the general public impression of Singapore and Singaporeans is, professionally, govt-to-govt, SG is respected.
But is that the Singapore Identity?
[At this point, let me apologise for being extra rambly in a blog that perhaps specialises in rambly posts. The fact is, I do not know where I am going with this. This is a blog, so this is me sorting things out in my head. BUT... it is (or is intended to be) a public (or publicly accessible) blog and I do try to present "fully baked" ideas in most of my posts, so this is unusual as it is a reflective, introspective piece. And there may be no conclusion. Or it would be a half-baked conclusion.
To be fair, the Singapore identity is not easy to pin point. Public intellectuals who have weighed in on the topic over the years also do not profess to know the answer.
But if you're still here, thank you trying to follow my convoluted reasoning, and sorry. I really am. And have a reflective, introspective SG50 National Day. See also: What makes us Singaporean.]
MFA officers represent the SG govt to other govt. But do they represent the Singaporean identity? Does the Chinese Govt for example reflect the spirit and personality of the Chinese People?
Who are we and what do we stand for?
Instinctively. we seized upon the obvious candidates for our identity - food, singlish, kiasuness, HDB, NS, multi-culturalism/multi-racialism (Singapore-style).
BUT... I think, or maybe some of us think that perhaps, these are not enough. Some of these are shared experiences - NS (and being the wife/girlfriend/mother/daughter of NSmen), HDB flat living (and knowing people or having relatives who live in HDB flats if one has never lived in a HDB flat).
But... what do we stand for? What do we bring to the table?
What do we want to achieve together?
And maybe the answer to this have to evolve from our deliberate choices over the next 20 - 50 years?
But maybe we do have an idea of what we stand for.
We stand for meritocracy. Which is a big word, that usually means, the best man (or woman) wins, and gets the prize.
We stand for incorruptibility. Which is another big word, which means, no cheating. You cannot buy victory.
Those two big words taken together is a very basic value - Fairness.
When parents complain about Primary one registration and the difficulties, part of the reason they complain is "fairness" or their perceive lack of fairness.
When Singaporeans donate to help the Vietnamese tourist who was cheated by the Sim Lim Square merchant, they were at least partly motivated by a sense of fairness.
We are a people with a very developed sense of fairness. And this, I feel, is because of we were raised in a meritocratic, non-corrupt society. Disagree? Agree?
Beside the 2, 3 and 4+ letter shared experiences - NS, HDB, Food, Singlish, there are also other experiences that we do not realise we share until we are not in Singapore. Or when things don't work the way we expect them to. Which is, correctly.
The City that Works
In Singapore, things generally work (correctly). So when they don't work, we're like fish suddenly taken out of the water.
I can't imagine how we would react if an escalator "ate" a woman in Singapore. For a panel to not be properly replaced; for a woman who was almost tripped by the faulty panel NOT to stop others from using the escalator but simply stand there to see what happens to the mother, is (from the comments) unthinkable to Singaporeans (who has the advantage of hindsight, to be fair). Of course, it might be possible that if this happened in Singapore, the sales person/woman who was almost tripped up might have whipped out her camera phone to capture it all for STOMP.
I WANT to believe that Singaporeans would be more helpful. But this is just speculation. Or hope.
Or an aspiration - something we would like to achieve together as a nation?
The nature of this aspiration may need to be worked out or negotiated. Is it for the city to work better? By "better" do we mean more reliably (e.g. our MRT)? Or more people-centric (e.g. CPF Minimum Sum)? Or be more flexible (e.g. housing policies for singles)?
A pragmatic people who dreams One of the more unexpected and stoic moments - for me anyway - was when we turned the disparaging remark of an Indonesian President (I think I was Habibie), who dismissed SG as a "little red dot" into a badge of defiant pride. It was a pragmatic acceptance of reality - we ARE just a little red dot on the map - but a defiant stance - But hear us ROAR.
We are "the little engine that could". We recognise our limitations, and then proceed to surpass those limitations. We may be small, but we punch above our weight.
But this does not come naturally.
As Bilahari Kausikan said (quoting LKY but without a cite): "Small island states are a political joke". Whether LKY actually said this or not, we suspect there is truth in that assertion. More importantly, our MFA officers are aware of (or Bilahari would like them the be aware of) other related (and pragmatic) truths:
For small states, relevance is not something to be taken for granted, but an artefact — created by human endeavour, and having been created, preserved by human endeavour. The creation and maintenance of relevance must be the over-arching strategic objective of small states... The bedrock of relevance is success. I have always told our foreign service officers that if Singapore’s foreign policy has been successful, it is not because of their good looks, natural charm or the genius of their intellect; the most brilliant idea of a small country can be safely disregarded if inconvenient, whereas the stupidest idea of a large country must be taken seriously. In fact, the stupider the idea the more seriously it must be taken because of the harm a large country can do. If we succeed, it is only because Singapore as a country is successful. Singapore’s success invests our ideas and actions with credibility... Success must be defined first of all in economic terms. Will a barren rock ever be taken seriously? I know that it has become fashionable in certain circles to claim that economic success is not everything and that there are other worthy goals in life. I do not disagree as far as individuals are concerned. If any of our compatriots chooses to drop out of the rat race and devote his or her life to art or music or religion or even to just lepak (relax) in one corner, I respect their choice and wish them well. But the country as a whole does not have this luxury. A world of sovereign states is in fact a rat race, and often a vicious one, in which the weak go to the wall. There can be no opting out for a sovereign state. And to be crass about it, small countries will always have fewer options than large countries, but rich small countries have more options than poor small countries and that tilts the scales in our favour.
What Bilahari Kausikan explained is so very important, I thought I should include it here as an excerpt, and also as an explanation.
...some foreigners... using the same choice words of “kiasu”, “rude”, “impatient” and “arrogant” to describe citizens of their host nation. Similar to Singaporeans, they also felt residents here are competitive and lead hectic lives, with more than 10 per cent using “worried” and “stressed” to describe Singaporeans.
Bilahari's speech explains this stress. As a small island state, we have to ensure that we are not political jokes. Larger nations can be more sanguine about their relevance. Not small island states.
The point is, part of who we HAVE TO BE is framed by the circumstances of our nationhood, our independence, and the geo-physical reality of our country.
Conclusion (so far) I could go on and I would have no conclusion. So this is more of a "the story so far"
What does it mean to be Singaporean?
It means realising that you are a citizen of a small island city state at risk of being taken as a political joke. It means that we are a little red dot in danger of being irrelevant to the world, and being ignored by the world. BUT, we are not and that should be a source of pride and should also be a source of profound humility. We are where we are because of who went before us, blazing the trail, lighting a path, marking the hazards and the helps. We should therefore feel an immense sense of responsibility to build upon what they have done, safeguard what they have achieved, and not squander what they have earned. We are kiasu, not simply for fearing to lose what we won, but what those who had gone before us had won for us.
And what they have left for us is a city that works. The least we can do is to ensure that it continues to work. We have the responsibility as stewards of Singapore to ensure that the city that works continues to work. And because of that, we "measure ourselves by a higher standard...There is a sense of ‘we should be better than that'".
As a small island city state, we are naturally the underdogs, and we have an affinity for other underdogs, and we want fairness for underdogs, through the practice of Meritocracy and incorruptibility.
The above is what we want to achieve, and it results in a characteristic we may call kiasuness. For us to be relevant to the world, we need to succeed, so that we can have a voice for Singapore, and for underdogs.
Singlish, Food, HDB, NS are our shared experiences. They bind us together, forging bonds that are intangible, but real.
This discussion isn't over. But maybe it will give you something to think about.