Dear PM Lee,
Much has been written in the press lately about race, heritage and national identity. I just wanted to share a thought that crossed my mind, one that was reinforced and enriched by my recent visit to the United States.
In the United States, the people refer to themselves as ‘Asian American’, ‘African American’, or ‘white American’.
In Singapore, we call ourselves ‘Singapore Indian’, ‘Singapore Malay’ or ‘Singapore Chinese’.
The differences go much deeper than the merely semantic. For the Americans, ‘American’ is used as a noun, and ‘Asian’ an adjective — which means that an Asian American is fundamentally an American who just happens to be Asian. An African-American is fundamentally an American who just happens to be black.
But in Singapore, we each tend to be fundamentally a Chinese, Malay or Indian who just happens to be Singaporean. I find this very worrying and troubling. If race and ethnicity are primary to who we are and nationality secondary, then what binds us together as a nation? How strong are these bonds? What is there to anchor a Singapore Indian, Malay or Chinese to Singapore when the world is his oyster, or in times of trouble?
The Americans are even more diverse than us, but they are inextricably bound by their strong ideals of liberty and democracy, of a sense of the greatness of their nation, the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. They believe in the American Dream. Call it starry-eyed idealism, but human individuals need ideals to aspire towards and human communities need inspiring, shared ideals to bind them strongly as one.
Singapore is just too pragmatic, in my view. We need to inject idealism into the Singaporean consciousness. The Americans call their narrative the American Dream, but we call ours just the 5 C’s, or meritocracy. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with meritocracy per se. But we need a more inspiring portrayal of our national identity, values and character. When you ask a Singaporean what defines Singapore, the typical, indifferent answers you get are “kiasu, kiasi, the 5 C’s, Singlish, chicken rice and nasi beriyani”. While much of this is charming in itself, it is definitely not enough to truly unite us as a nation and give us a strong sense of identity and shared destiny. It is certainly not the powerful cement that unites the Americans and anchors them to their proud land despite the array of political and other differences between them.
Singapore’s hard infrastructure is already among the best in the world. In that respect, the Government has done a magnificent job. In the next phase of the Singapore Story, how we build our ‘soft’ infrastructure — our national identity, national philosophy and sense of brotherhood or sisterhood — w ill be absolutely crucial.
I wish you a very happy National Day.
Website owner Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to GP.
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