A letter to the Prime Minister

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.

The Singapore flag - red and white with 5 stars

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?

Four children of three different races from Singapore

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.

Best regards,

Steven Ooi


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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About gptuitionsg

A dedicated English and GP tutor with First Class Honours from the National University of Singapore, Steven Ooi retired from the profession after a 14-year career during which he was one of the most sought-after private tutors in Singapore. He is the recipient of the Minerva Prize from NUS, which is awarded to the top English Language honours student of each cohort. This website, which has consistently ranked among the top 10 on Google and has received over 530,000 hits, has now been converted into a GP resource site cum listing of recommended tutors. If you are a GP or English tutor who wishes to be listed here, please email Steven Ooi at stevenooi18 @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces). Interested parties will be assessed and interviewed by him, and qualifications will be checked. These procedures are necessary to uphold quality standards. DISCLAIMER: While every reasonable effort has been made to assess the competence and verify the qualifications of recommended tutors here, no guarantees are made and you engage them at your own risk. By using this website, you agree that you will not hold the webmaster Steven Ooi responsible for any consequences — direct or otherwise — that occur in relation with your use of this website.
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1 Response to A letter to the Prime Minister

  1. Dion says:

    Hi! Just chancing across this post while I was surfing through the web. While I agree that Singapore has yet to be considered a nation given that Singaporeans’ definition of what constitutes their identity either boils down to pragmatism or constitutes superficiality ( chicken rice, nasi briyani.. etc), it has to be acknowledged that successful national building needs to be an organic process, that requires time. Through hardships, tough periods will citizens of a country find common standing ground, paving way to nation building. In the new technological era, globalisation has more often a times dilute a sense of a national identity which is certainly the case for Singapore, which is an open and highly integrated node in the global community. Injecting a sense of idealism into Singaporean’s consciousness, as I see it as, proves to be very difficult since Singaporeans are hard wired to be pragmatic through constant teachings from parents, education. Rather than building a national identity, I feel that a better approach would be to inculcate a sense of community and reduce ‘individualism’ through preaching of values/virtues- humility, compassion.. which all adds up to a better living environment for everyone.

    On a side note, I have a question to ask you. Singapore’s prime minister is one of the most highly paid politician of all times, to be exact first. The annual salary, $2.75 million, of Singapore’s prime minister is almost 5 times more than that of US President Barack Obama salary of $400,000. Given that President Barack Obama has a larger state to govern and shoulders the responsibility to make many world-changing decisions vis-a-vis that of Singapore which is smaller physically and holds lesser global significance, is it justified that Singapore’s prime minister is earning a much higher wage? Thank you very much! 🙂

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