SG50: Exchanging Identity For Hyperbole
11 August 2015
SG50 isn’t merely a celebration of independence that Singaporeans are celebrating quietly at home over chili crab and Tiger beer. The BBC’s written about it, international celebrities from sporting legends to A-list actors sent in their recorded congratulations, and several foreign heads of state and government officials attended our National Day Parade on 9 August.
SG50 is a significant occasion.
It celebrates 50 years of independence; 50 years of nation building on the backs of our ancestors - migrant workers, intellectuals and businessmen; 50 years of relentless social engineering and productivity planning that have garnered us economic success and a passport that grants citizens entry to 167 countries visa-free (ie: visa on arrival). We also have some of the world’s most popular urban attractions including the Night Safari, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Singapore Botanic Gardens) and two world-class casinos.
SG50 is so significant that 7 August was a public holiday unto itself. At the New Year’s Eve Countdown event at the beginning of the year, our emcees shouted out “Happy SG50” at the stroke of midnight, usurping the universally recognised “Happy New Year”. And we’re permitted to publicly display our Singapore flags until the end of September 2015, a whole month longer than in ordinary time.
Such is the power of SG50.
And such a shame then that the national messaging continues to only skim the surface, even as Singaporeans struggle to articulate and define their identity.
In an interview with 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace in 2005, Morgan Freeman declines any reference to the term “Black History Month”. Why the need for one when Black history is American history?
In a similar context, Singapore is a melting pot of races, cultures and traditions. Writers of Singapore’s history textbooks, public advertising and national songs have classified us into three broad racial groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian. We like acronyms in Singapore, so in short, CMI; except that CMI could also mean “cannot make it” (Singlish for “lousy”).
But, we do have an Others category, too, which is quite ludicrous, not to mention insulting. The Eurasians, for example, would count as Others; our friends and relatives whose heritage is Caucasian mixed with bits of other things. They have surnames like De Silva, Pereira, Rodrigues or Martin.
Racial representation seemed both contrived and a little weak at this year’s National Day Parade. CMI were everywhere, but Others were lurking in the background at best. Not surprising, really; verities that are exaggeratedly brought to the fore by rote learning and thoughtless routine lack authenticity and are easily forgotten.
And because we are now much more than merely Chinese, Malay, Indian and even Eurasian, what counts as “fair” representation is no longer a straightforward exercise in reductive racial politics.
National songs are tunes that we sing in school, at grassroots events and at overseas cultural exchange concerts. We belt out the failsafe numbers at such occasions: Chan Mali Chan (Malay), Home (English), Munnaeru Vaalibaa (Tamil) and Yi Qi Zou Dao (Chinese version of “We Will Get There”). These songs do their bit to stir feelings of shared pride and nostalgia. They’re easy to sing and the lyrics are broad, happy statements that are simple to process and digest. They’re also typically reserved for specifically nationalistic activities.
We don’t immediately have non-national songs that make people want to publicly sing or groove along to; songs that have been blasted on the airwaves and across digital players across the island that people choose as karaoke favourites.
No, we don’t have our own “Hey, Jude” or “We Are The Champions”. Because where would you start writing one that wasn’t steeped in how Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others you are, or that wasn’t about productivity, or that didn’t make reference to 1965 A.D. – the year that Singapore started on its journey of independence and world domination?
We're just getting started
But, here is the possibility of what we could produce, given a chance. This song was co-written by Marc together with blogger mrbrown and producer James Lye with music performed by The Momma Shop boys. It didn’t make it onto the Padang, but one hopes that it resonates with a part of us even as we think about what turning 50 really means.
BEYOND THE HYPERBOLE
SG50 or any National Day celebration isn’t a “birthday”, for crying out loud; it’s a day of independence, of coming into being as a free nation, of opportunity to forge an identity. Fifty years is nothing in the grand scheme of things. We have some way to go before we hit maturity, but we’ve come to a point – perhaps we’ve passed that point and didn’t even realise it – where we have to ditch the training wheels.
The late Lee Kuan Yew is quoted as having said at the end of a press conference marking independence on 9 August 1965: “There is nothing to be worried about. Many things will go on just as usual. But be firm, be calm. We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”
Indeed. Yet, the hyperbole, rhetoric and aspirational absolutes have rung stronger and louder this year than National Day celebrations of yore. Somehow, 2015 is the year that Singaporeans MUST remember where they came from, know their place and take note of directions given them to keep the wheels of this incredible machine turning.
And, therein, lie our quest, desire and hope for more. So much more. Here are merely samplings of what we – yes, every one of us proud Singaporeans - should be working towards:
1. Stop The Slogans If giving up our seat on the bus or train to someone who needs it doesn’t come naturally, no amount of floor to ceiling advertising is going to make an iota of difference.
2. Encourage Not Engineer Creativity The very communities we live in - the heartlands, community centres, schools – offer so much potential in terms of space and talent to truly drive creativity. People – and not the People’s Association - should take charge of the arts and culture activities in their communities. And may be, just may be, we’ll be rid of that SupportLocal hashtag. Why is it even a thing? Why is national pride reserved for defence or banking or laksa?
3. Drop The Coolie Stock Story That song-and-dance with samsui women, Indian dhobis and Malay fishermen stretches way before 1965 in history, and in any case, we’re supposed to be looking forward. Contemporary Singapore is vastly different from the colonial outpost we used to be so we’d best be focusing on our social consciousness rather than simplistic CMI(O) lines that divide more than unite.
Perhaps the only aspirational absolutes we need be mindful of are the words of our National Pledge and, more specifically, these: “to build a democratic society based on justice and equality”.
** Between Marc and Carol, they have in their ancestry Malayalee, Punjabi, Chinese, possibly some Javanese and goodness knows what else because Carol’s paternal grandfather was a bit of a mystery.