Thankfully, I attended a lecture at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), by the Nepali Novelist, Manjushree Thapa, recently. One of the attendees asked her whether the Gurkha reputation for being fiercely loyal was an intrinsic characteristic of the Nepali people. She replied that she did not think it was so. However, she went on to point out that there was an intrinsic need for Nepali people to seek out just treatment – ie, they would be loyal to those who treated them fairly.
This comment struck me. Singaporeans have been going on and on about the loyalty of our new citizens, or lack thereof. We’ve questioned the need for our new arrivals to serve National Service. More recently, we’ve questioned whether our Olympians are truly Singaporeans and by definition loyal to Singapore. Questioning of loyalties has become so common that it’s time we asked ourselves what exactly makes us loyal to something at all.
We talk a lot about being “native” born as opposed to being born elsewhere. However, does being native born to a country make one more loyal than an immigrant? If one looks at the record of the Gurkhas the answer is no.
Let’s face it; I’ve met more than my fair share of native born Singaporeans who are quite open about not wanting to fight a war for the country. I’ve written commentaries on the value of National Service and had youngsters comment that I was being “naïve” or “old-fashioned” because the US and China would always keep Singapore safe. I know of a young PAP grassroots activist who, when asked what he’d do if there was a war, said with great certainty, “I’ll run away.” (This particular activist served his national service in the comfort of an air-conditioned office.)
By contrast, I’ve never met a Gurkha who has thought of running away. As one of them once said, “It’s part of our oath to die for Singapore.” It’s not just the ones in Singapore who are committed to die for a foreign country. Nobody questions the bravery and loyalty of the Gurkhas in the British or Indian armies. Ordinary British citizens have even lobbied their government for better treatment for the Gurkhas.
So, if being a native born and breed person does not make one loyal to a country, could it be something else? Could money be a major factor?
To a certain extent, money does buy a certain amount of loyalty. One needs money to survive and so one goes to where the money is. Many of us stay loyal to our employers because we are loyal to our livelihood.
However, if you look at the increasing “job mobility” in the modern world, you’ll realize that money isn’t everything. Employees will happily jump to another employer who offers them more money at the drop of a hat, just as employers are happy to sack employees the moment they find a cheaper alternative. It’s not just companies that suffer this problem. Even professional armies have the same issues in retaining staff.
Well, this doesn’t happen with the Gurkha units around the world. If there’s one place where people serve for two-decades, it’s in the Gurkha units. Furthermore, the Gurkhas don’t get lavishly rewarded for their services. The British Army, for example, pays the average Gurkha far less than what it pays the average British squaddie. You can argue that what they get is better than in the villages in Nepal. However, when you get paid less than someone else for doing the same job, often with less enthusiasm than you do, the human instinct is not to feel terribly loyal.
So, if being native born and paying exceptionally well are not sure fire ways to make people loyal, could Ms Thappa be right? If she is right in the assumption that people are loyal to those who make them feel valued, then it throws light on the way countries will need to relate to their citizens. This issue will become increasingly important as people have greater mobility to pick and choose countries in ways which their forefathers could never even have dreamed of.
It remains important to have a sound economic climate with economic growth. People will flock to where they can get the best chances to build a decent life for themselves.
However, economic growth is not the be-all and end-all in creating loyalty among people. Governments will need to find something else to inspire loyalty from their citizens. This is a challenge that governments will need to look at with increasing vigour as people develop more choices in where they call home.