Yet it is relevant to life. The question of what makes you Singaporean is linked to the question of why you choose to live here and not elsewhere. In a world where people are exposed to so many different cultures and countries, why choose Singapore? Admittedly, most of us don’t think about this. We feel loyal firstly to our friends and family rather than to the abstract concept of the ‘nation’. We stay in Singapore out of familiarity and convenience rather than intense patriotism, and identify with the distinctly Singaporean experiences of Singlish and food without feeling especially loyal to Singapore. The assumption made by Mr Chan and the students present was that most Singaporeans don’t feel particularly attached to Singapore. No one expects passionate loyalty from every citizen, but surely something’s wrong when a basic level of interest and love is missing?
The students had diverse views on why Singaporeans lack this sense of love and belonging. One student put forth the idea that only after Singapore emerged from post-war poverty did economic needs become less pressing for the country as a whole, giving us the time and luxury to contemplate more abstract issues like national identity and patriotism. Another possibility is that Singapore’s culture of law and obedience discourages the independent, ground-up initiatives that could increase our sense of ownership in this country – for instance, ‘Sticker Lady’s’ humorous, creative endeavours make one proud to be called Singaporean, but the government’s official stance is to slam her activities as ‘unauthorized’. Another student asserted that Singaporeans feel alienated from the country because the government doesn’t ‘take ownership of us’. ‘Why?’ Mr Chan Chun Sing countered, ‘Does PAP prevent you from fulfilling your dreams?’
He had a point – many of the students present were government scholars, their hefty university fees paid for by the country. Nonetheless, criticizing the system is not mutually exclusive with occupying a position of privilege within it, and no doubt some criticize the PAP’s policies because they love and want to improve this country. How then does the government not take ownership of Singaporeans? Immigration and the constant rebuilding of Singapore’s landscape were two problem areas raised. Many feel that the way we’ve handled these issues has prevented Singaporeans from forming emotional ties to Singapore.
The topic of immigration attracted opinions from many students; Mr Chan paused after taking down everyone’s questions to announce, ‘Okay – I can take all this’ to a laughing and expectant audience. He characterized immigration as ‘logically sensible, but emotionally not’. He emphasized the economic necessity of immigrants but also admitted the need to find an ‘optimal level’ of immigration that both achieves economic competitiveness and reduces residents’ anxieties about foreigners. One of these many anxieties is the sense that immigrants threaten our place in this country, making us second-class citizens in our own countries because politicians and employers apparently favour foreigners. Whether or not this is true, this insecurity expresses a desire that the government’s first obligation be towards locals rather than foreigners, something that jars with Singapore’s aspirations to be economically competitive. The important question is, as an audience member asked, ‘What do we do about all this social tension?’ Could we restructure the economy to reduce our reliance on foreign labour? Can we reduce Singaporeans’ feelings of alienation by finding other ways to increase our sense of belonging?
One way to do this could be to slow down the pace of change here. Familiar roads and buildings, historical sites and open fields are constantly demolished to enable the building of bigger roads, new malls, new condominiums. As Mr Chan puts it, ‘The old generation must give up some memories for the new generation to progress’. Nonetheless, surely some memories of the older generation can also be memories of the younger one? NUS staff Chim Chee Kong enjoys exploring old school parts of Singapore like Potong Pasir and Tiong Bahru, seeing such historical places as key to his identity as a Singaporean. In the meanwhile, residents all over Singapore gripe about how this or that place from their childhood has been demolished to make way for new construction works. No one’s arguing that we should never ever demolish anything, merely that we reconstruct our country in ways that’re more sensitive to what residents want. Progress doesn’t always have to mean new malls, condominiums and roads. Shared memories across generations, having a sense of familiarity and home in our country – this is a kind of progress as well.
It’s important to caution against certain types of nationalism. We don’t want blind loyalty to our country’s leaders because loving our country also means knowing when to correct our politicians. We don’t want the xenophobic strain of nationalism that sees us verbally assaulting foreigners as seen on STOMP, the Straits Times’ interactive website. What we want is for Singaporeans to feel at home and valued here, and to be more concerned with the state of this country as a result – the recent StandUpFor.SG campaign is a good example of us being passionate and engaged and wanting to improve our home. There is no written law anywhere that says we must be concerned, engaged citizens. But surely it is one of those things that adds value to life, that makes us feel part of something much bigger than we are.
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