This piece was written by Solitaire Joker back in 2006. He has since made his blog private and inaccessible to the public. But this is a piece I found really meaningful back then, and is still very meaningful today.
National Identity, by Solitaire Joker
Today, the green and secure island of shining domes, skyscrapers, and machine-like efficiency that we call Singapore is the place I call home.
I remember the burning sense of patriotism that I had when I was young. In the heyday of Singapore soccer, when half the citizens were cheering heart and soul for Singapore in the Tiger Cup, I remember the exultant and jubilant talk about Singapore’s stellar wins over Malaysia’s teams. I remember feeling very strongly for Singapore then, when I was still an innocent child who concerned myself only with the TV guide, soccer, and books. I remember, as if it was yesterday, making 22 cardboard flip-outs, naming 11 of the pieces after all the Brazilian World Cup players, and naming the rest of the pieces after the Singapore team (yes, I could practically tell you the name of every single player on the Singapore team then) and playing them against each other with a squashed-up paper ball on a large cardboard that was used as the soccer pitch.
And Singapore always won in my memory.
Singapore soccer then was a great way to gel the country together. But it went downhill soon after the Abbas Saad match-fixing scandal.
But as I grew into maturity, and losing my innocence along the way, I began to see the flaws of the Singapore system and began to feel disenchantment and disillusionment. My current position in a policy branch where much policy information runs through my hands is not helping either, being exposed to the inner workings of how government policy think-tanks work.
How did Singapore first start out as a nation?
After independence, MM Lee, ever the leader with foresight and determination, was determined to bring the country to the top. He wanted the best for his country. In order to do so, he and his party had to ensure that they could do so without being filibustered by opposition, squashing communists and other opposition leaders and parties. He did make some mistakes along the way, for example, Singapore’s population policies, but ultimately, he brought Singapore to the top. He helped to gel the older Singaporeans through the nation-building press and placing very strong emphasis on total defence and racial harmony, stressing that each and every Singaporean had their part to play in Singapore.
The pre-eminent statesman knew that after independence, with Singapore’s economic outlook bleak and uncertain, the one way he could gain the trust and support of the citizens was to improve the economy, and in turn, living standards. And he did, and continued to do so, and that is why the older generation of Singaporeans continue to support him.
To quote one Singaporean verbatim, “as long as I have money in my pocket, I’m happy. No need to care about anything else.”
MM Lee has definitely delivered on what he promised, and achieved what he set out to do. He built a successful political system that continued to retain power election after election due to Singapore’s economic success, he brought Singapore international recognition and acclaim, and gave Singapore a name of its own in the global arena.
But he did not foresee that the rising numbers of post-65ers would begin to call for more freedom of speech and liberty. There is a very large disconnect present in today’s situation between the older Singaporeans and the post-65ers. The older Singaporeans knew that they had to stick together during the nation-building years to work for the betterment of their country, and thus, they possess this national identity, believing that they have a part to play in Singapore.
In sharp contrast, a huge number of younger Singaporeans are now drifting without this national identity. Once the dominant middle class was established in Singapore, the requirements for a national identity began to change significantly. Being born into an age where the younger Singaporeans could experience at least modest comfort, there is little in Singapore that can contribute to the formation of a national identity. Singapore soccer? It has declined. Culture and heritage? Nah, not interested. National Service? Great for making friends, and we understand that we still need to defend our nation, but it does little to strengthen our patriotism, if any, and is generally a time-waster.
Singapore achieved grandeur because of its economic success in a short period of time by any standard. But this factor alone wasn’t enough to keep Singapore at the pinnacle even though it did skyrocket Singapore to the top.
Singapore started to be plagued by brain-drain problems starting ten to twenty years ago, and UNESCO took note and mentioned it in a report. There were so many waiting to jump ship and move to greener fields and these were the ones who have the opportunities or cash to do so. And they did. There were still many others who remained in Singapore, wishing to move but being unable to. There were many who still love Singapore and still remained here. But generally, the citizens were beginning to succumb to a kind of apathetic direction.
It somehow seems appropriate now the national identity issue is being discussed in our nation-building press. (It seems that the press has been nation-building for forty over years.) Singapore has lost much of its luster in the younger, well-educated citizens’ eyes. It may be the inevitable loss due to the restriction of certain freedoms (such as speech) or that opportunities better than those that exist in Singapore abound abroad. No matter the cause, qualitative or quantitative, there is a growing sentiment among the younger citizens that nothing will change, so long as the pre-eminent statesman remains in the council, pulling strings to ensure that the country goes the way he defined it to be.
With the building-up of the Singapore blogosphere, the alternative view to the controlled mainsteam media teeming with sharply critical voices, the more politically-inclined youths began to sit up and read and engage in active discussion, posting meaningful things themselves as well. The Singapore blogosphere generally represents what the younger, more educated citizens feel; the voices are a testament to how so many of us love, but are frustrated with Singapore. We are drifting away from what we want to be, and we are frustrated because we can’t do anything but raise our voices helplessly as if we are watching this whole show on television.
At the heart of everyone’s complaints, there is a common, binding desire. We just want to be heard. We want to keep the country we love alive, but we need to be listened to. The blogosphere has opened an outlet that everyone needed.
Singapore is everyone’s country. Singapore belongs to MM Lee, to the PAP party, to the opposition parties, to the public sector, to the Singapore market, and to its citizens. But from a political and practical standpoint, Singapore is PAP’s game. But remember, without its citizens, there wouldn’t be any Singapore. It strikes me as particularly saddening that the executive policy decisions that are made in the best vested interests of Singapore was through PAP’s vision to create an ideal utopic nation to ensure the material comforts of its citizens, to create a nation that its citizens would love to stay in, and yet, many are dying to leave.
I really want Singapore to continue the way it is, where the government continues to try to ensure the economic success of its people, but to also open up a listening ear to the growing clamour of its people to be heard. But the government has chosen, instead, to clamp down on the free-spiritedness.
And I wanted to leave. But Cobalt Paladin’s words make me pause for thought, and to consider. “We are looking for the betterment of our country and society. But change takes time. Be patient. I’m a Singaporean. I’ll stay and do my part.” Change will come, I know. It’s inevitable. But I don’t want it to come after my lifetime, where I continue to experience the same system.
To me, my national identity would be having patriotic memories and of having a voice that my government would hear. But all I can remember is that I have nothing patriotic to remember, no good memories of Singapore that I can treasure, and all I know is that my voice will go unheard. Even if experiences can be frustrating at times, they leave memories, and memories are what we take with us, good or bad, and laugh about, and hold on dearly to.
And I guess that’s my view, at the heart of all this: We can’t make memories if there aren’t any worth remembering.
We can’t make a national identity, if we aren’t regarded as citizens with voices.