Friday, August 28, 2009

'We the citizens of Singapore...'

Aug 28, 2009

At 8.22pm on Aug 9, Singaporeans here and abroad joined their hearts to make a commitment to the nation's aspirations. Fist over heart, they recited the country's pledge. It was a unique moment aimed at binding Singaporeans as 'one united people'. Like the pledge, the national anthem and flag are symbols of Singapore. How do they arouse in Singaporeans a love for this land we call home? Are there other Singapore icons that also touch our hearts? Insight finds out.
By Lynn Kan & Cai Haoxiang

IT'S about myth, metaphors and memories.

Historian Kwa Chong Guan, who recently co-authored a book on Singapore's history, says state symbols are of critical importance to a nation because they provide meaning and direction.

These symbols, he notes, embody signs that are 'pregnant with myth, metaphors and memories that have deep meaning for the citizens of the nation'.

He cites the lion as one such mythical symbol for Singapore. This symbolises Singapore as the Lion City, he notes, 'although we all know that there never were any lions in Singapore'. The British included the lion in the armorial bearings on shields because it stood for bravery.

Besides distinguishing Singapore from another country, symbols like the pledge, flag and anthem create a sense of belonging for the people.

At 8.22pm on Aug 9 this year, Singaporeans came together to pledge themselves as 'one united people'.

As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reminded Singaporeans last week, the pledge came about in a period fraught with racial tension. The aspirations it contains envisage a time when racial tensions can be no more - when Singaporeans are united 'regardless of race, language or religion'.

From their school days, Singaporeans learn to recite the pledge in unison, right fist clenched over heart. They also sing the anthem, Majulah Singapura (Malay for Onward Singapore), as the red and white flag bearing the five stars and crescent moon is hoisted.

Mr Lawrence Anderson, a diplomat since 1988, identifies with these symbols because he grew up with them. He started Primary 1 in Anglo-Chinese School when Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965. He recalls scribbling the words of the pledge on a piece of paper to help him remember them.

'These symbols have been with me since the beginning. They bring memories of my friends and family, and of old Singapore. That's why they're meaningful,' he says. The 50-year-old is now director of the Foreign Ministry's Europe Directorate.

And it is not only those born and bred here who are moved by Singapore's national symbols.

For 40-year-old Perumal Moorthy, for example, the pledge resonates even though he did not grow up reciting it in school.

A naturalised citizen from India, Mr Moorthy likes how the pledge's message unites people, particularly newcomers, in Singaporean society.

'The pledge reminds us that we are living in a multiracial democracy. Every time you say 'regardless of race, language or religion', it reminds you that you are not alone,' he says.

Mr Kwa explains: Symbols foster a sense of belonging by connecting individual beliefs and experiences to something bigger than themselves.

Mr Moorthy came to Singapore from India in 1992 to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, and is today actively involved in grassroots work in his Bukit Panjang community.

He is an 'integration champion' - his task is to reach out to temporary workers and permanent residents (PRs), and invite them to community activities like Chinese New Year or Hari Raya dinners, briskwalking events and blood donation drives.

'PRs should not be isolated,' he says. 'Some people come here, they have no friends, they feel lonely, so you talk to them, help bring them closer to the community, make them feel at home.'

Stirring the spirit

NATIONAL symbols - whether visual like the flag, or in word and song like the pledge and anthem - stir up the patriotic spirit. In the movies, cavalry soldiers go into battle with national flag waving and bugles sounding the national anthem.

Jalan Besar MP Denise Phua, who also runs the Pathlight School for autistic children, says she feels 'proud and touched' every time she sings the national anthem.

'It reminds me of an underdog made good, of a small nation-state, unwanted and poor, which finally made it,' she says.

Sportsmen, such as national goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, also like the anthem for its uplifting tune and its message of striving onwards.

Whenever he sings the words 'semangat yang baru', or new spirit, he feels bound in spirit to the Singaporeans behind him and to his teammates.

'The national anthem really psyches me up. It motivates me because when I sing it, it reminds me that it's an honour to play for my country.

'When I sing the anthem, I feel closer to the team. It's like we're readying for battle, on the road to war. The whole country is behind you,' says the 26-year-old, who is a police staff sergeant when he is not playing football.

The anthem provides an auditory lift for many sports people, but it's the sight of the flying flag that is particularly poignant for 26-year-old national sailor Roy Tay.

At sailing competitions, the flag with the five stars and crescent moon is hoisted whenever he stands on the rostrum during the prize-giving ceremony.

The sight of the rising flag never fails to trigger a swell of tears in his eyes.

His experience at the 2006 Asian Games, when his team of five won the keelboat match-racing event, was the most memorable.

'When I heard the national anthem played and the flag going up, high above the rest, it really made me realise that Singapore beat the rest. Knowing that no other flag was above my country, I felt proud of Singapore,' he says.

Clearly, symbols are important at igniting patriotism - but there's no automatic ignition. The occasion matters too. National fervour is more easily stirred when Singaporeans are in their 'citizen mode', says Heritage Society president Kevin Tan.

'I identify with the pledge, anthem and flag when I'm a 'higher self', like when I'm a member of a community, rather than when I'm someone with a narrow parochial identity,' said Dr Tan, 48, whose non-profit, non-governmental society promotes Singapore's cultural history.

Ties that bind

HOWEVER, while national symbols aim to unite a nation, the reality is that once Singaporeans leave school, they don't have as many occasions to recite the pledge or sing the anthem. Most people encounter these symbols only once a year, during National Day celebrations. Because they don't feature constantly in the lives of ordinary Singaporeans, they aren't the things that bind Singaporeans to the land.

Rather, it's the tangible things that Singaporeans constantly interact with in their daily lives that are, for them, the real symbols of home.

For instance, Dr Tan feels that HDB flats are emblems for Singaporeans.

'It's the way most of us live. Look at it and you'll recognise it as home. It also symbolises multiracial living. HDB flats are something we have that is unique; not every society can boast of this.

'This is the real Singapore, not some fake manufactured touristic invention.'

He gives the example of the Merlion, created by Mr Fraser Brunner, a member of the Souvenir Committee and curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium, as a logo for Singapore's tourism board in 1964.

'The Merlion is a manufactured symbol. The tourists love it more than we do,' he says.

But perhaps there are icons for locals and icons for foreigners.

To foreigners, the Merlion is a symbol of Singapore.

'The Japanese love it so much that there's a Merlion-inspired statue in the Japanese city of Osaka. Every one of my Japanese friends who visit Singapore insists that I have to take them to see the Merlion,' says Dr Tan.

Mr Tay agrees that while tourists remember places like the shopping haven of Orchard Road or the skyline of the Central Business District, these aren't the places that immediately leap to his mind when he thinks of home.

'You get cities everywhere,' says the sailor who is based in Sydney and studies business administration at Macquarie University there. 'After a while, all cities look the same, full of high-rise buildings.'

But nowhere else can he find 24-hour coffee shops with 'old-style authentic food', or 'density and diversity of people', than in the hustle and bustle of the Singaporean heartland.

'Some Singaporeans may prefer Australia because it's more open, free and relaxed. They think Singapore's boring, but to each his own. I think the density of Singapore makes it special. You get family, friends and food so close by,' he says.

Home, for singer-songwriter Clement Chow, who is known for singing Count On Me Singapore, boils down to the things that are uniquely Singaporean.

He feels that one thing that makes him feel aglow with a feeling of home is the sound of Singlish.

'The Singlish accent is undeniably Singaporean. It's extremely recognisable. The moment I hear someone speaking Singlish, I know he's from Singapore. The way we speak makes me feel a sense of home,' says Mr Chow, 49.

Symbols change, but...

WITH the deluge of symbols vying to represent what Singapore is to Singaporeans and to foreigners, some may protest at the need for them.

'We have enough of symbols already. There's the culture, mannerisms, food - all these spell something uniquely Singaporean and provide a sense of home. We don't need to make more. It becomes more complicated,' says Mr Chow.

However, Mr Kwa the historian sees nothing wrong with the constant invention and re-invention of symbols for the city-state.

'New symbols are created to represent new memories of new challenges to Singapore.

'In defence, we used to to think of ourselves as a 'poison shrimp' but with our growing defence capabilities, we then changed and thought of ourselves as a porcupine. Today, we are moving to think of ourselves as a dolphin,' he says, referring to Singapore's defence outlook.

Over time, older symbols like the lion and tiger on the British colonial armorial bearings 'fade and are forgotten as what they represented become history'.

Whether invented like the Merlion, real like nasi lemak or necessary like the flag, Singaporeans like symbols because they stand for something that is home.

But symbols aside, there are clearly other things that make a place home, like a shared heritage and a feeling of belonging.

Says Dr Tan of the Heritage Society: 'Different things mean home for different people. But ultimately, home is about a familiarity that makes one comfortable, and about ownership of a slice of Singapore.'

[Every now and then we angst over our national identity, our cultural identity, and asks ourselves when does it mean to be Singaporean. Truly we are a nation in transition. The answer to the question, "what is Singaporeanness?" is answered with food, with our linguistic abberations (Singlish), our values ("kiasu"), our pragmatism, our home ("HBD"), our racial and religious mix, our efficient government and society, our security.

We continue to search.]

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