Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Singaporean identity

Dec 25, 2010


Racial harmony and meritocracy are defining traits
By Ravi Shankar Buddhavarapu

A SUCCESSFUL nation can be forged from a tiny piece of under-resourced land by an act of exceptional leadership. Singapore has demonstrated that, even its severest critics will agree.

But nationhood is a different matter entirely.

Because it is an idea, or an ideal, that lives in the consciousness of a nation's inhabitants, it needs to arise from within.

As an 'India Indian' - an ethnic Indian who is a national of India, distinct from an ethnic Indian who is Singaporean - I may have trouble describing which one of the diverse aspects of my personality is more Indian than the other. Is the penchant for abstraction more Indian than my distaste for operatic music? Is my partiality for distinctness in dress more Indian than my taste for subtlety in food flavour? I don't know, but I would love to elaborate. As a man who loves to dissect the minutiae of anything, I could probably produce a mountain of arguments to support either position - this last being a very Indian quality.

So, to be an Indian or even, say, American is to be born with a national identity forged through collective experience over time.

If a nation can be created by an act of will, so too can the idea of what it means to be a citizen of that country. But this intellectual exercise would be as nothing without stability, or continuous existence as an entity.

For a young country like Singapore, which drew its first breath with reluctance after a forced separation, time also helps to reinforce its 'otherness' from its close family community, the Malaysia of Tunku Abdul Rahman.

In fact, so deeply felt was this sense of belonging to the Malaysian hinterland that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew begins his memoirs with an account of separation that thrust Independence upon Singapore, using a striking parallel to the forlorn sense of abandonment of a divorced wife.

'Under Malay-Muslim custom, a husband, but not the wife, can declare 'Talak' (I divorce thee) and the woman is divorced,' Mr Lee writes on the second page of The Singapore Story.

Comparing the union of Chinese-majority Singapore and Malay Muslim-majority Malaysia to marriage, he says it was marred by 'conjugal strife' over whether the merged entity should be a truly multiracial society or one dominated by the majority, in this case the Malays.

This central cause of discord - equality of the races under the law - remained key to the self-definition of Singapore in the years to come, and today is as much a part of the Republic's identity as the primacy of nurturing merit and attracting foreign talent where necessary.

The divorce has long been made final and both parties have gone their separate ways. Today, Singapore is a proud and resilient country with a distinct ethos.

And two key statistics released this year suggest that the idea of Singapore, or its nationhood, has taken root, something that is of great importance to its success and indeed its survival in the future.

The first is the less important but the more striking. It was reported last month that Singapore is set to overtake its divorced and much larger partner, in gross domestic product, which is expected to hit US$210 billion (S$273 billion). This will make this tiny island nation the third-largest economy of the region, behind Indonesia and Thailand.

A mammoth achievement by any yardstick, and very significant in the 21st century, when economic power is putting more muscle in the hands of regional powers than military strength has ever had in the past. China, whose military strength is minuscule compared to that of the US, is negotiating on more equal terms with the sole superpower than any other country in the recent past has been able to.

The second, and more important, figure was thrown up by a government survey, which polled students from primary school to junior college. As many as 95 per cent of these children, who were as young as six, were proud to be Singaporean.

And what did being Singaporean mean to them? 'Our students quite openly declare their love... They cite specific things they treasure in Singapore. They believe in a society that is self-reliant, intolerant of corruption and meritocratic. They value our cultural diversity and the racial and religious harmony we enjoy in Singapore,' (italics mine) said Education Minister and Second Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen.

This is indeed heartening. It is also reassuring for the future of Singapore that its children, who have known no other home, feel neither nostalgia nor a sense of what-might-have-been that might torment the hearts of offspring of divorced couples.

It is no accident that these children cite meritocracy, racial and religious harmony as the defining traits of Singaporeanness, as it were. It was this concept of meritocracy and equal privilege that caused the rift bringing independence in the first place.

But here's a question a sceptic would ask - and as many did, so my colleagues at The Straits Times where I work as a copy editor tell me, when news of the survey was published a few weeks ago: Is a six-year-old too young to imbibe such lofty concepts as equality and meritocracy? Should we look upon this finding with suspicion?

My answer would be: A six-year-old understands equality or meritocracy - but in ways fundamentally different from you and me. To my son, who is eight and was six not too long ago, it will mean that he plays with children of every colour and skin type; Caucasian white to Chinese fair to the range of Indian and Malay hues - from light to brown to dark tan.

Not only does he play with all these different races, but he understands with the understanding of an evident - as different from demonstrable - truth that they are all alike. And that the best among them wins - in play. And that it is right.

May I, a God-believing Hindu 'Indian Indian' who now calls Singapore home, add this? To readers of all hues and creeds: Merry Christmas.

[How am I a Singaporean? How is my identity Singaporean? I do not know. I only know what I am, and perhaps in some ways, what I am is common to other Singaporeans, and in a sense that makes me part of the Singaporean identity. I cannot say with certainty that I am not inclined to one ideology or the other. But I would like to think that despite whatever ideology I may hold at any given moment, I am open-minded enough to consider other views. And perhaps meritocracy of ideas is part of the pragmatism that is core to Singaporeanness.]

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