Friday, December 5, 2008

What will you defend in S'pore?

Dec 5, 2008
Hopefully, S'poreans can look beyond self-interest in their answers

By Goh Chin Lian

WITH Singapore marking 25 years of Total Defence next year, a new campaign has been launched to have people post online videos in response to this question:

'What will you defend?'

Now this question presumes there is something - or someone - worth defending in Singapore.

The website - - offers some suggestions.

It says: 'Singapore is home, and everyone has something that we would defend. It could be your family, friends, way of life, or even your childhood memories.'

I returned home from a work trip to Kuwait several weeks ago, and I must say that on coming back, the thing that struck me most was Singapore's trees and the lush greenery here.

Kuwait, oil-rich as it is, is flat desert. Scarce rainfall has meant that while some plants do grow, there is none of the same abundance of green. Nor were the trees as tall.

Here, I am thankful that the rainfall comes abundantly, and that the trees grow to a good height, with many also providing much-needed shade.

I am also thankful for the conscious effort made by the authorities and people alike to keep the place green, even as the population and economy grow, and people feel crowded out.

Singapore's nature reserves, with their uneven trails, waterside boardwalks and the growing system of park connectors, are all part and parcel of this thoughtful planning amid competing demands for how land should be put to good use.

It would be a pity to lose such beauty and places of solace.

In the past weeks, I have also come across different perspectives of Singapore that provided an insight into what it is here that people might think is worth defending.

I was in the High Court on an assignment, listening to a case of three men who had been charged with being in contempt of court.

They were accused of scandalising the Singapore judiciary by wearing T-shirts with an image of a kangaroo dressed in a judge's robes.

The men spoke about freedom of expression and fair criticism to justify their actions, and declined to apologise when they were offered the opportunity to do so by the judge.

The case against them was presented by the Deputy Solicitor-General, from the Attorney-General's Chambers.

The men were eventually sentenced to jail terms.

The youngest among them was a 19-year-old full-time national serviceman, who was represented in court by a lawyer.

In the public gallery, among the friends and supporters of the trio, I noticed that there were several who appeared to be just as young as the national serviceman.

It made me wonder about just how they regarded the opposing arguments put forth by the trio and the Deputy Solicitor-General, and how that would shape their view of what they will defend here in the course of their lifetime.

On other occasions, I have also met foreigners from neighbouring countries and beyond who have worked or lived here for a number of years, as well as Singaporeans who have lived abroad for just as long.

One thing that most of them spoke about was the endemic corruption and unfairness of particular systems and processes in these various countries - from traffic policemen who will cream off motorists who flout traffic rules, to not being able to find a job or a place in university because of some in-built bias.

Such experiences again weigh on and affect not just their perceptions of those countries, but also how they then see Singapore.

The relatively stable political and economic environment here must rank high and favourably on their list of priorities, and must be regarded as a plus when compared to where they had come from.

But having lived here for some time now - and unlike short-term visitors who leave enthralled and with a cursory understanding of the country - the groups I mentioned have also pointed to the frenzied pace of urban life here, and the focus on material gain.

Overall, there are people who are observant, experienced and well informed enough, whose initial impressions of a place and its people can be spot-on and revealing.

By the same token, there are others whose views I would take with a pinch of salt, because it does, of course, take time for someone to get to know a people and their land.

Just as some people who heap abuse on Singapore can be said to have ulterior motives or be misinformed, I think that those who readily heap praise on it should be subject to the same scrutiny.

So perhaps, in thinking about the idea of what it is that makes Singapore worth defending, we should go beyond considering factors that are in our self-interest.

For instance, some people may think that it is worth defending Singapore so as to keep a way of life when coffee shops were staffed only by Singaporeans, and neighbourhoods were made up only of residents who were Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others.

It need not be so as people come to better understand the varied backgrounds and cultures - and the similarities - of the new immigrants who have come in recent years to populate this place we call Singapore.

Singapore also has people who are needy, elderly and sick. Are they in our frame of mind when the question 'What will you defend' is posed?

They, too, live here and many have also contributed to building up this place. They would also be too weak to defend themselves in a crisis.

The point is this: Important as our own interests, memories and wants are, there are broader considerations, inputs and points of view that we ought to take on board when we mull over the question of what will make us defend this place.

The appreciation that an expatriate living here has for the place, the need to look after the interests of a disabled neighbour, the rant of a critic should all be taken on board because these, together, will help us come to a more thoughtful and less self-centred decision.

When it comes to thinking about defending and preserving this place, we must learn to cast our eyes further than what is just in our self-interest.

[Got me thinking. I will defend Singapore, but the question, "what will you defend in Singapore" got me thinking. I haven't asked or answered that question before.

The writer makes a point - critic or fan of Singapore, all have their perspective and some may be very selfish or self-serving reasons. And we should question their reasons.

But back to the question. The reason I have not thought of the question is because it makes no sense to me. I'll defend Singapore - the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. That's Singapore. I'm not just going to defend my fave prata stall or just my family, or just my friends. We defend Singapore, the idea of Singapore, the whole of Singapore. It makes no sense to just defend one piece of it. ]

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