Saturday, February 20, 2010

Culture: Marching to our own drumbeat

Feb 14, 2010

It will take time but Singaporeans have the ability to forge an identity unique to us
By Lee Wei Ling

I circulated the draft of my article Handling The Influence Of The West, which was published in The Straits Times last Wednesday, to some friends for comments. One friend directed me to a Lianhe Zaobao Sunday article written by senior executive editor Lee Huay Leng, Why I Miss Beijing And London.

I was amused by the article. While I was struggling with my cultural identity, Ms Lee was bemoaning Singapore's cultural poverty, evidently overwhelmed by the cultural 'depth' of London and Beijing.

We are obviously on different wavelengths. I am 55, a balanced bilingual - Chinese-educated in terms of culture and English-educated in terms of my professional training. I have travelled extensively, and never felt a sense of cultural inferiority anywhere, including Britain and China, whose leaders and intellectuals I have met.

I am puzzled why an educated Singaporean woman should prefer Beijing and London to Singapore. Would she still prefer living in Beijing if she had to work there as a journalist earning PRC wages? To work for Zaobao in Beijing, as Ms Lee has, and be paid Singaporean wages, is not a true test, as she can then enjoy a standard of living much higher than that of her Chinese counterparts.

The foreign countries I know best are Canada and the United States, since I did my postgraduate training in these places. With some exceptions, their newspapers are parochial. The Straits Times is better than most American papers in terms of its sheer coverage.

The same is true of China, as a few nurses from China who are now Singapore citizens have told me. Our Chinese newspapers, they said, are comparable to those in China and their reports are more credible, which explains why Zaobao Online is read widely in China.

As for books and magazines, again Singapore is not inferior to China. Indeed, the nurses told me they can read Taiwanese publications here that are unavailable in China.

In the past decade, the Singapore Government has devoted more resources to the arts. But the fact is the majority of Singaporeans do not consider the arts to be their top priority. What bothers Ms Lee does not bother them much.

We are a pragmatic people. Most Singaporeans would place more emphasis on a good job, a comfortable home, good-quality health care and education, and a clean and safe environment. These are also the considerations that attract immigrants from China, India and other parts of Asia to Singapore.

When it comes to 'elite culture', I agree that cultural standards in Beijing and London are superior to Singapore's. But how can it be otherwise? These two countries have larger populations and richer histories than we do. Singapore is a young immigrant society.

In 1965, we had only two million people, mostly the descendants of illiterate peasants from China and labourers from India and the Indonesian archipelago. How many artistically talented people can we nurture in less than 50 years of independence?

As a multi-racial society, we never spoke or wrote in one common language. Even now, many Singaporeans write in one language but speak in two. In Britain and China, they have worked on only one language over hundreds and thousands of years, respectively.

China has had dynasties that lasted centuries, during which it became the most prosperous, productive and refined society in the world. Britain is less ancient, but over 200 years it conquered a large empire. That huge economic base provided it with considerable resources. Its elite enjoyed security and comfort and could devote themselves to the arts.

Singapore struggled to make a living from the 1960s until the early 1990s, when we became more secure and had sufficient resources to devote to the arts. We now have museums and art galleries as well as Western and Chinese orchestras, among other things. Even so, our social infrastructure is still not equal to that of the principal cities of China or Britain. It took many thousands of years in China and hundreds in Britain to develop the cultural resources they now possess.

Still, despite all those resources, it is American culture that is dominant worldwide today, including in China and Britain - a dominance that is likely to continue for a few decades. It is mostly popular American culture that is so influential, but do Americans feel culturally inferior to the Chinese and British for that reason - because they, like us, are a young people?

I was in Delhi last December. I saw scrawny, dirty children perform acrobatics in the narrow space between the cars at red lights, then gesture with their hands to indicate they were hungry.

Originally from Rajasthan, they belong to a caste that once travelled from village to village depicting in dances stories from the Indian epics the Mahabharat and the Ramayana. Now, as a result of television, they are jobless. So they have migrated to Delhi to work in construction and beg for food at traffic junctions.

Indians today prefer Bollywood to ancient, sacred dances. Does that make India less cultured? Can we not consider Bollywood India's new culture, just as rock 'n' roll and soap operas constitute America's new culture?

Ms Lee concluded her essay thus: 'Being able to go online wirelessly, and being able to watch cable television - these have nothing to do with our level of thinking. The strength of this island-state lies in its ability to connect to the world and circumvent its own weaknesses. This in fact deepened my sense of loneliness at the thought of going home (from Beijing).'

I cannot understand her logic. In Singapore, she can access culture from the entire world, including Beijing and London. Why claim a 'sense of loneliness' on coming home?

I have travelled often. Each time the plane lands at Changi airport, no matter what a wonderful time I have had overseas, I eagerly look forward to returning home.

More important than whether Beijing or London has a superior culture to ours is what keeps us rooted to Singapore. For me, home is where my emotional bonds are, where my close friends and nuclear family live. I choose Singapore as home, though there are many issues which I feel the Government has handled less than wisely. I am less enamoured of other societies, whether or not my ancestors came from them, because Singapore is the country to which I owe my loyalty.

I am confident that if we continue to thrive, we will eventually develop a uniquely Singaporean culture. That that culture will not have 5,000 years of history behind it is irrelevant. We must dare to go our own way, different from those set by our colonial master or our ancestral lands.

[A rebuttal of this article:

I also feel that in the balance of things, Singapore has the best possible combination of factors to be the best place for me to live. There are places with better scenery, beautiful forests, snowy winters and colourful spring and autumn. But in terms of a place that works, Singapore is it.

That said, there is truth to the point that "Singapore has no depth". But this is not something new. LKY said the same when he explained Singapore's vulnerability. If any city in the US or China fails, there are many other cities, the residents of the failed city can run to. Singapore has no margin for such errors. We stand or fall simply on this one island city state.

I have never understood the pride one feels in Chinese history and cultural depth. I'm ethnically Chinese, but Chinese history and culture was not my doing. My understanding of either or lack of, will neither promote nor detract from it. If I created a painting, I could be proud of it, but if my mother created a painting before I was born (or even after but I had nothing to do with it) should I be proud of it? What does it mean to be proud of one's ancestors? LWL is probably proud of her father, but what does that mean? A parent's pride for their child is understandable. But a child's pride in the achievement of the parents is less explainable.

It's vicarious and self-serving at best. It is the same "pride" for one's football club's achievement, or the spectator or fans "pride" for a sports star's achievement, or one's perceive right to boast or brag about such achievements as if it were one's own.

I am "proud" of my father's achievement, means that understanding him, his talents, his disadvantages, his challenges, and his choices, his achievement was a conscious and deliberate effort that won him respect, rewards, and social standing, and as his son, I enjoyed those material rewards as a result of his achievements, and basked in his reflected glory as a result of his enhanced social standing. And if I choose to, I can take him as my role model for similar endeavours.

To be "proud" of one's parents or ancestors is simply to admire their strengths and respect their achievements, but I have no "bragging rights" for their achievements. That's borrowed glory at best.

What we can be proud of is what we do with our situation here today. And whether we come from a civilisation with 4000 years of history, or 2000 or 200, is irrelevant. A Chinese Singaporean is not better than a Malay Singaporean, or an Indian Singaporean simply because of Chinese history and civilisation. One may argue about the values transmitted by one's culture, but values can just as easily be transmitted without culture or ethnic membership. Washington - Apple Tree - "Cannot tell a lie" is a parable that transcends culture. Raised Catholic, my values are as much a result of my religion as it is my "culture".

Similarly, the Singapore culture and identity will emerge from our shared knowledge, shared history and shared experience. But it will take time for those shared experiences to distill and become clear.]

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