Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why I became a citizen after living here for more than a dozen years

Feb 03, 2013
My Singapore story

By Radha Basu Senior Correspondent

It was a tough phone call.

One evening early last year, I rang my mother in India to tell her that my family and I were applying for Singapore citizenship.

By then, we had lived here for more than a dozen years.

"You can't do that," she spluttered, shock echoing over the phone. "We raised you to serve your country. We thought you would return."

She reminded me how my late father would have liked me to come home and join politics or the country's vibrant civil society to fight for justice and equality just as some of his relatives had done at the height of the Indian freedom struggle. I was reared on their stories of service and sacrifice.

Now it was my turn to be shocked - hearing long-forgotten parental expectations crackling through a long-distance line. But those were their dreams, not mine.

"I can't Ma," I protested weakly. "This is home now."

Born in Kolkata, a symbol of poverty the world over, I was raised by my parents to believe that education and wealth should be used not just for personal gain, but to craft positive change in the world around us.

They led by example, juggling jobs with volunteerism and tireless charity work, which my mother continues till today.

I grew up, went to the city's oldest college which had produced Nobel laureates and Oscar winners alike, and had a rich history of students who went on to combat social injustice.

On graduation, I moved to Mumbai, studied journalism, fell in love, got a job with the city's largest newspaper - and married even before my husband had completed his postgraduate studies.

It was the mid-1990s and a key part of my work involved covering a judicial commission of inquiry into the Hindu-Muslim riots that had paralysed the city between December 1992 and January 1993 .

Day after day, I sat in a crammed courtroom hearing survivors speak of loved ones - many of them women and children - raped and murdered because of their faith. At least 900 people had died, nearly two-thirds of them Muslim.

By the time the commission presented its findings in the late 1990s, the far-right party accused of inciting anti-Muslim hatred had swept into power with its pro-Hindu nationalist rhetoric.

This new government rejected the findings - some of which indicted its own party members. Murder cases were closed even before they went to court. There were whispers of a cover-up. Justice was not served.

As someone who had witnessed the riots and listened to victims, I was in shock.

Disillusioned by the far-right political currents sweeping the country at the time, my husband and I sought to carve out our destiny overseas. We weren't sure if the move would be permanent. But at that point, we just could not stay.

My husband, a graduate of one of India's top engineering colleges and a newly minted MBA degree holder, soon found jobs in the United States and Singapore.

We wanted our new home to be diverse and secular, where education, drive and hard work - rather than personal connections - would be passports to success. Both countries fit the bill but we had close friends and family in the US.

"You'll suffocate in Singapore," my best and oldest friend, who had settled in Boston, wrote to me in an e-mail I have preserved till today. "Come, instead, to the Land of the Free."

We didn't. What tipped the scale in favour of Singapore is ironic, given the fertility crisis gripping this nation today. I was a new mother and thought this Little Red Dot was an easier and safer place than America to raise a child.

Indeed, Singapore still ranks higher than most developed Western nations, including the US, in the latest list of best places to be born in, released recently by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In our early years, we fell deeply in love with our adopted home, a gentler, kinder, far less crowded city than what it has grown into today.

We struck up easy friendships with Singaporeans. It was neighbours like the Queks and the Chins who helped us settle in. Our children played together. We celebrated Chinese New Year and Deepavali together.

We marvelled at the meritocracy, the rigorous work ethic and the social mobility. And as someone who had witnessed communal riots and spoken to victims who got no justice, I was enamoured of the racial and religious harmony here.

We became permanent residents and had our second child. I found fulfilment both as a mother and in my work as a journalist.

Perhaps because of where I had come from, I was drawn to write about underdogs in Singapore society: the elderly poor, low-income workers, the disabled and the mentally ill, single mothers and foreign workers. I won awards for my work, in Singapore and overseas.

More importantly, as I watched social policies evolve, and heard successive National Day Rallies, I believed that life was improving here with every passing day.

Then, things began to change. To combat an ageing population and flagging fertility rates, the Government began aggressively importing immigrants, spawning an "Us and Them" divide that, sadly, seems to be widening every day.

Singaporeans, most of whom descended from immigrants themselves, protested against being crowded out, and accused foreigners of a host of ills, from stealing jobs to cramming trains and pushing up property prices.

Some friends, both foreign and Singaporean, left, unwilling to face the growing stress, costs and crowds. Instead of rethinking our future, my husband and I did just the opposite.

We applied for and, a few months later, were granted citizenship here.

It's not unbridled material success or the glittering new skyline that made us seal the deal with Singapore. In our early 40s with children already in school, we don't qualify for most of the carrots being dangled by the Government at young PRs to take up citizenship.

So why now? No other place feels quite as much like home. This is our comfort zone. We take pride in the rule of law, in clean, efficient governance. As parents, we savour the safety of a culture free of guns and drugs - and that our teenage daughter can move around unaccompanied here, without worrying for her life or limb.
Above all, at a time when some say Singapore is past its prime, we still have hope. As fresh challenges emerge, we want to have a say in how this nation charts its future course.

Why did we wait so long? Allegiance I think does not grow overnight. Besides, as someone born in a flawed but strong democracy, I believe in the need for diverse, alternative voices in the national discourse. The 2011 elections made some headway in providing just that.

By the time Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong invited citizens to help write the next chapter of the Singapore Story through the National Conversation last year, I was glad I had taken the plunge.

But what of the rather startling announcement last week that by 2030, we may need to make room for many more foreigners on this already crowded island, as the population heads toward 6.9 million? Is the National Conversation over? I hope not.

Even the Prime Minister has said it's a "worst case scenario".

If Singaporeans work together to live up to the pithy and powerful words of our National Pledge - and have more babies - the prospect of 2030 will be far less daunting than it appears today.

As a working mother who has found much joy raising two children, I firmly believe more here should give parenthood a chance.

After all, the future of democracies is determined not just by policy papers but by the collective will of the people. Individuals can indeed shape their own destiny.

As my parents taught me all those years ago, each of us has within us the power to craft positive change. We cannot give up without a try.

[We live our parents dreams if we can, but when we have children, we live for them and their future. And hope they dream our dreams and maybe live our dreams...]

No comments: