Monday, April 1, 2013

Coming home to a 'messier' Singapore

Mar 31, 2013
Returning at this stage of nation's evolution means discoveries and, maybe, stronger roots

By Tracy Quek

After almost a decade abroad as foreign correspondents for this paper, my husband and I returned home earlier this month.

In our first weeks back, we wandered around the neighbourhoods we had grown up in, revisited our old hangouts and ventured into less familiar localities.

On the whole, we found the general lay of the land not too different from our memories of it.

There were changes, of course. New developments had sprung up where vacant lots once were. Food prices had shot up. Malls and trains were certainly more crowded than we remembered.

The number of foreigners working and living in the heartland had also grown. I was amused to find young Western expatriates shopping at NTUC FairPrice, getting a trim at one of those express haircut salons, and dining at kopitiams in suburban malls among ordinary Singaporeans. I recalled seeing fewer of them in the heartland in the past.

Over many welcome home meals with friends, some asked partly in jest but also seriously, if we were already regretting coming back.

They did not have to spell it out for us. We had kept up with happenings back in Singapore while in China and later the United States even as we worked to understand and analyse the broad political, societal and economic changes unfolding in the two world powers.

On the job, we covered natural disasters and protests, witnessed abject poverty as well as environmental degradation, wrote about the social impact of near economic meltdowns, and mused about the limits of democratic as well as authoritarian political systems.

Compared with the newspaper headlines out of China and the US over the past decade, the ones out of Singapore were tamer. I, for one, was glad for it; it meant stability at home and that our families and friends were safe and secure.

But over the past two or three years, in particular, things started to change.

From transport to housing policies, we read about how things were not running as smoothly as before.

Online, people were unrestrained in expressing anger and dissatisfaction, especially with how government officials had handled problems.

Some of the vitriol stunned me. I was used to reading all sorts of extreme anti-establishment online commentary in the US, but I was taken aback by the intensity of bitterness and resentment among some Singaporeans towards the ruling party, individual office holders and the mainstream press.

Over a farewell lunch with some Washington, DC-based Asia analysts, we wondered aloud about the increasing political and social messiness we were observing at home.

One of them chuckled and said: "This is what countries go through all the time, you guys are finally normal!"

We had a good laugh but it set me thinking.

The US is a vast country with more than 200 years of history and evolution. It has been through and is still going through war and political upheaval the likes of which a less resilient nation might not have survived.

Americans are used to the messiness of democracy and a democratic political system. They value the cacophony of views for they believe that is what makes American society so vibrant, innovative and unique.

But what is normal for the US and other mature democracies is relatively new for Singapore. The question is whether this new normal will work out in Singapore's favour, and if all segments of society will be able to come together to harness this messiness in a productive way.

A more personal question is how I, as a recent returnee to Singapore and as someone who has seen up close the merits and demerits of "messiness" elsewhere, can be sensitive to the new realities.

I have no answers at the moment. It would not be fair to venture any before we properly reconnect with home after such a long time away.

But one observation I can make now is that having the opportunity to live in two countries with very different political and economic systems has irrevocably changed how I view Singapore.

I guess you could call it perspective.

Our problems may have become more complex and, certainly, various missteps and blunders have been made, resulting in an erosion of trust and confidence among Singaporeans.

But it also strikes me that we are still in a far better and stronger position than many other countries to fix problems and find a new equilibrium for the times.

For one thing, Singapore is not as financially hamstrung as the US government and is able to tackle infrastructure problems quickly. In Washington, DC, ageing roads are filled with potholes and broken escalators take 10 months to fix because of budget and other constraints.

Coming home at this stage of Singapore's evolution, there will be many emotions to sort out and new discoveries to be made.

I stand at the beginning of my own homecoming cautiously optimistic that the journey will be enlightening and meaningful, and that it will lead to a deeper sense of rootedness.

At this time, I find these words of the late US senator Robert F. Kennedy especially apt.

"Like it or not we live in interesting times," he said in 1966, during a trip to South Africa when he spoke out against apartheid.

"They are times of danger and uncertainty but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged - will ultimately judge himself - on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort."

The context may be different but the spirit of his exhortation rings true for me.

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