Monday, December 15, 2014

Do people still think S’pore is part of China?


DECEMBER 15, 2014

Singaporeans were piqued when an American sports commentator at the recent Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Finals held here signed off with “goodbye from China”. Many felt it was no excuse for the newscaster. How could he not know where he was?

Given Singapore’s global status today, I thought such confusion would be a thing of the past. In the 1980s, I still received letters from American business associates addressing “Singapore, China”. It was amazing how the letters reached my office.

Then, my colleagues and I were more amused than annoyed. It was a time when if you registered at a hotel in the United States, the reception staff might just add “China” on your card. The blunder was not confined to Americans. I met a Swiss who asked if I meant Senegal, an Australian who confused us with Hong Kong and a New Zealand couple who said they had heard of Singapore Airlines, but not Singapore. “Is it in Malaysia?” they asked and that was years after we came into our own.

But I have learnt to be more understanding, particularly after having stayed six weeks in Wonju, South Korea, as writer-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Centre. It is not about being tolerant and forgiving, although clearly we should be since a person’s ignorance (for want of a better word) could be influenced by exposure, accessibility, opportunity, interest, subject significance and misinformation.

The reaction of Singaporeans to the tennis commentator’s gaffe was expected of any people proud of their country. The South Koreans would have reacted no differently.

That episode aside, we cannot always assume others to have adequate common knowledge about us. In Wonju, I was asked about our race composition, our languages, the weather and the food we eat. One writer could not believe there are no mountains like theirs and we do not grow ginseng.

I would hesitate to label it as ignorance. Perhaps he was just not curious enough about us. It is not unusual for people to become trapped in a hometown mindset. I remember how a colleague once planned to drive from New York to Orlando all in a day, when the journey would take almost 20 hours.


Toji provided me with an opportunity to tell my co-participants more about Singapore. Hopefully that would lead to a deeper exploration and correct any misconception. In very much the same way I had wanted to understand more about South Korea and its culture, I was fortunate to be there to experience it firsthand. Riding the bus, I was impressed by how young people always gave up their seats for the elderly without the prompting of “priority” seat signs.

It was while I was there that the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced. Like many of my Singaporean friends, I was betting on Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and had to admit I knew little about the actual winner, French author Patrick Modiano, who struck a more familiar note among my South Korean acquaintances, probably because of their exposure to European literature.

In my early school years, I knew more about English writers than about others in the rest of the world. In a similar way, this is why Americans are more familiar with Vietnam and the Philippines than Singapore, except for our ban on chewing gum, fines for littering and caning for public vandals — thanks to the Michael Fay incident in 1994. Watching American popular quiz show Jeopardy, you would be amazed that the brainy contestants who knew almost everything about the universe drew a blank on the rare occasions that a Singapore clue surfaced. But that was only because we are Singaporeans and we know. I would be the first to admit that there is much about America and other countries that I do not know.

My American business associates were impressed by Singapore’s progress when they finally visited. Many exclaimed: You can drink straight from the tap, really? Otherwise they would have insisted on soda at every meal. If they were equally impressed by my knowledge of American geography and politics, I attribute it to a good education foundation that has opened up the world to me.

Conversely, the question must be: How have we opened up to the world? That can contribute to how the world sees us. Singaporeans who are well-travelled and generally better informed than the rest about the world can be the country’s best ambassadors, adding to what government agencies are doing, the reputation garnered as one of the world’s most progressive cities, and renowned icons such as Changi Airport, Singapore Airlines and Gardens by the Bay.


David Leo is a published author. He was writer-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Centre in Wonju, South Korea, courtesy of the Singapore National Arts Council.

[Population. Singapore has about 5.5m people. This ranks us as the 113th most populous country in the world. Our population makes up 0.08% of the world population. This means that if there were 10,000 people randomly selected from the entire world's population, only 8 would be Singaporean.

Actually no. 8 would be currently residing in Singapore. of the 5.5m population, only about 3.3m are citizens. So of the 10,000 people randomly selected, only about 5 would be Singaporean Citizens.

So you know anything about Sierra Leone? It has 0.09% of the world's population (at 6.2m). How about Eritrea (6.5m pop). Tajikistan? They have 8.4 m people, making up 0.12% of world population. In that group of 10,000 people, 12 would be Tajikistanis.

Geography. At about 700 sq km, SG is ranked 192nd in terms of geographic size. Faroe Island at almost 1400 sqkm is about twice as big. Cabo Verde has over 4000 sqkm. Know anything about the place? Vanuatu? Other than that there was a Survivor season shot there? It has over 12,000 sq km. Any thoughts on Svalbard? It is over 62,000 sqkm large. Heard of it? Know anything about it? Or5 Tajikistan, with 143,000 sqkm. What do you know about this country other than the fact that is is over 143000 sqkm big with a population of 8.4m people?

GDP. Singapore's GDP is pretty high for a country with just 0.08% of the world's population and less than 700 sqkm. We are ranked 41st with $339b in GDP  (PPP, 2013 estimate). We are actually higher than Norway ($282b), Denmark ($211b), and Finland ($196b).

The point is this. There are very few Singaporeans. We are a very small country. About our only "claim to fame" is that for a small country, we are rather rich. Ranked 41st. So we should be upset because we are rich and people don't know who we are? 

Sounds like snobbery or the angst of the nouveau riche.

Is that what we want to sound like?]

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