This was published in yesterday's (Friday's) edition of TODAY. It was a strange coincidence that I ended up at Singapore Day. It was warm and crowded -- not just packed, but crazy crowded. Long, snaking lines for a small serving of food. I met someone who queued for 2 hours for a small plate of nasi lemak (which did look really good, to be honest).
To be honest, the food wasn't as good as the mass media made it out to be. But I don't blame the hawkers at all. Firstly, the volumes involved were massive -- I think the estimated turn-out was 5000 to 7000 people. Secondly, it seems that many ingredients requested for were not available. Worse, the hawkers did not bring their own cooking implements, and had to make do with whatever was available (which obviously was not everything they wanted).
Anyway. Turns out I wasn't the only MP there. Baey Yam Keng was also there, and he blogged about the event on the P65 blog.
Not a recipe to win hearts over
More intrinsic appeal needed to woo overseas locals back
Friday • May 4, 2007
Siew Kum Hong
I WENT to Singapore Day in New York a couple of weeks back. I was there for work, was with a Singaporean friend living in the city who wanted to go, and eventually found myself in Central Park on a bright, sunny Saturday.
The event was undoubtedly a success. The hawkers were a big hit, with some queues taking up to two hours. Still, some Singaporeans I spoke to had reservations, even as they enjoyed the food.
Some queried the registration requirement and amount of information requested, and wondered if the Government is using the event as an excuse to gather data on overseas Singaporeans. Others found the tone of the event — which included National Day songs belted out by homegrown entertainers — off-putting, as it reminded them why they had left Singapore in the first place.
While I applaud the idea of Singapore Day, I think these views are nevertheless valuable and interesting. There was a certain fuzziness around what the event sought to do, but I doubt it was a sinister effort to track overseas Singaporeans, a theory I find borders on paranoia.
Was it a disguised attempt at getting Singaporeans to come home? If so, it needs to be more sophisticated in its approach. The performance of the National Day songs came across as being over-the-top and contrived.
A Singaporean who liked the idea of re-connecting with her country was turned off by the hardsell and rolled her eyes at the brochures on integrating returning Singaporeans' kids into our education system. I also met more than one gay Singaporean, who, regardless of however much he or she enjoyed the event, were all convinced that they would never return home.
I prefer to take the Government at face value and think that the event served to refresh connections with overseas Singaporeans, to remind and update them about Singapore.
However, I also noticed certain unflattering aspects. There were no activities for kids. The American husband of another Singaporean noted the irony of flying in Singaporean bands that sounded exactly like many other bands in New York. (The highlight for me was the getai skit from Royston Tan's upcoming film 881.) There was a lack of recycling bins despite the number of Yeo's-sponsored canned drinks being guzzled down.
And, as pointed out by another Singaporean, it was a "typically Singaporean" event, with a singular emphasis on food.
I was bothered by this display of food as the overarching — and apparently sole — factor that unifies Singaporeans. (And I am at least as greedy as the next food-loving Singaporean.) The identification of eatables as being at the core of "Singaporeanness" betrays a certain pragmatic consumerism and materialism. If being Singaporean is so intimately tied to something extrinsic, what will happen when it is gone?
Singapore Day hinted at the troubling answer. The crowds thinned considerably as the stalls ran out of food. Few stayed for the entertainment flown in from home. Fewer paid any attention to the displays and booths touting the developments at home and that of overseas Singaporeans. In fact, there was a lack of interest in anything other than the food — and when the food was gone, there was little interest in anything at the event at all.
Food can be replicated, even if it is difficult to do so authentically. New York-based movie director and foodie Colin Goh said all the local fare at Singapore Day was available in New York except for the chwee kueh. That was the first item to run out.
The sad truth is that while food is the easiest and surest way to tie Singaporeans' minds to Singapore, it is a tie that does not bind tightly, if at all. We would do well to develop and emphasise other ties that are far more intangible and emotional — and hence tighter and less easily displaced and replaced.
This will require greater subtlety, creativity and resources. Perhaps Singapore could be "recreated" through miniature replicas of familiar landmarks. Instead of including rubber bands in goodie bags with instructions on how to play "zero point", a zero-point competition could be held for children and adults. Another suggestion I heard was to have people register for a Friendster-type social networking service, to tease out connections between people.
The aim of events such as Singapore Day should be to engage people's hearts and minds, not just their stomachs. Otherwise, overseas Singaporeans may flock to future Singapore Days, but the events will not deepen or strengthen their links with Singapore.
The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel, commenting in his personal capacity.