Wednesday, 5 August 2009

National Day 2009: thoughts on being Singaporean

The NDP organising committee asked me to contribute something to the NDP website. So I wrote this. It's been awhile since I've written something like this, so it took some time to get back into the groove.

Also, when I first looked at the website, some of the articles (e.g. by Prof Tommy Koh and Viswa Sadasivan) were long and thoughtful, and I thought I'd better match up to those standards. I wanted this piece to be thoughtful and reflective, but more importantly I wanted it to be authentic and heartfelt, and not a cliched collection of stereotypical platitudes and jingoistic rhetoric.

When I was done, I was unsure about it. It's a little bittersweet and not rah-rah at all. I'm sure some will even find it negative and a downer. In fact, I considered including Alfian Sa'at's quote ("If you care too much about Singapore, first it’ll break your spirit, and finally it will break your heart.") but decided that it went too far and also it was not quite correct -- what could break your spirit and heart is not the nation, but the government. But I make no apologies for feeling how I feel, and I really do believe that more Singaporeans agree with my sentiments than may appear to be the case.

I wrote this after returning from a business trip. I've always found that being away helps to me to see more sharply, how I feel about Singapore and being Singaporean.

I used to enjoy travelling out of Singapore; indeed, at one time I even wanted to emigrate. But it's different now. When I'm away without my wife, I look forward to coming home to her and our pets. When I'm away with my wife, we look at the pictures and videos of our pets on my cellphone. We even worry about the stray cats in our neighbourhood whom we help to feed, about whether the other cat-feeders are taking care of the strays. Nowadays, landing at Changi always brings the sense of comfort and relief of coming home.

These sentiments speak to my roots in and my affinity to this country. The sense of acceptance and belonging here is central to the idea of being Singaporean. And I like to think that more Singaporeans share this feeling than not – even those who profess to feel alienated by certain policies in this country, do so because they care so deeply about her.

I am currently reading President Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. He begins the book by discussing the deep divisions in American politics today, and then points out that Americans still have more in common than not.

I firmly believe that it is the same for Singapore. Quite apart from the universal values shared by most or all human beings, such as hard work, thrift and fillial piety, there are more hopes and values that unite Singaporeans than we sometimes care – or dare – to admit.

We are grateful for our amazing progress and growth since independence, which has lifted our standard of living with a speed experienced only in a few other countries. This is thanks to meritocracy and social mobility, which continue to form the bedrock of our system. And so we insist that ability married with hard work must be able to get one everywhere and that being born poor must not sound the death-knell for one's dreams. Because so many of us have benefited from the powerful force of social mobility, we understand the dangers of the growing stratification of our education system.

We have an innate sense of justice and equality, of fairness and equity. We are all equal under the law and under the Constitution, and we cry foul at perceived unfairness and bullying tactics. And so we want the administration of our country to be guided not by pragmatism and political expediency but by justice and fairness, which is why we cheer the residents of Potong Pasir and Hougang when they stand fast to these principles and resist the carrot and stick of lift upgrading.

We have compassion for the less fortunate, and we empathise and sympathise with others. We know, that there but for the grace of God go ourselves. That is why when disaster strikes our unfortunate fellow human beings elsewhere, we do not stint on aid and support, as with the tsunami of 2004 and the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. That is also why we want the kinder, gentler society that was first mooted years ago, knowing that we are rich enough to do better than $330 per month of Public Assistance for single-person households, even though such households do receive a lot of other help.

We value openness and transparency, because we know how important the absence of corruption in Singapore has been to our success, especially in light of the devastating effects of corruption in other countries. We also want to have more say in our destiny, because Singapore is our country and her future is intimately intertwined with ours. These are why we want greater accountability and transparency in how the country is run and how our investments are managed, so that we can be confident that our precious reserves are treated with the due care that they deserve.

We need tolerance and understanding of one another and one another's differences, so that persons of faith can practise each of our religions and speak and act openly and freely. But we must all acknowledge the realities of the country we live in, and always stay mindful of other persons' sensitivities and opinions and respect the boundaries required of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

Most of all, we want a Singaporean Singapore. Just like how we wanted a Malaysian Malaysia and not a Malay Malaysia, we do not want a Chinese, Indian, Malay or Other Singapore. And so we want to celebrate the things that make us all the same and bring us together, and refrain from constantly emphasising our differences such as with the ubiquitous CMIO classification.

These are truths and values that many, if not most or all, Singaporeans hold close to their hearts. They may sit uncomfortably with some amongst us. But they are what Singaporeans think and say, in private, in coffeeshops and on the Internet, and the more honestly we confront these hard truths, the sooner we will resolve them and turn these challenges for Singapore into strengths of Singaporeans.

So this National Day, let's reflect a little on what really binds Singaporeans together, more than food and our undeniable love for it, the little details of our everyday existence like buying Toto and 4D, and shared experiences like National Service. Let's think about how we can, in each of our own little ways, contribute to making Singapore the happy, prosperous, progressive and democratic society based on justice and equality. And then let's make a start at converting thought into action. Because that is the true commitment of a Singaporean to Singapore.

Siew Kum Hong is a corporate counsel and a former Nominated Member of Parliament (2007-2009).


yeu@nn said...

Wow, thanks a lot Mr Siew. Felt touched by what you shared! :) Very meaningful...

family man said...

Thank Mr Siew.

CIMO - I too hope it will go away.

But that will come about only after our GRC system is discarded. That must go away first.

Ability of the person, meritocracy - no matter if you are Chinese, Indian (eg JB Jeyaratnam, Nair in Malaya) Malay, (eg Ahmad Mattar) Eurasian (eg EW Barker or African (Obama)

As long as our racially divisive GRC is here, unfortunately, CIMO will stay!

coolingstar9 said...

Dear Mr. Siew,
Thanks for sharing. Let's all singaporeans work together to create better singapore.
Happy national day to you and your family.
Wish you happy and healthy always.

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