How Do I Love Thee, let me (not) count the ways

This article was first published by the TODAY newspaper. See below.

By Choo Zheng Xi

Question: Why do you feel patriotic?

Answer: Well I recently went to country XYZ (fill in name of Third World country or dysfunctional First World one) and realized how shoddy their (healthcare/education/social welfare system) was and felt really grateful to be Singaporean.

Singaporeans have a strange tendency to define our love for our country in terms of what it’s not.

I’m reminded of making the mistake of answering my (now ex) girlfriend frankly when she asked me the question: why do you love me? I finished my shopping list of attributes I loved her for (sweet voice, cute upturned nose, etc etc) and waited for her happy sigh. Instead, I got a good scolding.

“So when I stop having all of the above you’ll stop loving me la!” she practically screeched.

I’ve since grown wiser.

Love despite, not because

Milan Kundera, a Czech novelist, once noted that true love isn’t about being in love with your significant other’s positive attributes: that form of love is contingent on the person keeping those attributes. Besides, it’s not hard to love someone for perfection: far more difficult to love someone for their faults, far truer to love despite flaws than because of attributes.

I can imagine my girlfriend would have felt far more insulted if I had told her I loved her because she was the least bad choice to have around. Because Sally had acne, Mary didn’t know how to dress, and Jane slouched.

Transposing these lessons of the heart to patriotism, allow me to offer the following guide to loving our country:

1) Love despite, not because

2) Loving someone has nothing to do with what the other options around are

What do Americans mean when they puff up their chests and tell you that their country is ‘the last best hope in the world’? I have a shopping list of reasons why I dislike America, but I can’t help feeling a twinge of vicarious patriotism when I hear American politicians spout that line. They’re not saying they love their country because all the rest suck: they’re telling you they love their country. Period.


Sometimes I wish I could feel that way about Singapore too.

Like a badly put together patchwork quilt, I have felt the patriotic surge at times:

Tears of pride I shed saluting my country’s flag on the parade square in the army, the youthful gusto with which I sang “Count on me Singapore” (still my favorite National Day song) as a boy, or the feeling of tired relief I always feel when my flight touches down at Changi.

How can we capture this medley of experiences in a unified National narrative?

You might as well ask how one bottles moonlight. The simple answer is you can’t.

Patriotically in love

In fact, the harder we try to give voice to why we love our country, the more contrived and contingent our love becomes. True patriotism is about turning that moment of silliness into a reflexive as well as reflective way of life without having to finger national prayer beads while counting our blessings as a country.

There was a time when calling someone a “patriot” was a term of abuse used to characterize an overly credulous or outright manipulative politician. It even had undertones of a certain lunacy about it.

Well allow me to draw the parallel of lunacy to the oft heard latin sigh that ‘amantes sunt amentes’: lovers are lunatics. You have to be slightly mad to love a country whose people are obsessed with money and promotion prospects, neurotic about good discounts and gluttonous when it comes to food. If it was a person, it’d be the kind of guy only a mother could love.

But love this country I do. Call me crazy.

Or just patriotically in love.

(As appeared in TODAY, 9th August 2007)