by Constance Singam
We Singaporeans are Schizophrenic.
Why is it that we can’t agree whether we are a ‘nation’ or not? This disparity in our understanding of whether we are a ‘nation’ or not was highlighted by recent comments by MM Lee in the book “Hard Truths” where he is said to have claimed that it will take another 100 years for Singapore to become a ‘nation’ while Ambassador Tommy Koh argued that Singapore is already a ‘nation’.
I agree with Ambassador Koh. I think of myself as a Singaporean first and foremost, ethnically Indian, living in a rich multicultural society and increasingly proud of its cosmopolitism and achievements. I am proud that Singapore, though a small island, has won itself a respectable place on the world stage. Much of this is due in no small measure to the founding fathers of Singapore, especially to MM Lee. Anywhere I go I identify myself proudly as a Singaporean and I think most Singaporeans do that too.
Yet I am also a ‘dissenter’ and there are many like me, who are disenchanted with government policies and how these are implemented, who challenge the direction the government takes. This makes us good citizens, committed to Singapore, the nation and the well-being of the nation.
But then I also agree with MM Lee because our idea of identity as a ‘nation’ is a process and is still evolving.
'Not yet a nation'
MM Lee’s ‘assertion that Singapore is not yet a nation is exemplified by the disquiet raised by the much publicised report of final-year aerospace engineering student Lim Zi Rui, 23,who stood up during the Nanyang Technological University Ministerial Forum and asked if Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong knew that many young people no longer felt a sense of ownership in Singapore.
'When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,’ Mr Lim said. ‘But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.’
He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. ‘I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.’
Although Lim Zi Rui’s focuses his disquiet on the presence of many foreigners, his concern also raises the question of identity. Identity and the idea of ‘nation’ are inextricably linked and both ideas in Singapore are precarious, as illustrated by the differences in the sense of belonging to this nation by Singaporeans of my generation and the current generation of people that MM Lee had in mind.
Singapore as a nation is still evolving and in process. This process has not been easy nor without its challenges. These challenges are well-known but they are worth repeating especially when it pertains to public policies.
Values under constant state of flux
Firstly, our identity as a nation has required constant and continuous modification and review. Consider the changes in our demographics, for instance as Zi Rui pointed out. Identity is a fragile notion in a country where changes are rapid, continual, and importantly outside the control of citizens.
Secondly, the government views Singapore as an economic entity. (Consider all the opening statements of the Prime Minister’s important national speeches. Don’t they sound like statements from the chairman of a board of a company during shareholders’ meetings?) Singaporeans, as a result, see themselves as economic digits and not as stakeholders in the enterprise of nation-building.
Thirdly, Singapore government’s central value is pragmatism. This pragmatic approach to governance, especially since this ‘pragmatism’ is in the interest of economic imperatives, has created a generation of pragmatic citizens: “if I don’t like this place I will leave” and almost 1,000 citizens a year do leave.
This pragmatic policy-making process and economic imperatives have welcomed gambling in spectacular fashion in the form of casinos. Whereas during the exciting early days of Singapore gambling was banned as was polygamy for the same reason: families were neglected and women and their children were driven to poverty. Singapore had more progressive policies then, before ‘pragmatism’ and economic success became Singapore’s controlling ideology. Our values are under constant state of flux and again Singaporeans have little say in that.
These policies result in cynicism rather than loyalty among people. This sense of cynicism is exacerbated by income disparity which is growing.
A recent study by the International Monetary Fund and reported by the New York Times, reveals how “advanced economies” compare on various measures of equality, well-being, educational attainment, and more. Singapore ranks poorly in income inequality, level of democracy, global well-being index and in the number of prison population.
Finally, the government’s economic management has produced changes, both social and economic: has produced a society different from the one, mine and Ambassador Koh’s generation, that struggled for survival. The continuing successful political dominance of the PAP is dependent on economic and social development. And development equates with changes which disturb and rearrange the patterns of social formation, and challenges the existing social order.
Develop a sense of ownership
We, Singaporeans of all ages, will agree that we are a ‘nation’ only when cultural identity, political interest, and economic interest are in harmony with each other and with the aspirations of Singaporeans. Currently public policies are highly opportunistic (as in the decision to build casinos) and contingent (on economic imperatives) and paternalistic (as in the resistance to accord women equal rights).
Women like myself in AWARE and other civil society organisations are committed enough to the Singapore ‘nation’ and to feel a sense of ownership to risk censure and advocate democratic values challenging dominant paternalistic values. Ironically young men, such as the young man, quoted above, who have done national service and on whom so much public money is invested do not feel that sense of belonging. Something for the PAP government and MM Lee to think about!
The writer is the former president of AWARE.