Wednesday, 4 October 2023

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That Dicey Question of National Identity

By Ghui

Patriotism and a sense of identifying with one’s “home” country are certainly not straightforward issues. This is especially not clear-cut in the age of globalisation. Singapore has seen its own share of immigration. Indeed, this is a worldwide phenomenon and immigration to Singapore is a sign that Singapore has joined the ranks of global cities, which are seen as favourable cities in which to live.

In any scenario, there are always pros and cons. In the Singapore example, the boon of global recognition as a sought after city had the accompanying bane of perceived overcrowding. It has also forced us to confront the issue of our own national identity. What makes one Singaporean? What constitutes distinctly Singaporean characteristics?

Feng Tianwei’s recent triumph at the Olympics has sparked another controversy on “Singaporeanness”. While some were proud of her victory, others were more reticent, believing that her achievements were not the achievements of Singapore because she was originally Chinese. I do not know Feng personally but I can imagine that this would be a bitter pill to swallow. An Olympics medal is the culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears. It is no mean feat. The public see only the elation of the victors and the disappointment of those who underperformed. They do not see the years of training and sacrifice that go on behind closed doors regardless of the eventual result.

Of course, there is no denying that if she won a medal, she would be handsomely rewarded and now that she has indeed triumphed, I have no doubt that her bank account has received a healthy boost. However, it is important to bear in mind the unpredictability of winning. Even if she had not won the sought after medal, she would still have had to put in the same amount of effort sans the monetary reward of victory.

If Feng had failed, we would have said she was a complete waste of time and resources but now that she has finally brought home an individual medal, we begrudge her the success she is due. In short, she can never win. But is it about her? No, not really – it is about our own tussle with national identity that has brought the issue of her victory to the forefront.

Do other countries suffer from the same quagmire? 

When Mo Farah, who is Somalian by birth, won the 10,000 metres for Team GB, he knelt on the floor in a prayer of thanks before draping the Union Jack across his tired but victorious shoulders. For all the British who were watching, that was a momentous moment for he had managed to retain his cultural roots while still embracing “Britishness”. He was living example of acceptance and integration.

When asked if he would rather be representing Somalia, his simple response spoke volumes. ‘Not at all, mate. This is my country.’.  Has anyone ever asked Feng the same question?

While Mo may have embraced his adopted country, he has also set up The Mo Farah Foundation to support victims of drought in the country of his birth. Clearly, one can embrace both British and Somali values at the same time without conflict. Can Feng not be a Singaporean who cherishes the opportunities of her adopted land without relinquishing the fact that she was once a Chinese citizen? The two are clearly not mutually exclusive.

As the country comes to grips with the impact of mass migration, coupled with the government’s lack of adequate planning, there will no doubt be hurdles to overcome. But, let’s not miss the forest for the trees. This is not about individuals but a collective national identity. Perhaps, we should think about what makes us Singaporeans as opposed to singling out non- Singaporeans.

Singapore is a country built on the toil of our forefathers, many of whom were immigrants. With their industry and hard work, a nation emerged from a tiny fishing village. Perhaps then, the qualities that make one Singaporean are drive, perseverence, a willingness to work hard and a commitment to put down roots rather than arbitrary standards of “Singaporeaness”.

Are the British more willing to accept Mo more than we are able to accept Feng because the British are more secure in their national identity? I do not know but I do know that xenophobia does not solve the problem.

The government has to do its part but we too have to give some thought to what makes one Singaporean before attacking anyone perceived as foreign.

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