By Howard Lee
I refer to the commentary by Dr Adrian Kuah, “Facing up to identity, myths and politics in S’pore” (6 March).
I must first applaude Dr Kuah for attempting to define our national identity, with all its issues of diversity and tangibility. It is important to note that this identity, at any one point in time, would mean different things to different people.
However, I am uncomfortable with Dr Kuah’s delegation of this identity to “myth”, as that word has connotations of untruth. The formation of identity, while arbitrary, is grounded in real, lived experiences. The longevity of identity is made possible by the sharing of experience, usually passed down through generations.
A good example would be Australia’s Aboriginal culture, where verbal story-telling, now augmented with technology, has lead to the development of a core position by and for the Aborigines, no matter the individual’s degree of alignment to it. This core position goes beyond the mythical stories of the Dream Time, but defines their values as a people. It has also allowed for a distinctive political purpose and institutionalised as a function of state.
Identities are not myths. They are real and provide us with a “where-I-come-from” foundation that allows us to project “what-my-future-should-be”.
The fact that Dr Kuah’s confuses our identity as myth is not through any fault of his. As a nation, we have not bothered to elaborate much on our identity beyond the clinical pageantry of a National Day Parade. We do not share a lived experience. Urbanisation is partly at fault, but it also has to do with the success-at-all-cost siege mentality that we have developed, such that the development of a way of life takes second place to the development of a livelihood.
As such, the current interest in the Singapore identity is not “an exercise in self-consolation” and a means of “repelling the ever-encroaching Others” as Dr Kuah believes. Rather, it is an interest to rediscover and retell the stories that we have forgotten over the years. It can be considered Singapore’s renaissance, and should be given free space to express itself.
For what purpose? Dr Kuah professed that our identity-making process should be inclusive. He also seems to be evoking the “we were all once migrants” concept, encouraging us to be more accepting of new citizens who seek to be part of our way of life.
I profess that, much as we need to encourage into our fold those who genuinely seek to share our way of life, we cannot do so without understanding what that way of life is. To constantly negotiate this way of life is to build an identity in the surf. With each wave of new cultural inputs, its shape changes, eventually becoming something that even we cannot recognise.
Identity is not just about defining an Us versus Them – to believe so would merely be playing along with popular political narratives that attempt to dissuade us from divisiveness.
Rather, identity is about finding an Us to begin with, and letting that flourish into an active Community. That created Community then becomes the fall-back position which we use to navigate the world and people around us.
It is this identity that still allows us to spot a fellow Singaporean, even if we are miles away from home. The moment we lose that ability, we might well be foreigners within a space that is nothing more than the borders defined by our passports.
This concept of identity might be intangible, but it is no less real.