By Howard Lee
She could have made you angry, or made you laugh. But what I do hope is that Stephanie Koh, Singaporean and K-Pop Star Hunt competition finalist, made you think a bit more about what patriotism and national identity means.
Better known as Steph Micayle on YouTube, Koh was reported by local media as having voiced her disdain about representing Singapore at the competition and having no pride in being Singaporean.
Reactions to her bold statements were mixed, with some castigating her for her lack of patriotism, while others praising her for her honesty and accuracy. The reactions must have hit home, for Koh later posted a video on YouTube explaining her interview statements.
It was disappointing that our national media covered the interview almost exclusively in terms of her views on national pride – not before, of course, casting her as youthful, rash, and basically out of control.
This continued after Koh posted her video, which was barely covered by the media. Rather, all we can see is even more elaboration on her “bad-attitude”, rather than a proper focus of her response. Indeed, she was portrayed as having to “defend” her earlier outburst.
By default, Koh’s narrative became one about the ungrateful Singaporean young, who owe no gratitude and allegiance to “the motherland” and would not think twice about castigating their nationality or fellow citizens in public. By default, her reasons are not nearly as important as her existence.
Granted, Koh holds some controversial views. But why the lop-sided focus on her attitude?
In fact, continuing to fuel the patriot-traitor debate only serves to create punching bags for both sides to attack. Comments generated from such a debate have tended towards supporting or chiding her. The excessive focus on either ends of the debate – effectively, mainstream media is asking us to take sides on the issue – does little to advance the real questions.
Or perhaps that was the intent?
But what are the real questions that Stephanie Koh’s rant should have churned up? They are about understanding the difference between pride in your country and pride in your nationality. They are about distinguishing between Singapore the island state and Singapore the mental state. They are about separating what we do from who we are. Fundamentally, they are about allowing citizens to opportunity to talk about how they can make their home a better place, no matter how intangible home might be in this global age.
What she has described can only be classed as what we do. It does not speak about who we are.
Whether you like chicken rice, safe streets or reserved neighbours – or you like them not – is only representative of differences in opinion. What binds us as a people is our ability to see beyond these differences, and towards a goal that we all want to aim for.
What is that goal?
Interestingly enough, amidst all the ayes and nays directed towards Koh, I found this lone comment on TOC’s survey on the issue enlightening:
“I’m proud to be who I am, and I cannot help where I was born. I can only attribute my upbringing and values to my surroundings, and I hope the person I am will reflect well on the place I was brought up, and bring change to the place I cannot help but be born in.”
We would be naive to think that people would automatically love the place they live in, whether they choose to or not. It makes more sense to cultivate a culture where people are at liberty and have the resources to make their world a better place, as they see important enough to do so.
Koh is unhappy with a raft of issues that led to her disdain of Singapore – limitations on artistic expression, a stifling education system, people who preferred to take the tried and tested, media controlled by the government, to name a few. These issues are not new, but it is clear that they continue to plague us.
That is not to say that there are no Singaporeans addressing these issues. There are those among us who seek change, even by means that are off the beaten path and could make our orderly society squirm a little.
Nevertheless, the old system has become so entrenched that change is a perpetual uphill task, or near impossible. Even transport fare reviews are going by the old formula – priority given to profitability. Feeling helpless, and without the resources and abilities that Koh has to break away from it all, some of us become bitter.
But so long as the media continues to play out such us-versus-them, patriot-versus-traitor scenarios for us to rally against, such change will never be realised. Such conversations defeat the purpose of finding a common ground upon which we can stand on.
Our shared identity comes from being able to change our environment to meet our goals, because it them becomes our own place. When we are able to accommodate the changes that everyone else desires, the place becomes shared.
And then, there will be no further need to talk about national pride. Our common identity, bounded in diversity, speaks for itself. Perhaps then, we might also find that Steph Micayle is really no different from you and me.