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At 52, it is time to take stock of who we are

by Raphael Wong

This year, the Prime Minister decided to broadcast his National Day Message from the Gardens By the Bay. It contained the normal litany of everything Singapore has achieved thus far, but it sounded a bit more sincere than previous messages. Perhaps he is more relaxed out of his father’s shadow – who knows?

But I agree with him at least on that point: we need to know where we have come from. Just after half a century is a great time to do so.

This National Day, I hope people will look more deeply than the usual list of food and shallow symbols like the Two Durians (even that has to do with food), and meditate on the core of Singapore.

Where in history do we find that core?

We like looking back at the 13th Century to Sang Nila Utama and his maned creature – which everyone assumes to be a lion – because our fear is that 50 years is too short for any identity. But if we are serious about Sang Nila Utama, then we should be equally serious to claim the seedy Singapore that Jack Sparrow visited in that Disney movie as part of our nation. As far as I have seen, nobody has put up a marker to Calypso in Chinatown yet.

This year, let’s grow up and acknowledge that Singapore is not Temasek; Temasek Holdings not withstanding. But neither does our nation begin merely 50 years ago, as no doubt benefits certain people in power for us to believe.

No, our nation stands apart as one conceived as an idea – like a very much larger country called the United States of America. We need not pursue the American Dream, because we have our own: the Singapore Dream of multicultural harmony.

Perhaps Japan unconsciously saw that; that’s why they named us the Light of the East and kept us away from Malaysia. Between our hawker centres and Korean BBQs, that is what we have that is authentically Singaporean.

Multiculturalism does not come as a brilliant idea from the Men in White; it comes from the white man whose statue stands at the mouth of the Singapore River, and from him alone. Unlike his colleagues, including Farquhar, Raffles was an idealist, and he bequeathed his ideals of racial harmony and meritocracy to Singapore, especially to the school he founded, which produced many of our leaders. (Yes, it may not be living quite up to his dream nowadays, but some things are not easily extinguishable.)

His idealism owes to a surprising source: the Abolitionist Movement in England. In fact, in tribute to that, before he left our island the final time, he instructed Farquhar to abolish slavery. So, yes, if were an independent nation in 1826, Singapore would one of the first countries in the world outside of Europe to abolish slavery completely.

He presented this in the Raffles Town Plan, an illustration of how different races could belong to Singapore. For instance, it makes us the first country to have a pre-planned Chinatown; even in the USA, Chinatowns basically spring from racial enclaves. In no other country in the world would you find a Hindu Temple in the middle of Chinatown!

Multiculturalism is our core identity that we must preserve and not let be diminished by ideological currents and lobbies that come in from the East or the West. Tempations – especially from the West – are plenty, but it behoves us to always remember that the power of our lion’s roar comes from our fundamental identity.

Happy National Day!