Creating the city of “possibilities”

“SO, ARE you going to migrate to the US? ” my neighbour asked when I came back from six months over there.

“Well, I really love Singapore much better,” I replied. “I’m staying for good.”

And then there was silence.

It lasted only a while, but the look on my neighbour’s face after my reply confirmed my suspicions: she thought it was increasingly rare for a young Singaporean to want to stay in this island.

Through my exchange trip to the US, I had the chance of meeting other Singaporeans studying overseas and almost all of them told me they would rather migrate than return home.

The only things holding them back were the bonds they had to serve, their family and friends.

I could empathise, because it is not difficult for a young Singaporean to fit into American. We speak decent English, often better than Americans. And college life was manageable especially if you were studying the sceicnes because of strong foundations provided by our education system.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the fact that we are already so used to American culture that finally being there was equivalent to reaching the promised land.

Here in America, you did not have to wait for your  favourite music bands to announce Asian editions of their tours; you might find them playing at the bar in your neighbourhood.

Here in America, you did not have to wait for Channel 5 to secure rights to the next big reality show or drama series, you just had to spend time surfing through 100 channels to find it.

Here in America, you did not have to read about where the next Hollywood hit was being shot, you might find someone famous doing take after take on your campus.

Even though Singapore is miles away from America, many people of this generation were literally brought up the American way — whether it was the books we read, the movies we watched or the music we listened to.

Today, there seem to be only two things that are Singaporean markers: food and Singlish.

These were what dominated my conversations with fellow Singaporeans overseas: lamenting how much we missed chicken rice, char kway tiao, roti prata, nasi lemak and sambal chill, in Singlish!

In Singaporean food and Singlish lie two different stories that define how Singapore culture is viewed by the government — the former is a great attraction for the tourism industry while the latter is frowned upon as an impediment to progress because it diminishes our ability to connect to the world.

Simply, it boils down to pragmatism and the economy.

Such thinking manifests in other forms. More often than note, we hear more about the struggles of local music bands and filmmakers more than we hear about what they really do.

On a regular basis, icons that have been part of Singaporean’s collective consciousness, such as the National Library and the National Stadium, needed to go in the name of progress.

Such impermanance only makes it difficult for Singaporeans to identify and remember what it is to be Singaporean.

In local sports, a great starting point to rally Singaporeans, the government’s effort to fast-track our way to a great sporting nation by relying on foreign talent has only been met with cynicism from Singaporeans, despite a greater haul of medals.

All these have led to the dearth of defining Singapore culture that may slowly drive our community apart.

As I rediscover this city after my half-year sojourn, I found myself greeted by National Day banners proclaiming Singapore as a “City of Possibilities”.

Yet, a fear is that in trying to make Singapore my city of possiblity, I will become marginalised. Because in this tiny island, “possibilities” may carry a narrow definition.

In the words of local poet-playwright Alfian Sa’at, “If you care too much about Singapore, first it’ll break your spirit, and finally it will break your heart.”

One thing that has to change for our culture to prosper is to enlarge discourse and accept more diversity.

Singapore culture is not inherently boring and lacking. It is simply hidden and waiting to be discovered.

We have a rich source of ethnic heritage if only we look beyond our pigeon-hold identities of Chinese, Malays, Indians and others and see that we might be Hokkiens or from the Bawanese Islands.

Our history is not just the PAP success story or the hard work of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Also notable were many unsung heroes who contributed to where we are today.

These are things we can be proud of, if only we dug deeper, and if only they exposed themselves better.

Singapore as a “City of Possibilities” — is this what we are or what we want to be?

I say the latter, but even though I choose to stay to try to make it a possibility, I know there are many others who are waiting for their chance to leave.

As my neighbour recoverd from the initial surprise, she could only exclaim, “Good… that’s good to hear.”

And it was those words and smile from a fellow Singaporean that vindicated my decision to stay and care.

The Nanyang Chronicle, 6th Aug 2007

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