The Singaporean Identity Needs TLC

Photo Credit: Epigram Books

SINGAPORE is sometimes referred to as a nanny state, particularly by the Western media. The epithet is not particularly flattering, but there is some truth to it.

The country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was, after all, a man who was tough on corruption and litter, a visionary who steered Singapore from a third world country to a first world oasis. His love for the country and his no-nonsense approach to nation-building can be summed up in that one line he delivered in a speech—if ever anything were to befall Singapore even if he were dead and gone, he would crawl out of his grave to set it right.

So, yes, the Singapore government has, for the longest time since its founding in 1965, been having at active hand at fashioning the Singaporean identity. Take these very Singaporean traits for example: obsession with merit, being the first, being the best, little tolerance for losing—all of which have cultivated that inimitable quality of being kiasu. Meaning: “scared to lose” in Hokkien.

Could the government conceivably change course and tell Singaporeans: “Go forth and create your own Singaporean identity! We’re going to be hands off. No more nanny.” As much as teens, us free-spirited and pugnacious young ones, want a more hands-off approach, it feels so audacious and wrong when we sit down to imagine such a scenario.

Sure, we can all glow in our Singlish, we can all take to social media without being socially responsible or racially sensitive, we can all be Amos Yee wannabes, we can all go to school in whatever we please rather than a stodgy uniform, we can all skip assembly and flag-raising, we can all take a backseat with school work. But our nation was built on discipline and hard work, and an abiding respect for our multi-cultural milieu. We take nothing for granted, and we can’t. It’s a refrain we hear constantly from our leaders.

At the memorial service in honor of Othman Wok, one of Singapore’s founding fathers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked that Wok was ever mindful that “we cannot go on auto-pilot.” For this reason, it would be unwise for the government to take a backseat in steering the country and its people. We cannot afford another Hock Lee Bus incident in 1955, or the Little India riot in December 2013.

Our country was built on the bedrock of racial harmony, so that on the one hand, we may be vulnerable to conflicts, but on the other, it makes us an attractive global home and a commercial hub. The fun, celebratory events that take place yearly in schools, the colorful, multi-costumed Racial Harmony Day, may seem just what it seems. But it is part of the grander vision of shaping our identity.

Who says foreign policy has nothing to do with the Singaporean identity? Or even the CPF? Or the PSLE? Singaporean identity is not just about the Singapore Tourism Board trying its darn best to preserve our heritage sites or our hawker culture. It’s not just our about char kway teow or our chicken rice. It’s also about how Singapore has always believed in being friendly to every nation, and how we must honor the good old Asian virtue of savings.

As for the PSLE, it also reveals that oh-so-Singaporean side of us. We’re highly competitive, but we’re also whiners who just can’t bear losing by even a mark to someone else perceivably smarter. The parents have griped so much to the point that the government has no choice but to be actively involved in revamping the scoring system, so that come 2021, parents and students can look forward to a more superior grading system that doesn’t make you feel too smart or too stupid.

Given our historical background as a young nation, it was imperative that our pioneers had to have their hands in all aspects of nation-building, especially in post-war, post-colonial Singapore. Campaigns have been the driving force for government to activate social change and define our identity.

The Anti-Litter campaign was a success, and it continues to be. The Speak More Mandarin and Less Dialect campaign was equally effective, but it has left a blight on some aspect of our identity and culture. Our younger generation hardly know how to speak their dialect, some don’t even know what dialect group they hail from. That was a campaign that got too carried away.

So was this other that was mooted in the 1980s when Lee Kuan Yew encouraged members of the educated elite to marry one another so as to improve the gene pool. There was something outrageous about his comments that if you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society, which then leaves less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation.

But the government did go ahead with gene pool-enhancing initiatives such as the Graduate Mothers Scheme and the graduate-exclusive social club called the Social Development Unit or SDUalso referred to, in more endearing terms, as Single Desperate and Ugly. When it comes to love, maybe it’s best to let nature take its course, or simply offer tax breaks—that’s all thanks, once again, to Nanny Government.

For whatever the Singaporean identity is, whether it’s defined by the way we live, we speak, or the way we eat, the government is here to stay. That’s not a bad thing at all. The nanny argument sounds fair, but “nanny” has its beautiful side too. After all, Lee Kuan Yew once said: “If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one.”

(966 words)

Lim Zhi Yi, Secondary Four
April 2017

For more essays by Zhi Yi, visit Zhi Yi Writes.

This essay was written in response to the question:
The government should not actively construct the Singaporean identity. Do you agree?


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