Tag Archives: identity

Some thoughts on our history and identity

I think it’s a sad state for S’poreans if we begin to see Marina Bay Sands IR as our ‘latest’ icon, or that it’s even going to represent S’pore on the world state. As far as I know, MBS doesn’t represent most S’poreans, for all its glam and glitz. While I think the free market rocks, I don’t think a 24-hour casino should be built at all. Unfortunately without the promise of a casino, those IR developers wouldn’t have came here in the first place.

Recently in some city livability survey, a few smart-alec expats commented S’pore needs more green spaces, more room for the arts scenes to grow, and a more lively culture here, whatever their definition of ‘lively’. Yeah, yeah. Personally I feel S’pore as a city-state is increasingly a hotel-state instead, where we provide services for businesses. We’re trying our best – too much, in fact – to court their attention and praise. Then we tell everyone else, including ourselves, that just because some foreigners praise us for good infrastructure or services, we ought to be proud.

Yes, we ought to be proud IF we’re the businessmen. Unfortunately, S’pore is larger than a business – we’re a republic, a country, a home for many peoples. I’m proud of the world-class status which Changi International Airport achieves, but if we just use that to define ourselves, like we’re using MBS to do so, then that is seriously so miserable. Identity should be more than that. Fine, our great MBS and RWS can create a sense of identity among S’poreans, that such a small city can have two beautiful and incredibly expensive IRs, – but it shouldn’t be just that.

I think S’pore has an immense cultural and historical legacy which we’ve forgotten. No wonder Alfian Sa’at titles his collection of poems on Singapore as A History of Amnesia. I was amused when I watched an episode of ‘The Noose’, where Singaporeans are asked to name a bridge christened after a former president. Funny answers like ‘North bridge’ and ‘Woodbridge’ came up (the correct answer is Benjamin Sheares, our second president). Such incidents prove that some S’poreans have either forgotten or ignored our culture and history.

So what, then? Not practical. One doesn’t need the history of our pre-colonial past to conduct business. What should MM Lee’s previous position in government gotta do with us? Life goes on for normal people like us.

But whatever we do today is strongly rooted to the past, and no denial or ignorance of it can break this link. You’re an admin executive in a logistics company. Why were you hired? Why is there a logistics company? Well, because S’pore is a trading port long before it became a republic. S’pore has deep waters, forming a natural harbour. So ships on long-distance journeys will dock here to replenish their fuel and rations. Eventually merchants bring their goods here, store them, before re-exporting them elsewhere. Hence with the development of trade, industries which support it begin to grow. Logistics companies help to facilitate the transportation and storage of goods etc. Thus you can see how so-called ‘modern’ companies or industries are actually continuities from the past.

Oh, you may assume the description above is after Raffles’s landing here. Well, surprise – S’pore has been a port since the 13th century. Yeah, the history of S’pore stretches longer before Raffles. S’pore’s history doesn’t ‘begin’ anywhere. It began since there was this island here, and what happens after are merely highlights.

A soldier in the SAF is probably very far apart from his historical counterpart in Sang Nila Utama’s entourage when he landed here, or Parameswaran’s army when he lost S’pore to the Majapahit Empire, or an Indian regiment of the British Empire, deployed here to defend imperial interests. Surely his purpose has changed. The PAP government rule is definitely dimensions separate from the Temenggong’s rule over a fishing village, or even that of the Straits Settlement. While purposes and functions have changed, there are still a few fundamental continuities. The soldier in the SAF and the soldier in the Indian regiment is still a human, has a family (outside camp vs. in another continent), and protects S’pore, albeit from different enemies. We ordinary jokers are no different from the ordinary fishermen in the 1800s – we still try to make a livelihood, get a family etc on this diamond-shaped island. We’re not superior than them just because we’ve iPods and the Internet.

The past allows us to discover the significance of the present, and so provides us with a larger sense of identity. We’re not just Changi Airport or MBS or S’pore Zoo, but we’re the modern-day successors of those jokers who immigrated here in search of a better life on this island. We need to know our history and the cultures of the major religions and races here to make sense of the present. Sadly, some of us don’t care.

If you want sheer practicality, I’ll show you then. History has often been abused in S’pore by none other than the PAP government. MM Lee has categorically stated that Lim Chin Siong is a pro-communist leftist. But can his word be taken as a simple truth? Historians have been debating if Lim is pro-communist (support some elements of communist ideology), a communist (subscribes to the ideology of communism in full), or a MCP member (dedicated to the establishment of a communist govt here).

What’s the significance? If Lim is really a communist as MM Lee has accused, then what MM Lee has done to him and his associates is fully justified – the use of the ISA for detention without trial. If Lim isn’t, what MM Lee has done is – gasp – unlawful. The PAP’s ascend to power is not as simple as one thinks, but fraught with struggles. History has been used by the PAP to strengthen their legitimacy as a ‘national movement’, the exact phrase used in their revised constitution, and by extension, as a strong reason for us jokers to continue voting them into government.

If we don’t know or choose to ignore some aspects of our history, we’ll be easily manipulated and even deceived by either the PAP or other other opposition parties. The S’pore Story is generally good for nation-building and engendering a sense of belonging to S’pore, but it can be abused by the PAP for its selfish purpose. Hence while we rejoice in the narrative of the S’pore Story, we should also keep one pair of scissors behind our back, ready to snip it into shreds if the need comes. Ironically enough, the PAP govt hasn’t developed the S’pore Story much, so the younger generations don’t know about their pioneers like S. Rajaratnam and Dr Goh Keng Swee.

Well, that’s it on my take. I hope one day S’pore can become a historically-conscious city-state, with a deeper sense of identity, rather than taking proud in stuff which expats label us. Oh yeah, green spaces. Those expats must be blind if they can’t see them around. Ohh, they don’t live in HDB flats, I forgot…

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