Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Cultivating Singapore's Heartbeat

To kick of my series of postings of my past writings, I thought what better way than to review what I had written at the start of the new millennium - 2001. It was interesting to note that the article still holds itself to be generally true.

(First published in Let's Go Singapore in January 2001)

It's a new year and Singapore is well on its way into the 21st century. The economy's doing well and there appears to be a renewed sense of confidence, judging by the ruling party's efforts to get the election machinery rolling again.

At last count, Singapore's population had hit about four million people (with about 800,000 non-residents) and is expected to swell to 5.5 million by 2040. Now that's a lot of people to think about, and thinking must obviously extend beyond housing and employment as Singaporeans grow in affluence and develop higher aspirations.

The current Concept Plan 2001 Review is a good example of how practical concerns (allocating scarce land for residential, industrial and commercial use) need to be balanced against maintaining the quality of life and preserving a sense of identity (building parks and landmarks).

The outcome of the review, which will be completed by the latter part of the year, seems even more important today, given the government's commitment to realize its Singapore 21 vision.

The documentation of this vision serves as a compass to guide Singaporeans through the challenges of this new century as well as strengthens the so-called 'heartware' of Singapore, which includes elements such as social cohesion, political stability and the collective will, values and attitudes of Singaporeans.

I would like to think that this 'heartware' embodies the Singapore identity that we are trying to shape.

Granted, we had nationhood thrust upon us, thus denying us the opportunity to develop an identity that would bind us as one people. But the last 35 years has not made it easy to evolve that one unifying Singaporean identity either. We are still very much tied to our ethnic roots, which keep us apart while being a part of the nation.

Multiracialism has ensured a stable environment where all the communities were given the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. But in multiracialism also lay the obstacles to developing a unique and unifying identity for all Singaporeans.

The need to establish that identity, that sense of belonging to Singapore, has become even more acute now as more and more Singaporeans work and study overseas, often with their families in tow. While this will certainly make Singaporeans more cosmopolitan and plug Singapore into the world, it also presents many concerns.

One concern is that a prolonged absence from Singapore can lead to Singaporeans losing touch with and feeling less attached to the nation, which brings us back to the subject of the Singapore 'heartware' and cultivating a sense of identification with and belonging to the nation.

More than anything else, Singapore's success as a nation is invariably measured in economic terms. And it is often by such terms that we identify ourselves- as evidenced in the 5Cs, the many "best" awards that Singapore wins, and the strong value of the Singapore dollar, just to name a few.

But affluence and prosperity alone cannot and will not serve as the glue to hold Singapore together. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong himself had lamented that if Singaporeans were just economic animals, materialistic with no sense of belonging, they will be like migratory birds, seeking their fortunes in other lands when the season changes.

Taken to an extreme, such individuals will have "no cause to fight for, no community to live for, no country to defend or die for, only the pragmatic desire to get on and get rich." Such a scenario is not all that impossible, given the growing 'me-first' attitude that now permeates the citizenry.

How then do we cultivate the Singapore identity? What do we have to do to ensure that the Singapore heartbeat pounds strongly and loudly?

The government has tried to formulate some form of national identity through its Shared Values initiative, a national ideology blueprint that was adopted in 1993, and later the Singapore 21 project, which was launch in 1999.

However, in taking a top-down approach to developing a national identity, the unintended consequence was to have an artificial identity impose upon the citizenry.

Identities cannot and should not be imposed upon a people, as they would be regarded as artificial constructs. Such frameworks would not necessarily endear themselves to the very people they address or help to engender a sense of rootedness. But ironically, this paternalistic approach seems to have worked here.

Singaporeans choose to stay because of their primordial ties and a sense of belonging to their communities- arising out of the practice of multiracialism here. It is an identity that is borne out the people, through their daily struggles to make ends meet in the thriving city-state.

If anything, I would regard this as the defining character of the Singapore identity. It is our diversity that makes us unique as a nation. We are much like the multi-coloured items of a salad bar, where each item adds a different taste sensation, able to exist on its own and yet contributing to the whole experience.

But does this diversity not lead to tension? Yes and No. Yes, when competing communities are allowed to further their own agendas without any restraint. No, because it is the very restraints that have been put in place by the government that allows our diverse communities to exist harmoniously.

It may very well be that Singapore needs a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches towards cultivating its identity. The bottom-up approach seems to have grown in importance now that the government has committed itself to the Singapore 21 vision.

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