My most recent read by Erika Johansen took place in a fictional world quite anti-climatically named the “New World”, her trilogy exploring the empire of the Tearling located in this fictional world. The empire’s beginnings were steeped in enforced equality, the pioneers from diverse and harsh backgrounds beating the odds to begin a small colony in a resource-starved land. The colony was an allegory to a socialist utopia but one which crumbled to dust within a single generation, the splintering exacerbated by the death of the colony’s founder and vocal opposition by narrow-minded dissenters.
Sans the pseudonyms and medieval setting, it sounded uncomfortably similar to the nightmare vision that was always a parting echo to any social studies lesson I’ve had since I was 6.
Perhaps it wasn’t without reason that my mind drew parallels to the fictional Tearling the moment I heard the 2018 National Day Parade theme song by Charlie Lim. Unlike previous (unfortunate) kitschy editions, the reimagined prelude to the 1987 “We are Singapore” was simple and direct. It was relevant given the emotive speech by Ms Indranee on identity, and the coming generation’s willingness to uphold it. She emphasized that the Singapore story to be written was in our hands that we had to be responsible for it, and the answer to her call might lie in the verses of the 2018 theme song
“If all that we are is what we believe, then I know I’ve got to be the change I want to see”
“No, nothing’s ever perfect, but I still call you mine”
As the torchbearers to come, we know what’s close to our heart and what we value. But this identity will always be a work in progress, what we make of it based on our awareness of the problems at hand. If the generations to come are to be trusted to make the right decisions, we must first have unbarred access to the past. This means acknowledging the mistakes of our past, looking beyond the monolithic interpretation of racial riots. It means uncomfortable confrontations with our treatment of foreign workers in the past and present whom we owe our skyscrapers and cleanliness to, wider conversations on other unforgettable and complex events marking 1987 besides the iconic “We are Singapore” such as Operation Spectrum. More than a side note, these need to be seen as common knowledge the same way we view Singapore’s rise to exceptionalism. These policies might already have been corrected for the better but obscuring the facts of what necessitated the change or simply avoiding their mention won’t ensure our continued improvement. Collective, convenient amnesia won’t ensure that several generations later, we won’t simply let history repeat itself.
When will we be mature enough to learn the narratives of Chia Thye Poh alongside the memoirs of the late Lee Kuan Yew? When we will be granted the right to view history unfiltered to step into the future?
If the recent Special Committee hearings are anything to go by, not anytime soon. It’s precisely this lack of trust while simultaneously beseeching blind faith that chaffs at my national pride and likely allows for the emergence of an increasing number of armchair critiques. “Champions of Complaining” isn’t a proud badge of honor but it is a symptom of a communication void that can easily be filled by distrust and anger instead.
To answer the question of what Singapore is, we must first answer the question of what Singapore was.
Not just a fishing village in the Malayan Archipelago, not just a small red dot in a sea of green but a country that defied the odds with fierce discipline, debatable sacrifices and ingenuity. To be Singaporean might be to care for our people but it is also about viewing the old with the lens of the new. How we choose to tackle our problems such as social inequality cannot always be colored by the decisions of the past, their priorities and choices not cast in iron.
If you ask me what Singapore is to me today, it is the ice cream parlor dressed in the outfit of an old shop house. It is a 1987 NDP rendition shuffled with beat drops and the ambitions of today. It is how the new adopts and adapts the old.
For all my misgivings and answered gripes, I know without a doubt when the tune comes on and the flags are drawn out, I’ll sing (rather tunelessly)
“We are Singapore. We are Singaporeans”