S’pore spirit blows hot and cold

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

If Singaporeans fear they will one day be overwhelmed by migrants in their own land, the statement from a minister that Singapore is not a country, leaves them even more uncertain.

In the midst of a historical demographic change, Singapore’s hard-headed government seems less inclined nowadays to talk about national identity than it once was.

This is a departure from the earlier post-independence years, when promoting values like patriotism and nation-bonding were top priorities.

Today, they remain important goals but are more discussed among citizens than the policy-makers.

Many Singaporeans are worried about the erosion of national fervour in an island state bloated by the recent arrivals of hundreds of thousands of foreigners.

On the government’s part, priority seems to have shifted – at least for now – from promoting nationalism to persuading Singaporeans “to embrace foreigners”. I suppose there’s a time for everything.

It probably seems untimely for the authorities to preach an intensification of national feelings at a time when so many foreigners – and new migrants – are settling here.

“They are caught in a bind. Harping on national sentiments now could be seen as isolating the new arrivals,” said a neighbourhood doctor.

With its short history, Singapore still needs to continue to build a national identity among Singa­poreans citizens or risk losing its economic achievements, he said.

The question is: How, when citizens may soon become a minority?

Recent conflicting remarks by ministers have not helped to clarify to citizens where they are heading – or indeed if Singapore is a country or merely a global city.

Law (and Home Affairs) Minister K. Shanmugam surprised everyone when he told visiting American lawyers that Singapore was not a country.

He was defending the government’s human rights records. The minister said Singapore was viewed as a deviation from the democratic norm because it was seen primarily as a country.

“This is where most people make a mistake. I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country,” he said.

It sparked off a public debate, especially among young national servicemen sworn to defend the nation. Baffled party members sought an explanation.

In an indirect effort to control damage, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Singapore could not afford to have a ratio of more than 40% foreign workers.

“We felt we are more comfortable with that than thinking we are nothing but a global city. We are also a country,” he said.

In an earlier unrelated event, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said that despite its achievements, Singapore was not yet a nation.

“Are we a nation yet? I will not say we are. We’re in transition. Please remember this is an ideal which we may not completely reach, but because we have this ideal, we’ll continue to make progress,” he said.

All this talk has not gone down well with Singaporeans, who find it incomprehensible and reflective of government uncertainty.

Songshus blogged: “From my observation over the last two or three decades, it seems to me that our government is only trying to succeed economically.

“We should also develop on other fronts that would bind our people together, and promote cultural and identity awareness.

“The average Singaporean really does not know what future direction we are heading towards.”

Critics of the government, however, are less surprised.

For years, they have accused the People’s Action Party (PAP) of governing Singapore like a profitable corporation, even paying themselves as Board members.

Increasingly during the past decade, the political leaders had been talking more of Singapore as a global city.

During his recent visit to Moscow, MM Lee said his vision of Singapore was that it would no longer be seen as just an Asian city one day – but as cosmopolitan and connected to the world.

In view of this line of thinking, Shanmugam’s description of his country as a city – not a country – should not be surprising.

The question is: what will happen to the national identity that the PAP had wanted to forge from day one of independence?

Can it work with so many foreigners coming and going as though it were a hotel?

Some analysts noticed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who faces a tough general election soon, recently talked of wanting to build – not nationalism – but “The Singapore Spirit”.

Not many people remember now, but in 1989, Singapore’s leaders called for a “national ideology” to prevent a “harmful drift towards Westernisation” and promote a national identity.

No one bets it will be revived anytime soon.

While moulding a national identity has not been a popular leadership topic these days, the same cannot be said of Singaporeans. Many are pushing for a stronger rallying effort.

During National Day, another popular discussion centred on the question: “Will the rally make us feel for Singapore again?”

Some Singaporeans believe the country now has an identity crisis as a result of foreign arrivals now making up one third of the population.

Others agree that while it is causing some social dislocation, “we should not blame the whole problem on the government”.

Muhamad Nur appealed to all to treat Singapore as a nation – not just a city. “This is our only solution.”

A visiting student from Switzerland, Christabel, disagreed with those who declared that Singapore has no identity or is a sanitised corporate state.


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