SINGAPORE, Feb 8 — The other day I was talking to a good friend of mine. Sitting with glasses of wine in an open, airy café next to Punggol Waterway with our husbands by our sides and a dog at our feet — it was idyllic. Yet, like so many others of my generation, we found ourselves bemoaning the state of Singapore.
The complaints were the usual — some valid some not: an out-of-touch government, the daily rat race, the general rudeness.
Like many of my peers, the friend in question is an intelligent, well-travelled middle class Singaporean. Educated at a local university but with experience working and studying abroad.
Now with a foreign husband, she has returned to Singapore to build a life but is finding it hard to accept the daily frustrations of this city.
On a recent visit back to her husband’s home in North America, the couple found themselves shocked at their own surprise when a barista at a café greeted them heartily, the person ahead of them in line insisted they go first while he pondered his order and another customer opened the door and wished them a good day on their way out.
A neighbour, she says, had walked over and brought a basket of apples. It was easy. People were relaxed and life was better-paced.
“I don’t want to keep living here, it’s a bubble and I want to live with space and less pressure,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Later that evening, my husband who isn’t Singaporean as well (why do we all marry foreigners? But that is another question for another day) asked me what I thought of my friend’s desire to leave. He said, this is your only home, you have no other — why not work to change it?
And I paused.
Is Singapore our only home? My friend is of Chinese descent and I of Indian descent. Did we belong to this island more than an Asian American in North America? Was Singaporean an identity that existed outside of the country’s borders?
If my friend and I had and raised children abroad entirely, would those children still be “Singaporean” simply because they had Singaporean mothers? Or was Singaporean an experience — one you could choose to walk away from in favour of another?
With SG50 plastered everywhere, it has become blasphemous to suggest anything other than undying devotion to the Singaporean identity but this is increasingly hard.
Singapore is a great city, it’s wealthy and filled with opportunities but it is a city. An economic experiment fuelled by the industry of immigrants – and as more and more immigrants stream in, this notion of indigenous people becomes harder to grasp.
And it breaks my heart. I am Singaporean. What else can I be? It was with this very friend I celebrated Aug 9 years ago when we were both marooned in New York City — singing National Day songs we all know by heart.
And though my state perpetually classifies me as “Indian,” I am confounded by India — it is incredible and interesting but it is so intrinsically foreign. I suspect my friend has similar feelings about China and yet when someone asks why not stay, why not fight to change this country, it is hard not to suppress a shrug.
Is it because Singaporeans just don’t care enough – that this place isn’t worth it? It would seem so; many people are not interested in changing Singapore because if you don’t like it you simply leave and many do.
So who or what is to blame for this rootlessness?
A lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a city-state — a unique entity in the modern world as neither Hong Kong nor Dubai are truly states. For the last few centuries, people have belonged basically to nations. They are Americans or Japanese or Thai. Cities are places you move to for opportunity and when a better opportunity arises you move somewhere else.
I think that’s part of the dilemma and within this parameter, Singapore has done well in trying somehow to be both a city and a nation. But we’ve also got some things wrong. Somewhere along the way it seems our nation building efforts began to unravel.
In my next column, I would like to explore why.
* This is the personal opinion of the writers or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.