By Jill Chang
The deafening roar of jets zooming by, rows and rows of bright red flags pinned to balconies and the distant sound of “Stand up for Singapore” played on repeat as you shop down the aisle. That’s right folks, National Day is upon us.
It’s a day that everyone participates in – whether intentional or secondary-school-enforced, at some point you were standing shoulder to shoulder with your buddy, family member or random stranger belting out “This Is Home”. However, as you matured you may have noticed the heavily altered social studies textbooks and the subtle insertion of “nation-building” exercises in your curriculum. And as Singapore reaches fifty-five, it’s always fun to reflect on the pride of our nation and question the extent to which these feelings of pride are genuine or enforced messages from “nation-building”.
To kick off this thought, I posed this question to my tiny following of university graduates and aunts that strayed from Facebook:
Are you proud to be a Singaporean?
The survey came back with 52 responses, and much to my surprise 41 (78.8%) respondents had given a resounding Yes, while 8 (15.3%) respondents sat on the fence with Neutral. A small group of 3 (5.7%) people expressed more negative views and opted for No.
The Dangerous Fixation on Economic Progress
Unsurprising, the most common reason supporting this sentiment was due to the high quality of living one can attain in Singapore and the idea of economic progress. No doubt, that Singapore has come a long way since the 1980s thriving on trade. However, as one respondent had put it quite aptly,
“(economic success) it is rather superficial and tends to devolve into a stick measuring contest.”
Singapore’s focus on a narrative of economic success also neglects the underlying issues that had surfaced along with its booming growth. The early 1980s were the boom years of Singapore’s economy attaining a GDP of $8868 in 1979 to 14,921 by 1985 (Public Service Division, 2015). Unfortunately, it was also one of the highest recorded rates of suicide with a total of 1698 attempted cases and 230 suicides confirmed (Department of Psychological Medicine, 1982). And while not openly admitted, it is very likely that these numbers may have been under-reported following the taboo nature of the topic.
Now, not every suicide case in Singapore can be attributed to Singapore’s focus on economic progress, but there definitely is an issue of placing too much emphasis on growth and success, such that we neglect the pressures it exerts upon our citizens. We have seen the government step in to help alleviate these instances, but how effective are these solutions when we’ve spent almost a decade ingraining our citizens to pride our worth on how much money we can make?
Our Paradoxical Foundations of Safety
Safety was also a popular answer amongst the respondents, usually guaranteed on most fronts – physical safety, political stability and financial stability. As we’ve seen over the past decade with an unchanging government, street lamps and security cameras installed on almost every corner and most recently, the staggering S$4 billion in assistance schemes announced in February are testimonies to that.
Admittedly, this is difficult to refute. For a country severely lacking in natural resources and surrounded by countries that are more than able to influence our every political and economic circumstance, much can be recognised in our ability to maintain this image of safety amongst its citizens. However, after 20 years of being born and raised here, it took a while to realise that what allows for this action of safety is grounded in the ideology of fear and insecurity.
Fear of fines and threats of punishment for any action against another, right down to what (or who) you choose to criticize online. As we’ve seen in the recent General Elections, political stability is guaranteed when one particular party is placed in the majority position for so long, careful to maintain a neutral stance on the world’s most controversial issues, while quietly removing voices that could potentially throw them off. Even the fear of failure drives us to continuously seek other methods of economic growth and squirrel away our money for future usage, the words, “All those who try to sell you the iron rice bowl, are ignorant and will intend to bring grief upon you” echoing in the back of our minds.
One could argue that these laws and societal conventions are what is needed to maintain this idea of safety, keeping its citizens from being thrown into political disarray and scaring criminals from committing robberies in broad daylight. Years of being afraid of failure and the uncertain economic future are essentially what kept us financially “safe” during this pandemic. Honestly, to this day, speaking about this still makes my palms sweaty, it’s easy to claim with pride that Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. The hard part is explaining how we got there.
Grounding our National Pride
Of course, the points that were raised are just a glimpse of the common pride points, but as many of the respondents had raised within their answers – patriotism is tricky. National identity is often built on rather controversial reasons and arbitrary boundaries, but that is not to say that our pride in our nation is invalid. National pride is critical and crucial for banding its citizens together, and indeed we do have many things to be proud of beyond the typical points of progress and stability that we’re constantly being reminded of. So, we gather together (within social distancing regulations) and belt out over-repeated national day tunes, reflect on our own pride (or lack thereof for the nation) and consider looking for pride points beyond what has already been pre-determined for us.