0133 – Which Singapore?

It’s a wonderfully cool morning for 1140am in Singapore, and I find myself thinking that Singapore would surely be more pleasant in general if we had better weather. Surely people would be less sweaty and cranky, and perhaps we’d be kinder to and more patient with one another.

And as I carried the “Singapore would be better if…” thought in my head, it was immediately assaulted by a question: WHICH Singapore? (“Why, mine, of course!”)

But it brings into mind the realization that there are hundreds of different Singapores, depending on who you are. We all see Singapore through the lens that we inherit, shaped by our experiences- which in turn are determined by our race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, social circles, work, et cetera. We all live on the same island, but we experience very different realities.

It occurred to me, for example, how alienating it must be for a gay Singaporean to watch last year’s National Day Rally speech as PM Lee spoke about the importance of family, marriage and home ownership. What does it mean to be a citizen of a country that technically considers you a criminal for having sex with your partner? That doesn’t recognize your love as legitimate, that considers your orientation a “lifestyle”, that shuts you out from buying public housing with your partner? One that urges “balance and restraint” when talking about institutionalized and socialized discrimination?

As my wife and I sat on our sofa in our HDB flat watching the rally, I remember thinking: I’m finally beginning to understand where Alfian Sa’at was coming from when he wrote “Singapore you are not my country. Singapore you are not a country at all.”

But really I think we won’t be able to make much progress unless we acknowledge the many Singapores that exist, besides the State-approved one where 9 in 10 teachers love their jobs. Yes, there’s also an ugly Singapore where the hurt, disenfranchised and entitled spew hate. And yes, that’s something we should be concerned about. But those aren’t the only two stories. I don’t have to be pro-PM Lee or pro-Roy. Singapore isn’t always one thing or the other; we come in too many flavours for one fucking spoon.

The sooner we acknowledge the many layers of privilege, ignorance and hubris that blind us to the suffering of others, the sooner we’ll be able to have mature conversations about our problems. And I think “balance and restraint” is a copout; a way to maintain the status quo. Parents have their own peace of mind at heart when they demand that their kids stop fighting. It’s not justice. And while the parents may have more important things to worry about- Free Trade Agreements and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties- the children will never be able to participate in those concerns if their own grievances are not met. [1]

Until we resolve these grievances, I don’t think it’s possible for a Nation to come together and work on hard problems as a collective. We lose the “lean, hungry startup” advantage that we had in the first 30-50 years of our Nation’s short lifespan. And if we lose that advantage, we could start losing everything else. The cynical side of me suspects that this problem is intractable, and that Singapore’s best days might be behind us. I’m comforted by my lack of perfect information- people far smarter and more driven then myself must be working on renewing Singapore as a choice worth making. I have witnessed more than a couple of really smart friends leave the country, though. And that’s a shame, because we lose diversity that way. We end up with a relatively narrow elite class, and as Chan Chun Sing once said, diversity is the only survival strategy.

Governance is a hard, thankless job. We generally overlook and ignore everything that’s done right, everything that works smoothly. We expect it as our birthright. We focus all our attention and energy on things that break, things that go wrong. And I don’t think Government can fix those problems through direct intervention. The Government can’t ask you to love the country. (Though some Straits Times writers have certainly tried.) Only citizens can do that. Only volunteers and activists can do that. Only friends and family can do that. It requires faith and a willingness to fight for a vision of the future that does not exist. Our usual pragmatic approach does not work here. The pragmatic thing to do is to protect yourself and screw everyone else.

I am hopeful that enough of us will recognize that as a really sad, boring and frightened way to live. It pays to listen and to be kind. It pays to recognize that others who share our island may not live in the same Singapore that we do.

The way forward will be messy and difficult, but we won’t budge by much until we at least acknowledge that fact, and demonstrate that through our actions.

What will that look like? What are the challenges ahead of us, what are the problems we need to solve? I’m very concerned about our long-term survivability. Will I regret it if I choose to stay in Singapore for another 20, 30 years? Will it be more frustration and heartbreak? Or will we be able to figure out a future, a possibility that we want to live into? Are we going to keep trotting out trite, vacant cliches like “Asian values”, or are we going to rekindle the fire of the founding years that allowed us to question assumptions and slaughter sacred cows in pursuit of greater wellness for all? I don’t know. We’ll see.


[1] Politicians do understand this, I think. A starving family does not have the energy to worry about freedom of speech. LKY and gang were so effective because they were sensitive to that trade-off, and made what were arguably good decisions. Things are more complex now. Perhaps in LHL’s Singapore, the trade-offs are for a good reason, and the best of all the alternatives. I hope that’s the case. But blind faith isn’t a smart or sustainable strategy.