Commentary: It’s time to celebrate Singapore from the ground up

The stunning view of the National Gallery decked in festive decor (Photo credit: NDPeeps)

This year’s National Day celebrations marking Singapore’s Bicentennial year are a sprawling affair, with parties across the island and through the weekend. The Sunday Times reported over 100,000 people turning up for parties in the heartlands on Saturday (10 Aug), where attendees were able to get up-close with SAF’s mobile column. Mediacorp and Gardens by the Bay also held a 2-day concert (10 & 11 Aug) featuring local talent; no numbers on turnout has been announced yet. On 9 Aug, the main celebration at the Padang drew some 27,000 people for the National Day Parade, while the all-day activities at the Singapore Sports Hub’s celebration was attended by more than 23,000 people.

These numbers look great and I applaud our government’s efforts and that of government-linked organisations’ for pulling in resources to celebrate of Singapore’s 54th birthday. Singapore is a great city and country, and we should this celebrate our national identity and heritage. But these efforts to foment the Singapore identity and patriotism feels top-down. Orchestrating much of the Bicentennial celebrations is a team from the Singapore Bicentennial Office, operating under the Prime Minister’s Office. And, of course, the National Day Parade itself is managed by Mindef, with support from People’s Association and many other government-linked organisations.

Do Singaporeans at heart really want to celebrate their identity and culture? Do we gather at our homes for perhaps a Singapore birthday party potluck? Is there an agenda to want to go so big with the Bicentennial celebrations?

Far away from home

Since 1965, the Singapore government has been trying to cultivate a national identity, a Singaporean identity. Now in our 54th year, I think it is ‘mission accomplished’. 54 years is a long time. The Merdeka generation – my parents’ generation, those born between 1950 to 1959 – were children and teenagers when Singapore became independent. Their children – my generation, those born from the 70s onwards – have lived our entire lives in this independent state of Singapore.

Growing up, I never pondered much about being Singaporean. This community is multi-faceted in itself: A mishmash of cultures – Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. Together, yet silo-ed and disparate. My parents spoke English and a smattering of Hokkien at home, so that was what I picked up. But in school, most Chinese kids spoke Mandarin and I shied away from them, preferring to mix with English-speaking peers. It was only much later in life that I learned of my parents’ Peranakan ancestry.

It was only during my four years away from the country that I began to see this city-state from the lens of an outsider, and understood my unique upbringing and the characteristics of Singapore life.

Many Singaporeans would have experienced life in HDB housing and playing at the void decks, a feature that is distinctively Singaporean (hence, the name of this website). We have gone to local schools and acquired an English-focused education, while learning a mother tongue (and losing knowledge of our dialect). At least for the Chinese community, this decline in dialect usage may have brought about a bit disconnect between millennials and our grandparents.

Despite our shared history, Chinese Singaporeans and Malaysians can easily tell each other apart from the nuances in our culture and accents. When Singaporeans travel, our ear for a fellow compatriot’s accent is almost unmistakable.

The Internet and cheap air travel

Generations since the 70s have plugged into the Internet and started telling authentic stories about what makes us Singaporean, specially those born in the 80s and 90s. The success of digital media companies like SGAG, Night Owls Cinematics, Wah Banana!, TheSmartLocal, Mothership, and many others, can be attributed to their ability to tell authentic Singapore stories. They are able to capture the nuances that are so unique to Singapore life.

Cheaper air travel, thanks to budget flights, have allowed Singaporeans to venture far and wide to see other countries and experience other cultures. Many come back with a deeper sense of appreciation of this city-state and what makes us unique. Those who move overseas often become ambassadors of Singapore.

While the huge budget spent by our government to foster patriotism this Bicentennial is for a good cause, I hope our leaders can further empower this grassroots movement of Singaporean-ness. The stories told on mainstream media and at the National Day Parade are wonderful, but a little too polished. We need more authentic Singaporean stories out there, told by the people themselves.

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