Monday 13 August 2012

Why I love this neurotic small country

By Joyce Hooi, The Business Times, 9 Aug 2012

WHEN you are growing up, you are told a series of well-intentioned lies. "You can be anything you want to be" being the biggest porky. The jet-setting cosmopolitan child is also lied to. "You are a citizen of the world," he or she hears.

I found out very quickly that you are a citizen of two or three places at most - the country you have the fortune (or lack thereof) to be born in, and the ones that you choose for yourself if you're lucky.

Last year, I chose Singapore and six months after my citizenship application, Singapore chose me back. The first time I thought seriously about becoming a Singaporean was five years ago. A permanent resident then, I was watching a local news bulletin with the growing fascination people reserve for train wrecks.

If memory serves me right, some outraged residents of an estate had found that roadworks nearby were causing cracks in their driveway tiles. A female resident said: "The rainwater is pooling in the cracks and my maid might get bitten by mosquitoes when she's washing my car and get dengue," or something to that effect.

I'd thought, by gum, I want to be this lady. I want her First-World problems and maybe-dengue. Where I'm from, people simply have problems and actual dengue.

I would not insult anyone with a spiel about how this is the Greatest Country on Earth. Countries like America have genuinely believed that and look what's happened. Singapore, like any other country, is not for everyone. I have honestly never seen a nation of people more hard on itself despite achievements of dazzling proportions against the worst of odds.

After a look at Gardens by the Bay - one of the most spectacular feats of planning and thoughtfulness I have seen - a friend asked me with the furrowed-brow earnestness only a local could muster: "Do you think it's too contrived?"

Singapore is the Woody Allen of nations - simultaneously brilliant and self-flagellating about not being brilliant enough. Singapore is also like the father in the High Expectations Asian Father meme who says things like, "B is for Burger King... where you are going to work for the rest of your life" and "You are the 99 per cent? Why not 100 per cent?"

I say this with the utmost of affection. In fact, these national quirks are why I am now a Singaporean.

For once we stop complaining about the smallest of things and sending our five-year-olds to two kindergartens at once, we will become... Europe.

When Orchard Road flooded last year, national outrage abounded but where I was born, you don't need rain to wipe out years of industry. The house of your existence, built painstakingly by hard work, artful dodging of the law and gritted teeth, can be washed away overnight by the caprice of someone powerful, greedy or stupid.

Over here, the refrain when anything goes wrong is: "How could the Government let this happen?" while in almost everywhere else, the government is something that happens to you if you're unlucky. You could enter a building through the door for questioning but leave via the window, under a white sheet.

I came to Singapore nine years ago. Since then, people have given me scholarships, written me letters of recommendation and let me do a job that I love. They saw me not as competition but as someone in need of the opportunities that her home country could not or would not give her, and for that I am eternally grateful.

It is a lie that you are a citizen of the world. You are a citizen of the country from which your space has been gradually chiselled and negotiated with the other people who share it. With the current zero-sum talk about crowded trains and high property prices, this might seem a daunting feat, but it can be done. We've been doing it for 47 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment