Friday, 29 March 2013

The Singaporean core

Much has been said about retaining a Singaporean core. The term has been taken to mean a core of citizens in a workforce where one in three is a foreigner. Others take the term to refer to a core of Singapore values. Two writers share their experience of moving from the periphery of Singapore society to embracing its core in these essays.

Can the new Singapore blossom from its core?
By Susrut Ray, Published The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2013

MY FLIGHT lands at Changi Airport; a cab drives me to the city through Airport Boulevard which is beautiful as ever. It welcomes me, as it has done a hundred times before. The greenery, the pink bougainvillea-lined kerb, the magnificent exit ramps and overpasses make up a grand bouquet.

My mind turns 30 years back; I think of the time I first landed in Singapore, not at Changi but at the old airport in Paya Lebar.

Just as I did today, I had taken a cab to the city. The roads I passed through were no less inviting. I was taken by the exuberant greenery that seemed to connect directly the primeval rainforest that existed long before Singapura or even Temasek was founded.

It is different now, more "developed", my Singaporean friends would say. But the connection between the greenery and Mother Earth seems to have been lost.

Lines written by homesick English poet Rupert Brooke as he sat at a cafe in Berlin a hundred years back come to mind: "Here tulips bloom as they are told; Unkempt about those hedges blows/ An English unofficial rose."

In Singapore today do the hibiscus, the Bunga Raya, bloom as they are told? Nostalgia for days gone by leads me to reflect on the changes that have taken place.

Soon after I arrived in the 1980s, the airport shifted to Changi. I remember seeing the grandest, the most meticulous "house-moving" operation ever, as my flat was along the route.

Trying to sleep then, I heard trucks all through the night, moving people and equipment. Overnight, that task was completed with military precision. Paya Lebar received its last commercial flight at 11.30pm on June 31, 1981. Changi was ready to take its first by 7.10am the next day.

One aspect of Singapore that has remained unchanged over the years is its legendary efficiency, which amazed me through the 17 years that I made the sunny island my home; it does so till today.

The spirit of Singapore revealed itself to me in diverse ways, most so through my interaction with Singaporeans. I remember, for instance, my first glimpse of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressing the nation on TV, presenting his seemingly iron-clad argument with facts, figures, even graphs.

What a contrast this was from my past experience of politicians who incessantly spewed emotionally charged rhetoric. The intensity of rational progression of thought, sullied neither by rhetoric nor by emotion, was over-powering. This, to me, was a hallmark of the governance of Singapore.

It seemed to me that the rationality and efficacy that was apparent in public enterprise sprung from the "grassroots" (to use a local phrase). I encountered it in the behaviour of ordinary people.

Take this. One day, when I had just bought my car and was driving through still unfamiliar roads, I grazed past an old van, leaving an ugly scratch on my car while the van remained unscathed.

Where I came from, even a minor road accident is invariably followed by mutual rage and outbursts. Both parties would ritually blame each other irrespective of what had actually happened.

I was in the wrong, but reflexes got the better of me. My adversary was a wizened old Chinese man in singlet and shorts. He watched bemused as I hurled my accusations till I had run out of steam. Then, in a voice as calm as his PM's, he said: "Why you shout? You want we go to police, also can. You want to pay me, also can. You don't want to pay, also can."

What impeccable logic! What a chastening I had that day.

The practical wisdom to be found in the grassroots affected the lives of people as they hauled themselves up by their own bootstraps. It took them from the roots upwards, to the tips of the grasses, the shrubbery above, even upper branches of trees.

I remember Kaliappan. Born in Madras (now Chennai) to an impoverished family, he was bundled off with a distant relative to Singapore when he was only 13 to make a living. He told me how he did odd jobs around the harbour for many years. When he was 20 or so, he found employment in a shipyard. He made the most of it, got selected for training in Japan, and then on he never looked back.

A supervisor at the shipyard when I first met him, he lived in his Housing Board flat bringing up two bright kids and spending whatever time he had working as a grassroots leader of the ruling party. Sadly, he is not around any more.

But his two sons have moved into a bungalow, acquired undreamt of wealth (two cars, Club Med holidays, the works). They have children of their own. The older one has even stepped into his father's shoes and is a grassroots leader in his own right.

That, to me, was the spirit of Singapore and it is one I see over and over again.

I remember Jenny whom I hired to start our electronics assembly line. She was only 20, had finished her A levels (the first to do so in her family of Cantonese immigrants), and had some work experience with a multinational company. Single-handedly and within weeks, she had put together the assembly operations, hiring and training operators, buying equipment, designing the workflow, and so on.

On the first day of the pilot run, her line was already producing three times what the shop I had come from did (even though the person in charge there was more qualified and experienced than she).

Then there was Sarah, our star salesperson; customers swore by her. Over a casual conversation she revealed the secret of her success. Her parents ran a chicken-rice stall. Through her days at school, junior college and university she spent time at the stall, helping out, taking orders from customers, talking to them in English and Mandarin - languages that her parents hardly spoke.

That's how Sarah became a master of the process of selling which, in its basics, is the same whatever the product sold: chicken-rice or electronics.

I have lost touch with Sarah and Jenny. I suspect they are very much around but transformed to such an extent that I will not recognise them. Middle-aged now, they must be there among the bejewelled, designer-clothed, women whom I see shopping in the elegant malls (that put the Lucky Plazas of my time to shame).

Their children - never having to hawk chicken rice - likely went through fancy kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools and universities of hallowed names without learning the good old habits their parents had learnt at their age. The real education that Sarah went through has been denied to her children.

Hawker stalls today, I understand, find it difficult to hire assistants. So do shipyards. They have to hire "non-residents", a misnomer for the "foreigners" that Singapore would rather not have as permanent residents.

So the bedrock that gave rise to the Kaliappans, the Sarahs and the Jennies - an environment where you need to struggle to succeed - is no longer there.

Singapore seeks to replenish its core by letting in "foreign talent" at a different level - professionals, managers and executives (PMEs). These become the PRs, the immigrants who it is hoped will become citizens one day.

Can the population of "core Singaporeans" and PRs raise the Sarahs and Jennys of tomorrow?

I wonder.

One of the changes that have come about is depletion of the very roots that gave Singapore its youthful vitality 30 years back, when I first came here.

It was still a country without formal distinction between "core" and "periphery". Over the years the core became entrenched, with exclusive privileges. But it cannot sustain the vitality, not only because it produces fewer children, but also because it is not raising the equivalent of Kaliappan's sons.

My Singapore was rooted in the equatorial rain forest and the flow of immigrants from diverse sources.

Over the years, it seems, there has been too much "development" and over-engineering in all spheres. A mass of concrete separates the ground in which "hibiscus grow as they are told" and Mother Earth. So too is the case of people. When too much is sanitised and made easy, something, it seems, is irretrievably lost. Meanwhile, denizens of a more prosperous present start to turn their back on their immigrant roots.

Can the vitality that comes from diversity and struggle ever be regained? As a friend of Singapore, I hope so.

The writer is a 63-year-old Indian national who lived and worked in Singapore in the IT industry for 17 years from 1980 to 1997. He is back in Singapore for a prolonged period of medical treatment.

Lessons from an unpleasant cab ride
By Asad Latif, Published The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2013

ALL sides in the Great Population Debate are resting their hopes ultimately on the Singaporean core, an elusive community that will preserve the national character amid immigration.

At its most restrictive, the core is visualised as consisting exclusively of the native-born and native-bred. At its most capacious, it includes new citizens drawn from the ranks of foreigners working here.

But how can erstwhile foreigners enter the national core?

It is through integration, as I have learnt.

I came from India on an employment pass in 1984. I was a mercenary - I wanted to make some money and leave - but I suffered no pangs of regret.

Time-servers were no worse than natives in an economy in search of a country, as Singapore seemed to me. I was a mercenary but not a parasite. I worked hard, I paid my taxes, and I hoped that this market paradise would last at least as long as I inhabited it.

Then, about a year after my arrival, I took a taxi driven by a cantankerous old man. As it reached its destination, he blew his trumpet. The ghastly smell filled the captive air. The fare flew out of my hands as I fled from the taxi faster than it had travelled.

Yes, it sounds funny now, but it was not then.

Scandalised by the driver's insolence, which I believed had occurred on purpose, I took down the taxi's licence number. I would complain to the authorities.

But when I mentioned the incident to a Singaporean colleague the following day, he advised me against vengeance.

"Asad, you have been here for a year. How much do you get out of this system? At least enough to take a taxi, right?" he remonstrated with me. "That old man has been here forever, and he drives a taxi for a living. How much do you think he gets out of the system? Do you want to take even that away? Don't complain."

There was no complaint.

That day, I learnt to see Singaporeans as fallible humans - like me - and not as the dutiful angels of a perfect and immortal city.

The more I saw my wayward thoughts reflected in them, the easier it was to ignore their little transgressions. I began to move from the periphery of arrival to the core of belonging, a journey that took me through permanent residence and brought me to citizenship in 1999.

To belong is to be implicated in the functioning of the whole.

I was not personally responsible for the chain of events which had obliged the man to be a dyspeptic taxi driver in his dotage.

He might well have gambled away his savings, lost a well-paying job because of alcoholism, or even gone to jail for theft.

However, I was responsible for my power to ignore his annoying act, which must have originated somewhere in the tangled web of his circumstances - or perhaps it was just his health.

I derived this power from my privileged place compared to his in the Singapore system. It thus fell upon me to share some of the burden of his improvident life because I was complicit in the workings of a whole system that had made him what he was, and me what I was.

Extrapolating from my admittedly extreme experience to today's public debate on immigration, I would say that, to be a part of the national core is to invest one's abilities and imagination in the civic recognition of one another as equal fellow citizens of this Republic.

Recognition - whether for the Singapore-born or the Singapore-arrived - means acknowledging that we are the same as citizens no matter how different we are in every other way: in origin, gender, race, religion, wealth or talent. Given differences of individual talent, our life outcomes cannot be the same, but given our sameness, our opportunities must be equal.

Not just that.

Even with unequal outcomes, the challenge lies, not in rationalising inequality away by arguing that it is inherent in human nature, but in ameliorating the effects of that inequality to the extent possible through social action. What is important is what can be done, and not what cannot be done, about society.

The national core is the arena in which the contestation over the ends and means of society is the most intense. It is a messy and dirty - and smelly! - place, full of discordant voices arguing over a hundred incompatible ways to a single future.

The foreigner who gives it a wide berth will have a quieter and easier time in Singapore, but only as a stranger passing through. The foreigner who walks into that cacophonous agora would have taken his first step towards belonging.

Citizenship is not an invitation to a garden party. It is a voyage marked by the beautiful risk of ideological belief and daring. It is about daring to care.

Occasionally, it means surviving a taxi ride.

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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