Tuesday, 9 April 2013

What makes a S’porean? A debate returns

By Simon Tay, Published TODAY, 8 Apr 2013

Debate has returned, for both the Government and citizens, about what it means to be Singaporean.

The issues do not relate only to culture and the arts, but have broader implications for the political and economic paradigms in Singapore as well.

What spurs this resurgence of a soul-searching debate that has been with us since the earliest years of nationhood — and perhaps more importantly, what is different about it this time? What implications will this have for the way the debate is conducted?


The key signs emerged with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), recently constituted and fresh from its first Budget debate last month.

With the change of name from what was formerly the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, the arts community fretted that their vocation was no longer in focus. It also protested a decision last year to pull out of this year’s world-renowned Venice Biennale.

Sportsmen wondered, too, if their passion was receiving less emphasis because of the name change, in addition to past delays over the Sports Hub and other facilities.

The Government’s Budget recently passed in Parliament will provide reassurance. Spending on sports will go up an extra S$400 million over the next five years, to benefit both top athletes and the many more who take up recreational sports. Arts groups will see the available grants double over the same period to about S$94 million. The museums too will get a boost, with S$62 million to acquire and preserve artworks and artefacts. Even participation in the Venice Biennale will resume come 2015.

The Ministry’s title has changed, yet the budgetary allocations show not only constancy but also substantial growth in emphasis invested in the arts, culture and sports, to bring them to a new level. It would be wrong to suggest that nothing has changed.


The term “culture” is broader than the arts; it also includes sports, heritage and even more so, the intangibles that go towards defining us as a community.

As MCCY’s Acting Minister Lawrence Wong put it: “Culture is about how we express and understand ourselves, from singing and dancing, to participating in sports and spending time with family and friends … it is about bringing people together across divides, and it is about strengthening Singapore’s appeal to us as a home.”

There is a sense of urgency to this mission.

Take, for example, the move to give citizens and permanent residents year-round free admission to all museums from May 18.

In revenue terms, this is not a huge hit; what is significant is the context. Mr Wong explained the step as part of a broader strategy to nurture a sense of belonging at a time when Singaporeans “feel disoriented, especially with the increase in population and new immigrants.”

The Government’s recognition of this discontent is welcome. The recent White Paper on Population was challenged by citizens on blogs, in the media and at a protest in Hong Lim Park not simply on questions of detail. At a deeper, more instinctual level, many registered their anger over the slew of changes in recent years and the prospect of still more to come.

My 2009 novel, City of Small Blessings, speaks to similar concerns. Physical and social change in the name of progress has unintentionally led many to feel a sense of loss about their place in their own city. There is, and has for a long time been, a search for the Singaporean identity and of the essence of what makes a Singaporean.

For some, the rallying call has become: “Singapore for Singaporeans”. If taken to an extreme, this carries an anti-foreigner sentiment. But the sentiment also more positively speaks to nationhood, much as popular National Day songs resonate with the refrains of “we are Singapore” and “this is home, truly”. The Hong Lim Park protest, notably, included the recitation of the National Pledge.


Questions about Singaporean culture and identity are returning.

For many decades, the search for and creation of a Singaporean identity was led by the Singapore Government. To the founding fathers, and especially the late Mr S Rajaratnam, our first Minister for Culture, the central tenet was nation-building. This was recognised as a social construction that was necessary to accompany hard infrastructure and public housing.

In the early ’90s, as second-generation leaders assumed the reins and promised a “Next Lap”, a then young Acting Minister for the Arts, George Yeo, ratcheted up ambitions and spending.

The building of The Esplanade and new museums and the creation of the National Arts Council paved the way for many more arts groups and practitioners. Government led nation-building, but with more sophistry and participation.

Looking back, especially over the first decades, some efforts now seem naive, clumsy and top-down. But with time, the idea of Singaporean-ness has taken root in society. This has changed the debate.


At the start, many had questioned if a truly distinct national identity could develop. Today however, the debate is reversed: The concern is that the Singaporean identity is being lost.

In the past, national identity was part of the effort to rally the people. In the protests over the Population White Paper, however, a Singaporean identity is asserted in opposition to government plans.

There is a broad appeal in the idea of Singaporean-ness. Even so, we have yet to clearly identify the cluster of values, ideas and habits that constitute the Singaporean culture and identity.

Broader questions of culture are returning, but differently from the case in past decades. The current mood will engender debate not only in controlled intellectual dialogues but also in the popular culture.

This discussion, moreover, will follow new processes that will not always give the Government full control over the outcomes, in the emerging contest over culture.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. His novel City of Small Blessings won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010. This is the first of a two-part comment. (Part two; The coming culture contest).

The coming culture contest

Signs are that questions of culture are returning to Singapore, albeit differently.

The Government is continuing and growing programmes for the arts, sports and heritage, and each of their intrinsic worth must be recognised. But these are also important components of a larger picture about what makes us Singaporean.

During the recent Budget debate, this was recognised by Mr Lawrence Wong, the Acting Minister for the recently-formed Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. He said: “As a people, we are searching for deeper meaning … We want Singapore to be more than just a vibrant city; we want Singapore to be a home.”

Can our efforts at the arts, heritage, sports and other activities take on that broader mission? How? What are the dangers?


Take an experience like visiting a museum or watching a popular movie like Jack Neo’s Ah Boys to Men. There can be a moving response, intrinsic to the art or movie.

But there is also a broader social element involved when the viewer learns to situate the art piece or the story in the context of Singapore’s history.

And, if we see the museum as part of the public space or admire Mr Neo’s movie-making, there is also a sense of civic and national pride.

These different elements about art — intrinsic, social and civic — should be equally recognised. Otherwise, there is the danger that art might become precious, captured by an elite few. Or, if the social and instrumental values of art are over-emphasised, artists and professionals will feel alienated and we lose sight of the art.

Yet, if these elements can be balanced and combined, a more robust foundation can be developed. It will be critical for the Government to seek that balance and synergy, if art and other programmes are to be framed in the wider context of culture.


In returning to questions of culture, the Government must adjust to changes. In this arena, more than any others, it must acknowledge that it has no monopoly over the answers.

Today’s Singapore, as our 50th anniversary approaches, is considerably different from that of the founding generation.

People are more educated, and a cadre of practitioners and sophisticated consumers for the arts and culture has developed. Top-down policies and propaganda will be resisted.

Artifice will be recognised and rejected. Take, for instance, the orchid batik shirt that was once seen at many official ceremonies but which never won broader acceptance and now seems to have disappeared.

What is welcomed is the Government’s recognition that the effort to shape culture must be made not just by the State but, in Mr Wong’s words, as a “whole-of-society partnership”.

And just as the Government cannot provide the solutions, artists and citizens too must concede that they also have not generated a broad and clear agreement about what makes up our national identity.

There is popular culture pastiche like Phua Chu Kang; nostalgia for the Kallang Roar; and many might emphasise local food, family and friends.

But while these may be parts of the answer, Singaporean-ness as a whole needs further consideration.


In this, the conversation about culture must be more than a singular feedback loop between Government and the governed. Society is not singular but diverse, differentiated and assertive.

The liberals in the arts and culture community have to reckon with the viewpoints of more conservative citizen groups, and vice versa.

Take, for example, the debate on the decriminalisation of sex between gays. The strongest expressions of opinions — both for and against — emerge not from the Government, but between different social groups.

In these and other examples, even as we proceed to look at Singaporean culture, we need to be mindful of the danger that “cultural wars” might emerge. I do not mean debates and differences, which must be accepted and even facilitated. But I would be concerned where starkly different opinions clash without basic empathy or even respect between fellow citizens and residents.

This can affect how we relate to one another, with the result that the questioning and search for a Singaporean culture might quite unintentionally lead to schisms.

Singapore has a history of tolerance of differences and diversity, and this will need to be reinforced as we move forward.


A third key dimension in this debate is how Singaporean identity sits with the non-Singaporean.

The process of distilling Singaporean-ness will almost inevitably define our identity and character in relation and comparison to others outside. Yet, we should hope that the debate will not be xenophobic and anti-foreigner.

Singapore as a whole has been an open society and our communities in arts, sports and heritage are among the sectors most open to outside influence. Many non-Singaporeans have committed themselves to this place and made significant contributions.

For example, the recent passing of veteran actress-director Christina Sergeant allows us to acknowledge how much a non-Singaporean has contributed to the growth of the theatre scene here.

The discussion of Singaporean culture and identity in this regard must proceed within the context of two further identity debates.

One is about Asian-ness. The rise of Asia brings more hope and pride in being a hub in the region. Yet, Singaporeans can sometimes be scathing about other Asians, whether those who take on the jobs we do not want to do or those who drive expensive Ferraris.


The second and associated framework is about Singapore as a global city.

The question of Singaporean-ness must resist the notion that a global city has to be homogenised, with interchangeable buildings and landscapes.

We would do better to instead seek out authenticity, so that there is a special essential character — make ours a unique city, both Singaporean and global, and not one or the other.

In connection to Singapore as a global city in Asia, we would do well to discuss the commensurate responsibilities that Singaporeans may have to the rest of Asia and also as global citizens.

Culture, nation-building and the Singaporean identity will not be easy topics to carry forward.

Yet, they must be re-emphasised if Singapore is to be a global hub and open society and have the essence and essentials to be a home.

The Government has called for a Singaporean core; a discussion should evolve to also consider what makes us Singaporean at our core.

No comments:

Post a Comment