Two Singapores, one ideal

Two Olympians from two eras of Singapore’s history give us a fitting platform on which to reflect on 47 years of nation-building efforts.

In 1960, weightlifter Tan Howe Liang won Singapore’s first Olympic medal in an individual event, a record that was to stand for 52 years until it was matched by paddler Feng Tianwei this year in 2012.

Mr Tan picked up the sport at the Gay World Amusement Park in the 1950s when he was young, at a time when Singapore was still a Crown Colony. At the time he won his Olympic medal, Singapore was only self-governing: independence was still some years off.

Enter Ms Feng, 52 years on and 47 years into Singapore’s independence. She is 25 years old. Born in Heilongjiang, China, Ms Feng was talent-spotted in 2006, was brought over to play for Singapore in 2007, and was granted citizenship in 2008 just in time to don Singapore colours for the Olympics.

The furore over her win has made headlines on the internet, with polls showing that a large proportion of Singaporeans are saying they don’t feel proud of her victory. I personally find that a bit sad, and not a little unfair to Ms Feng.

But understanding the national psyche has little to do with any one individual. What are Singaporeans trying to verbalise when they say the table-tennis medalist isn’t “Singaporean enough”? What do they mean when they compare her unfavourably to our “local boy”, Mr Tan Howe Liang?

I think that, at heart, Ms Feng’s win makes Singaporeans feel deeply unsettled because she has come to represent much of what makes Singaporeans unhappy: an acquisitionist philosophy of buying up the best, and a foreign talent policy that has crowded out homegrown talent.

The Singapore That Was

Gay World Amusement Park, off Geylang and Mountbatten Road, was an amusement park opened in 1936. By the 1950s, when Mr Tan Howe Liang would have seen and been inspired by a weightlifting performance, the amusement park was a rollicking nightlife venue for courting couples, with cabaret performances, arcades, movies and cultural shows.

Singaporeans who take the drive up to Penang or Malacca in Malaysia often return to tell their friends that these two cities look to them the way Singapore would probably have been 40 years ago.

And they mean this in a nostalgic way, nothing derogatory about it. It’s nostalgia for a slower way of life, for cultural heritage treasured and preserved, and for a kampung spirit that has fallen by the wayside in Singapore’s breakneck sprint for development.

Mr Tan’s Olympic medal comes from an era in Singapore’s history that we’ve buried.

The Singapore That Is

It is present day.

Gay World is gone, bulldozed, as are numerous icons like the old red brick National Library on Stamford Road with which many Singaporeans grew up with.

The Singapore that witnessed Ms Feng’s Olympic bronze medal win is one with an annual per capita income of nearly S$74,000, where skyscrapers have replaced kampungs, and the kampung spirit has been replaced by the paper chase.

It’s a Singapore deeply unsettled by an influx of foreigners who haven’t had time to integrate with our norms, or in many cases, don’t need to because they’re really just passing through our city.

It’s a Singapore where winning an Olympic gold medal is remunerated with a sack of gold to the tune of S$1 million.

It’s a Singapore where just about anything can be bought.

The Singapore To Come

This brings us to the question of something that can’t be bought: National identity.

As we prepare to celebrate Singapore’s 47th birthday, what we hear on the airwaves are DJs and politicians trying to answer the question, “What makes us proud to be Singaporean?”

I always cringed a bit when I was a child and we were asked this question in class. The endlessly recycled answers (which, incidentally, I still hear on TV today) that were always less than enthusiastically trotted out, were inevitably, “great food”, “safe streets”, “rich country”, “multi-racial system”.

But all these are descriptions of the physical realities with which Singaporeans live. None of these paint a picture of the ideas or ideals that bind our people together.

If you asked an American what the USA stood for at home and abroad, they’d likely tell you that they associate their country with the values of freedom and democracy (of course, reality might beg to differ).

Singapore is still relatively young so we have time to figure out these “big picture” questions. But the anger unleashed towards our foreign-born Olympians is a reminder that identifying and defining those values is a pressing concern.

Samuel Johnson, an 18th century English writer, said that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”.

The thinking behind this is as follows: patriotism, the blind loyalty to one’s country that is often stoked by demagogues, is difficult to define and easily manipulated. It often takes the form of defining one’s identity in opposition to the “other”, what “we” are not, as opposed to positively defining the ideas for which “we” stand.

But what do we stand for as a country? This year’s National Day theme is “Loving Singapore, our Home”, but I suspect not many Singaporeans would be able to tell you what they love about Singapore. I mean, really, truly, love.

If I were asked to define the values that transcend the 52-year gap between Mr Tan Howe Liang and Ms Feng Tianwei’s Olympic medals, the Singapore that was and the Singapore that is, and what it is that will define and shape the Singapore to come, I would hazard it’s this:

That we are a country that values and rewards hard work and industry, that respects and embraces Singaporeans from all races, religions, and countries of origin.

And yes, that means Mr Tan How Liang, born in Shantou, and Ms Feng Tianwei, born in Heilongjiang.

Happy 47th Birthday, Singapore.

(Zheng Xi is a co-founder and former Chief Editor of The Online Citizen. He is now a Consultant Editor with The Online Citizen. Professionally, Zheng Xi is a lawyer in private practice.)

(The views and opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of and SingTel Digital Media Ptd Ltd.)

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