Tribolum.com Making Light of Things

The Search for Singapore's Semangat

It’s been a week since the government officially opened its doors for public feedback on population issues via population.sg, and I can’t even begin to describe how encouraging it has been to see how so many Singaporeans put in considerable effort and contributed many creative ideas and suggestions.

Many things could be made better: public transport, the availability of housing, flexibility in the workplace for better work-life balance, education…the list goes on. But I cannot help but sense a deeper need that we find hard to define, because we seem to have lost the vocabulary for these things when we pursued math and science at the cost of the arts and humanities so many years ago.

Truth be told, most Singaporeans would agree that we’re doing better than most other countries in the world. We enjoy a relatively reliable infrastructure, and I’m personally comforted by the recent push towards more green spaces.

I guess the question, when asked bluntly: why aren’t we happy?

If Maslow’s pyramid applies, it would appear we’ve maxed out on the eating, drinking, shelter layers, and are looking to fulfill the higher-order needs. There’s been a lot of talk about the Singapore identity, finding what it is, or preserving what we had. We’ve made huge sculptured chunks of the pledge and placed them in various parts of town, where people can hit a huge “Like” button to show their appreciation for the phrase. I often ride my skate-scooter to work, passing by a few of these and hitting the button whenever I can.

But it feels empty.

I’m looking for something greater, something more important than economics. I’m looking for something I can believe in - a Singapore I can believe in. It is more than her resilience to overcome financial recessions, or her shiny new coat of paint as she wows the world by hosting the F1. I’m looking for an articulated set of beliefs and values that would transcend the basic need for survival.

I don’t think we really have that yet.

When I was much younger, Singapore took an almost militant stand against gambling. I remember jumping on the bandwagon a little when people said Singapore was boring, and would be more vibrant if it opened up a little on this; and that the old man was just being an anal-retentive puritan who was out of touch with the times. But deep down I was proud that we stood up for something, and that LKY defended these beliefs in the face of criticism and the lure of monetary opportunity. I miss that feeling so much.

Just today, it was announced that Asia Pacific Breweries, the makers of Singapore’s own Tiger beer, would be sold to Dutch brewery Heineken. The reason given was that the economic incentive was too good to pass, and they were doing what was right by their shareholders.

I can empathise, especially when we live in an era where cashing out seems to be the end game plan for new corporations these days. Yahoo! should have sold while they were up, Facebook cashed out at the right time, and my beloved Digg is now touted as the cautionary tale of not selling out at the right time.

So I can understand the pressure on Hsien Yang to roll the company over for a good profit, and his explanation that they had their shareholders in mind. But I can’t help the general feeling of despair, that the shadow of Mammon — sheer, the unadulterated love of money — looms over everything we have. Tiger Beer was a brand we grew up with, and one of the few global brands that belonged to us; and it no longer belongs to Singapore. We have lost another part of ourselves.

Every now and then we are asked the question: what will you die for? The model answer, as everyone knows, is “family”. Without being as dramatic, I’d post the question, what would we fight for? More compassion for the poor, the handicapped, the underprivileged. An end to senseless discrimination, in its many shapes, forms and guises. For home.

Because home is more than a place family gathers. Home embodies a set of beliefs, protected from the harsh Darwinian forces of nature. I imagine my children running down sunny halls filled with Singaporean poetry and song. Dare we dream these things, or do we continue the push and pull of train timings and square footage of HDB flats?

As Gilbert wrote,

These are things I know I may never learn
to say. So we speak of smaller daily things,
and soon this brief connection will
unmake itself, and expire.

Disclosure: I work at the National Population and Talent Division, but the views I share here are my own…you know the drill.

Update: There have been quite a number of citizen-initiated efforts, especially since National Day is round the corner. Thought I’d try to capture the ones that I come across. If you found any notable ones not here, drop me an email at lucian@tribolum.com.

Stand Up For Our Singapore:

By the folks at RedSports:

A pretty awesome music video, composed by Galvin Sng, and performed by a great bunch of fellow Singaporeans:

FTW.sg, an aggregation of video clips of Singapore by Nick Pan

Love is Home, by mrbrown:

We are Singapore, by SteadiProductions: