Who are we, Singapore?

img_0126-e1564059838352.jpgThe tall skyscrapers, city lights
The renowned airport, busy flights
Is it shopping centres opened till late
Or the heartlands of housing, neat and straight?
The white trains with red stripes,
The buses of different types
‘Please mind the platform gap’,
No food, no drinks but remember to tap
The suit and ties of Raffles City
The bustling night life of Clarke Quay
Is it the greenery lined along our streets
Or the readily available affordable treats?

It has been 2.5 years since I have left Singapore for Sydney. Each time I leave this fast-progressing city and the hustle of its crowd, I wonder how much of it I would still recognise when I next return to this sunny island. It is strange to be using GoogleMaps to navigate directions along streets I once knew like the back of my hand. It is awkward to be replied in proper English at a local food centre after stumbling to order in Mandarin. It is uncomfortable to be asked “Where are you from?” by a fellow Singaporean while making your way home in the neighbourhood.

Living away from Singapore, the conversations about the country only scratch the surface or at best, paint an incomplete picture of what it is like to be Singaporean. As a minority in a foreign country, I wear different hats after introducing myself as a Singaporean – sometimes as a tour guide and other times, a living artefact from a land people have only heard of or transited in. In response to genuine curiosity, I am often invited to share ‘what life is like in Singapore’.

As the years pass, I am more unconfident and unsure in representing a country I try hard to remember, but only manage to vaguely. I pause to consider the stories I tell about life in Singapore, I scrutinise the words I choose and increasingly, I struggle to describe ‘what life is like in Singapore’ because coming home each time, I stand from a greater distance to see the wide diversity of experiences and the spectrum of narratives that can be told about a person’s life in Singapore. Every time I return, the culture of this nation and its distinctive features only become more salient.

Two weeks from the nation’s 54th birthday, this is my question: who are we, Singapore?  

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We are trying hard to make a living
Working hard to do the right thing
Striving hard to get to the top
Praying hard to find a job
We are victims to the story we tell ourselves
of the ‘one way’ that life is meant to be –
The studies, the job, the marriage, the house
And the “you better find yourself the right spouse”.

Who are we, Singapore?

We are the neighbours who
Stare blankly in lifts or make small talk
The friends who
Gather after long days just for a walk.
We are thriving in the system or
Falling through the cracks
“Each person for yourself” but we are
“One people, one nation”.

Who are we, Singapore?

We are the uncles at coffee shops,
Raised voices and a beer each.
We are the businessmen in formal wear,
the migrant workers in fluorescent vests,
the mothers busy holding families together,
the children holding out under pressure,
the cleaners in corridors, the servers in restaurants,
the domestic workers raising children that are not our own.

Who are we, Singapore?
We are so many and we are one.

Time passes like water running through our fingers, there is a tangible sense of its flow but any attempt to grasp at it would prove futile. I recall the last days before leaving to Sydney for the first time, my heart’s desire was to remember Singapore for what it was. Many times now, I have returned to a city I only recognise the silhouette of and undoubtedly, the Singapore we see today is changing still. The Singapore we study in today will be a different one we work in the marketplace of or the one we raise our children in. And many times over as we walk through our lives, we may have a different answer each time we look around ourselves and ask, who are we, Singapore?

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Stand Still

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There is something incredible about the public transport. It creates an illusion. As if time comes to a standstill, we are seated or leaning, resting or thinking; for once, we are moving in sync. No more shuffling past at different paces, for once, we are in agreement about speed. No one too fast nor too slow. Everyone, just right. Rid of the frustration from slow-paced sauntering strangers, gone are the days of shoulder brushing that cause discomfort. We slow down, others speed up so that now we move as one. There is a tinge of comfort from the knowledge that we can arrive at this consensus, albeit the compulsion by machinery (similar to the elevators we are familiar with). Stand still, I tell myself, and enjoy the standstill. 

October has been no less than hectic, in managing the hustle that persists with Strong Mind Fit Body and embracing the responsibilities in creating the Dreamcatcher experience. Exactly one year from the time ‘A’ Levels was the only reality I had and anxiety peppered my everyday, it is in the hopes of documenting the learning and reflection from recent weeks that this piece is written:

To Those Who Are Not Me

Compassion and empathy are values I deeply hope to practice and hone continuously, for the simple reason that it is with these conditions that genuine human connection thrives. The adventures of this break has seen me return to learning spaces – at the India’s Daughter Film Screening by Rebelhouse Asia, we revisited the violence against women that we are familiar with. The atrocity of the act that one human being can commit unto another was the reason for frustration, anger and almost contempt that surfaced in the theatre. Then, in Dukale’s Dream Film Screening by World Vision couple of months back, the crowd basked in overwhelming inspiration at the big heart that one man has for those around him.

The stark contrast amplifies the spectrum of the humankind. It reaffirms the necessity for learning and immersion that cultivate compassion and empathy in ourselves. Today, it reminds me of my earlier efforts in Room to Read Global Organisation – with every dollar I raised, I had hoped for it to be a reminder of our privilege and then the realization that our normal is barely the only one there is. Everyone is fighting their own battle.

For the Places I Call Home

I learned, recently, that there is a difference between a ‘space’ and a ‘place’. The former, just a blank canvas of land with little meaning and memory; the latter, an amalgamation of purpose and interaction. At Strong Mind Fit Body, we turn spaces into places. The constant transformation we do in our work finds me acutely aware of the other ‘spaces-turned-places’ I hold dear to me in Singapore. These places I know I will miss dearly in my departure to Australia – the Delfi Orchard Starbucks that holds memories of reflection and hard work, my alma mater that holds lessons of being, the Junior College that holds stories of infatuation, discipline and friendship. Every place with a story.

Immersing in local publication Mynah (my most recent read), though, I am reminded to be careful with the stories we tell ourselves. In the publication, readers are warned against “prescriptive storytelling” – the type of narrative to assure oneself of the perfection of our state, the kind that presents ourselves as “completed products” rid of fractures and flaws. With this timely reminder, an oscillating narrative emerges about how this one year has been for me since the graduation from Junior College. The story that mentions the hustle – the part where we are face down in the arena, marred in blood, sweat and tears.

Looking Forward, Always

Returning to the National Young Leaders’ Day event by Halogen Foundation Singapore is now an annual affair that keeps me grounded. The return is one that feels like home, bringing back memories of where the lessons of influence crystallized. This year, the 10,000 Ideas Campaign was shared: youths from Australia present their ideas in the form of completing 3 incomplete sentences: “I have always wondered why…”, “Then I realised…” and “So one little thing I’ll do is…” The thoughts relateable, issues prevalent and ideas insightful; I am once more assured that our future is in good hands.

The Singapore edition presents itself in the form of: “I have always wondered why…”, “Imagine if…” and “So one little thing I’ll do is…” As for me, I have always wondered why we talk about emotions so rarely when they are so important to us. Imagine if we all chose vulnerability together, so one little thing I’ll do is to be authentic in my everyday life. Looking forward, always.

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Perhaps, It’s…

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Find out more about what we’ve been up to at Strong Mind Fit Body

I wonder what keeps him going: the man in the yellow helmet and fluorescent outer wear. Brown boots, expressionless and his hands in orange gloves, I wonder what he’s thinking as he drags the bulky orange barricade that lines the road across the bumpy terrain of grass and lugs it onto the pavement. He uses his entire body weight to do that; when he turns, he pivots on one foot skillfully. It is drizzling and the view beyond the window that encloses this safe space is blurred. This morning, with the taste of hot chocolate in my mouth and the bus’s air-conditioning at just the right temperature, I am curious about the stories of those I see around me. So, I wonder.

Purple polo T-shirt and khaki pants, this man looks curious as I am. Curious, and firm; he slouches over seated at the bus stop, with one hand supported by his umbrella standing before him. His makeshift hand-rest is at odds with the sunglasses resting over his cap. He was prepared for rain and shine, clearly. I wonder what he thinks as he remains seated, looking more carefully at the people boarding or alighting the buses that arrive than at the bus numbers. I wonder if he’s going to be at it all day.

Ladies with their long hair tied into a high bun always carry with them a sense of elegance in their footsteps, especially when they are in stilettos like hers. There is something about her V-neck, knee-length black dress that suggests she has an office. One with a one-way glass door and a 2-metre long desk, two chairs opposite her for people who come in for a review (by her) and a sofa nearby, that she sits on with important clients she’d like to have feel comfortable in her office. Most of her time, though, spent at her table that is marble, probably. She possibly has more people working under her supervision than I can count with my fingers and toes. I wonder what brings her out of bed and into that office every day.

There is a pregnant lady, her hair a mix of brown and blonde. Seated at this bus stop right outside Holland Village, she is texting without looking up to watch the buses come and go. Not once. I wonder if she’s heading somewhere at all. There is a blue lanyard around her neck, the only other thing she brought out of her house. My work at the Early Childhood Development Agency finds me more empathetic than before towards pregnant mothers – the physical changes they go through and the societal expectation that they continue to do things as they would in spite of the immense discomfort they sometimes experience. I wonder if this is her first child, and if she has named him/her. I imagine that the first and last thought of her every day goes something like My dear, I can’t wait to show you the world as she rubs her tummy.

He is looking at something – facing down into the condominium swimming pool, with a stick of sorts in his hand. In a light blue uniform and casual black pants, I wonder if this is what he does at 845AM every morning. He is definitely looking at something in the pool. A stain he is trying to scrub off the floor of the pool? A bracelet the last person who was swimming in the pool left behind by mistake? Or maybe he is gazing into the blue of the pool, thinking about the people that really keeps him going. His family, maybe? A girlfriend? Actually, maybe, what he is really looking at is at the future that he dreams of for his loved ones, for whom he wakes up every morning to commit to his duties at this pool.

This part of Orchard Road, slightly busier, has a mix of working professionals, retail staff and early birds of the tourists. The rain has stopped, as if finally allowing the day to begin for us all. I am occasionally brimming with curiosity, as I am today, about the thoughts and motivations that we find to do the things that we normally do in our every day. I appreciate that I have some sense of purpose that countable others yearn but cannot seem to find; I wonder what keeps us all going, I do. Perhaps, the day–to-day tasks that keep us excited. Or perhaps, the sense of love and belonging that we derive from connection to others.

Perhaps, it’s hope, where hope is not an emotion but a way of thinking. In my learning from Brene Brown, hope is a cognitive process where emotions play a supporting role. This morning, I am thinking that perhaps, it is hope, the way we make sense of our present by linearly predicting the possible future that lies ahead, that keeps us going the way we do. How timely that this morning I am heading to the Scape Ground Theatre for a Singapore Youth Conference, discussing the future of Singapore. Where shall we find hope for the years that lie ahead?

Home, Truly

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This morning, donned in our Lift Stronger, Live Longer T-shirts, my siblings and I represented Strong Mind Fit Body at the Jurong Spring CC National Day Celebrations. To see throngs of people dressed in red and many others waving their Singapore flags in one hand, holding onto their children in the other, I was reminded of why I love this country. Timely, given the National Day Celebrations, this piece is in memory of Singapore’s 51st birthday:

Most thankful: For safety and security

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I strongly believe that we find value in the present not only with our memory of the past but also because of the potential that the present holds for the future. We treasure today not only for its connection with yesterday, but even more for the tomorrow that it makes possible. We are in an age of even more opportunities than ever before, even more possibilities – the trend of start-ups and of social enterprises, the increasing interest in volunteerism and the message we sell of “pursuing passion”; all of which, are about dreams becoming reality.

This deeply empowering possibility for many of us come as a privilege thanks to the backdrop of security. Granted, there is an overwhelming invasion of new threats that know little boundaries (think computer science developments allowing hacking or the latent weapon in ideology). Let’s be careful, though, not to crowd out appreciation for the safety that we otherwise enjoy from our day-to-day lives regardless of socio-economic backgrounds (which is rare elsewhere in the world).

Personal freedom, thanks to some extent of assured security and safety, frees us from the less important decisions like what you can wear, what time you can stay out till on the streets, how to get home late in the night and which parts of Singapore you’d feel comfortable in. The time we save from making these menial decisions, then, can be spent on these more empowering considerations like “what kind of difference do I want to make?” and “where do I see myself in ten years?”

Most concerned: For harmonious diversity

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Visits to the National Museum of Singapore have etched our illustrious history (in spite of being a young nation) dating back to the 18th century, in my mind. With the power of context, I am even more appreciative of the diversity and identity that we build on in present day. Consider the friction that comes in everyday interaction with people we consider ‘different’ and multiply that many times as you play out Singapore’s stories of natives coming together to build the Majulah Singpura mantra that we believe in today.

This afternoon, I watched the film The Provision Shop by Royston Tan. Set against the backdrop of an old provision shop, the show explores social interactions and relationships in our local community through a microcosm. It unpacks the tensions that are arising in Singapore as a result of increasing diversity – with the influx of foreign workers and international students. It reminds me of my understanding earlier that our choice to anger against these people, who ultimately came to Singapore for purposes in their lives not so different from our own, is because it is always easier to vent frustration to a human face (the tangible results) rather than an intangible policy. It is simpler to cumulate group-hate for a character that is symbolic of a threat rather than critically analyse the words in the policy paper that has opened up these possibilities.

I had earlier written about race in Singapore and our pioneer’s hopes for the crux of the Singapore spirit to lie in maintaining harmony regardless of differences. These principles of harmonious diversity and embracing differences can be applied to all if we learn to see one another simply, as human beings. It is silly to make individuals’ lives worse off when they are but innocent responders to opportunity. The domestic workers who are increasingly the guardians of our old or the labourers who work under the Singapore heat for the buildings that become our offices; the expatriates developing companies that bring in incredible revenue for our economic development and the international students bringing diversity to the classroom that we so often complain about the lack of (diversity)– are they not as much a part of the Singapore Story as we are?

We say it in the pledge (“Regardless of race, religion and language”) and we sing it in our favourite National Day songs (“There is comfort in the knowledge, that home about its people too.”); but where is the consistency if we have yet to learn to regard all who are found on this land family and to make them feel as at home as possible.

Amidst the celebrations in this time, perhaps it’s time we ask – “What kind of Singapore might we want to be?”

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This month, I am counting my blessings in this very space – thankful for the people, the place and the spirit of this nation. I have so much optimism for what lies ahead and hope in the people of this place. This is home, truly.

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