Happy birthday to me and Singapore


It's your birthday today.

At 8.04pm on Aug 9, many years ago - after the helicopters drifted across the island bearing the Singapore flag, after the fireworks perforated the night sky, after thousands rose to pledge themselves as a country regardless of race, language and religion - a nurse slapped you on the rear and you began to squall.

You will not quite understand the significance of the date of your birth until you are in primary school and your parents lay a picnic mat on the rough, stubby grass outside the former National Stadium, now erased, and you will look up at the night sky, hands pressed tightly over your ears, and while you can barely stargaze in this brightly lit city-state, the inky darkness will become a magical explosion of light and colour.

Your friends tell you, enviously, that you will always get a holiday on your birthday - and fireworks.

This is all very exciting when you are young, until you find out that at least 14,000 people in Singapore share the same birthday as you, enough to fill up all of the Singapore Indoor Stadium and more, which is not quite so special after all.


As you grow up, you will start to feel conflicted about your country and how it thinks of itself as better than everyone else. You will learn what "exceptionalism" means and "privilege", and that the Merlion was designed for the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964 and accurately captures a Singaporean's confusion over his cultural identity. (Are we fish? Are we lion? Are we an invented myth?) You will think about all the Aug 9s that have come and gone pre-1965, sans National Day Parades and red-and-white flags flapping from every HDB parapet.

You will think about your mother, who grew up in the sleepy small town of Ipoh and made her way down to Singapore for her university education, eventually becoming a Singapore citizen. She still stands when she hears the strains of Negaraku, but will also leap to her feet when she hears Majulah Singapura in the National Day Parade live telecast - and sing every single word.

Because of this, you will snort with laughter to yourself when Hossan Leong says on his radio show in the morning, after it is announced that one in every three Singaporean residents is a foreigner, that when you go home and look at "your father, your mother, you - one of you is a foreigner!"

You will discover the writings of playwright-poet Alfian Sa'at, who wrote: "If you care too much about Singapore, first it'll break your spirit, and then it'll break your heart."

You will be frustrated at your fellow Singaporeans' political apathy, but also at your own complacency.

You will flinch when your husband, who is not Singaporean, tells you that you are actually very patriotic and ridiculously proud of Singapore, as much as you pretend to be a coolly distant sceptic.

The idea of SG50 will annoy and irritate you. You will nod vigorously when the Institute of Policy Studies publishes a paper by Eugene Teng, who writes: "In constructing the current national identity that we will be commemorating this August, there has been a disproportionate emphasis on the past 50 years, which is only 7 per cent of our entire historical timeline" - and that "what we omit matters as much as what we immortalise" of Singapore's history.

You will roll your eyes at the sight of "SG50" being carved into fishcakes at the supermarket or a plastic toy figurine of a Merlion riding in a pink-and-red four-wheel drive stamped with orchids (sold at Challenger for $28, just in case you were wondering). But you will also watch the film anthology, 7 Letters, a moving homage to Singapore, and laugh and sob at the films of Royston Tan and Kelvin Tong, among others.

You will hug your parents, who went to watch the films with you at the Capitol Theatre where, 30 years ago, your father used to watch the most popular films in town.

On the way home, in the crowded MRT, while pressed up against someone else's armpit and elbowed in the back, you will realise the truth, which is that being born on National Day doesn't make you any more or less "Singaporean", and that the celebration of a birthday is as much a marker of joy and success as it is a marker of mortality and what is fleeting.

You will do the "Singaporean" thing, which is to book a flight out of Singapore for the long Jubilee Weekend to celebrate a birthday that has never really been your own (even if your MP says you should stay in Singapore). But you will also tell your husband, "Can we please, please watch the live telecast of the National Day Parade online?" and he will laugh and say, of course.

Then you will feel strangely emotional. You will blow out the candles on your birthday cake and drink your wine and make a toast to this idiosyncratic, wonderful country that is your own and wish it a happy birthday. And mean it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Happy birthday to me and Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe