William Wan, For The Straits Times

Pink IC and red passport not enough to make you Singaporean

 -- ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
 -- ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Take a leaf from the book of Aleksandar Duric, the Yugoslav-born footballer who came to Singapore at 29 and became a Singaporean at 37. Focus on the common things that bind Singaporeans, not the differences that separate us.

The transition to a new year is traditionally a season for celebration and reflection. It is also a time to look forward to a fresh start: a time for making, whether seriously or frivolously, resolutions for the new year.

For Singaporeans, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of our young nation, a rather significant occasion, given our short history and impressive progress. Our Little Red Dot has consistently punched above its weight in education, in economics, in diplomacy and, lately, even in spectacular skylines and bayfronts.

This has got me thinking about what it means to be Singaporean. All these accomplishments and trophies certainly fill me with pride. They say something about Singapore the country, but do they define me as a Singaporean?

What makes us Singaporean isn't a simple question. Is it simply a matter of being born and raised on this equatorial island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula? Is it enough to be in possession of a pink plastic identification card and a red passport?

That, I fear, might be oversimplifying it without getting to the heart of the matter.

A mere 50 years ago, Singapore didn't even exist as an independent state. We were Malaysian then and, before that, subjects of the British Crown. Before the more recent waves of immigrants, fewer than half of us could claim that our parents were born here.

Fact is, almost all our forefathers were immigrants who arrived here by the boatload - from Malaya and Indonesia, from China or India or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), or from even farther away than that, beyond the boundaries of the Asian subcontinent.

Food, glorious food

PERHAPS what defines us as Singaporean is our "uniquely Singaporean" Singlish, our commonly held obsessions with hard work and kiasuism, or our shared pleasures in food and a good sale?

There are very few things that can reliably get a Singaporean more worked up than propositions that chilli crab, bak kut teh or chicken rice aren't Singaporean.

Just a few years back, some quarters in Malaysia laid claim to these culinary inventions, and it sparked a mini-crisis and possibly nearly threatened relations, if not diplomatically, then at least among family relations and friends across the Causeway.

But, regardless of who "owns" the original idea behind these dishes, our food history has been one of continual innovation and assimilation.

If we stop to think about it, no dish is truly Singapore-Singaporean. Even our favourite chicken rice recalls the Hainanese immigrants who brought the method of cooking with them from across the South China Sea.

Perhaps the Orchard Road Christmas light-up enjoyed by many Singaporeans contributes to our national identity. But that Singaporean tradition was conceived in 1984 by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.

The Singaporean identity is all of these things and none of them.

We are a veritable rojak of diverse immigrants, with imported ideas and borrowed culture.

The question is, have we morphed into a singular Singaporean identity? I'm not sure if we have, yet.

One of my colleagues, a first-generation Singaporean who has lived here for more than 30 years now, regularly goes on trips overseas.

On these engagements, some cultural sharing or event usually happens. When he and the other Singaporeans are called upon to prepare and serve some of our local food, they confidently get down to business.

But if asked to make a cultural presentation, they are often stumped and ask themselves: "What actually is our culture?"

Medley of home

THE default solution, almost inevitably, is to present the usual medley of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil songs that we sing in school on Racial Harmony Day and at the National Day Parade celebrations.

Yet, as colourful and loved as these ethnic-origin songs and dances are, even mashing them together doesn't quite define a Singapore identity.

Indeed, many young Singaporeans identify more with singing Kit Chan's 1998 National Day song Home than our culturally diverse mother-tongue favourites like Chan Mali Chan, Di Tanjong Katong and Munnaeru Vaalibaa.

Home would be sung with obvious emotion, often with the words memorised by heart, instead of struggling through hurriedly Googled lyrics.

Identity is an important part of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the rest of the world.

It helps define who we are and where we belong. The quest for identity can fuel tension within and between communities.

So "real" or native-born Singaporeans may claim to protect the values we associate with Singapore against "dilution" from "new" or naturalised Singaporeans.

This is understandable, but the sentiment can be better channelled into looking at how to integrate the energy and values of the "new" Singaporeans.

Our ancestors, and some of us, were also once "new" Singaporeans.

In our quest for a national identity, it is good to be reminded of several truths.

The first is that there are limits to building a national identity based on different cultures.

This is because cultural identity can be a source of division, focused as it is on the differences between communities, including race, practices, food and socio-economic status.

As citizens of a multicultural nation that prides itself on being a just and equal society, regardless of race, language or religion, Singaporeans have to find a delicate balance.

We want to foster an identity that is embedded in our ethnic cultures, yet not over-emphasise differences that inherently exist among the different communities.

The second factor underpinning identity is the reality that change is a constant.

In a fast-paced society like Singapore, with constant changes in the physical and social make-up, we have to strike a balance between being anchored to values we hold dear and embracing change.

Our present and future will quickly become our past, and become part of our Singapore story, just like Hainanese chicken rice and songs by Dick Lee.

Identity is a necessary and powerful idea. A sense of belonging is part of what we need to make us human. Yet the search for identity is seldom linear. It will often be messy and sometimes confused.

We just need to find a way to make being Singaporean work for us, given the uniquely Singaporean conundrums we face as a cosmopolitan city state and nation, 50 years young.

When footballer Aleksandar Duric called himself a "son of the Lion City" in an interview a few months ago, we didn't object.

Indeed, Singapore's football fans seem to love him more than many home-grown players.

Duric was 29 when he arrived in Singapore, and he didn't receive citizenship until eight years later, in 2007.

He wasn't born here but in the former Yugoslavia. He hasn't even lived most of his life here.

It must be more than trivia that write-ups about him note that he loves roti prata and chicken rice.

It is not entirely ironic that it takes a foreign-born citizen like Duric to demonstrate what it really means to be a Singaporean.

Our immigrant forefathers probably didn't struggle with identity the way we do now.

They saw, like Duric does, that the only thing that matters, the only thing that should matter, is that one makes the decision to be Singaporean, to call this island home, and to contribute to making it our best and only home.

It is the decision to identify with Singapore and not just the possession of the identity card that makes us Singaporean.

Looking forward, I find myself making one resolution - to "do it like Duric" and focus less on what makes others different and more on what makes us all Singaporean.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement