The real value of celebrating Singapore Day

Last Saturday saw over 3,500 Singaporeans and friends gather in San Francisco to enjoy a day of fun and festivities. Singapore Day 2016 was filled with reliving memories of years growing up in Singapore, getting updated on happenings back home and, of course, indulging in delights like barbecue stingray, kaya toast and other delectables, compliments of hawker teams that were flown in.

Since the first Singapore Day nine years ago, in New York City, this annual multimillion-dollar "love fest" has become a much-anticipated fixture on the Overseas Singaporean Unit's calendar. Despite the goodwill and camaraderie fostered overseas, the sentiments back in Singapore have been mixed, with questions raised over the associated expenses.

It may be crass to ask what the "return on investment" is, for what is, in essence, a party to bring a slice of Singapore to Singaporeans living overseas, but it is a legitimate question. Public monies are used and the Government should be prepared to justify the expenses.

Various online commentators have described Singapore Day as a "public-sector recruitment fair", while Dr Amy Khor takes a different perspective, remarking at the fifth edition in New York: "There's a value to helping our Singaporeans remember their roots so that if they ever go back, it's easier for them to adjust. You can't put a price on that." Dr Khor is Senior Minister of State, Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, and Ministry of Health.

It was with this context that I joined the queue of Singaporeans waiting, under a huge sign that said "Singapore Day: I heart Singapore", for the gates of Pier 70 to open. I was trying to understand the value of such a huge investment of public monies and what it meant to fellow Singaporeans all over the world.

Unsurprisingly, long queues immediately formed for the hawker foods and, in true Singapore efficiency, many grabbed food from the shortest queues and proceeded to line up again for other foods. Strangers in the lines, in between bites of nasi lemak and slurps of cheng tng, introduced themselves to one another, found common connections and exchanged contact details.


The crowd being entertained during this year's Singapore Day concert in San Francisco. But they saved their loudest cheers for Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as he conveyed the country's best wishes to her sons and daughters living abroad. PHOTO: OVERSEAS SINGAPOREAN UNIT

As I looked around, I saw families, two- and three-generation ones, coming together. Dutiful Singapore daughters were explaining to their American in-laws what carrot cake Singapore-style was and how it didn't actually contain any carrots. I saw long-lost acquaintances, connected only by Singaporean blood coursing through their veins, renewing friendships. I saw foreign friends, spouses and children meeting the larger Singapore community and learning about the rich heritage of Singapore.

A Singaporean doctoral student chatted with a new arrival in San Francisco and immediately offered advice on settling in. Another Singaporean, upon learning that a fellow citizen's Taiwanese wife had never eaten laksa before, promptly invited the couple to her home for home-cooked laksa. She had not met them before Singapore Day.

Loud cheers greeted local acts like the Sam Willows and characters from The Noose updating, with their comic verve, the latest happenings in Singapore. But the loudest cheers were reserved for Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as he conveyed the country's best wishes to her sons and daughters living abroad.

So is Singapore Day worth it? As a "public-sector recruitment fair" or an effort to prepare Singaporeans for an eventual homecoming, probably not and there would be many better ways to achieve these goals. But as a signal to our fellow Singaporeans living overseas, who not so long ago would have been derided as "quitters", the message of Singapore Day is priceless.

Member of Parliament Edwin Tong, who joined in the festivities, put it best on Facebook: "We should be very proud of the contributions which many Singaporeans make around the world, and Singapore Day is one way to keep abreast of and hear about their achievements, and also to keep in touch."

Of course, Singapore Day should be run as cost-efficiently as possible to deliver the best value, but let's put things in perspective. A financial return on Singapore Day, measured by the number of returnees, would be the wrong emphasis and, ironically, critics of Singapore Day may be the same ones who lament the Government's hard-nosed, numbers-driven approach to public policy.

Basking in the Californian sun, I was reminded "Not all that can be measured matters, and not all that matters can be measured". "One People, One Nation, One Singapore" - Singaporeans looking out for one another, anywhere and everywhere in the world - now that's worth paying for.


  • Jeremy Lim is a strategy consultant who travels frequently for work. He interacts with fellow Singaporeans wherever work brings him and constantly marvels at the instant connections belonging to "The Little Red Dot" brings.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2016, with the headline 'The real value of celebrating Singapore Day'. Print Edition | Subscribe