Born in Malaysia, nurtured by S'pore

Proud of Singapore and proud to be Singaporean are (from left) Mr Krishnan Thulan and his wife Madam Thanakeswari, their daughter Madam Chitra Devi with baby Dinesh and her husband Mr Gunasegar.
Proud of Singapore and proud to be Singaporean are (from left) Mr Krishnan Thulan and his wife Madam Thanakeswari, their daughter Madam Chitra Devi with baby Dinesh and her husband Mr Gunasegar.

Dinesh Kumaran was yawning and giving his body a good stretch when the voice of Lee Kuan Yew came on over the loudspeakers at a big tent in Teck Ghee yesterday morning.

But nothing was going to rouse the two-month-old infant - decked out in a special SG50 red and white bodysuit, with matching cap and mittens - from his beauty sleep, not even the founding father reading the  Proclamation of Singapore.

His parents and grandparents, however, stood rapt at the National Day observance ceremony in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3.

The words were especially poignant for his grandfather Krishnan Thulan, 76, who was a young mechanical engineer when Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. "We were all a bit scared but I told myself we all got to work behind Lee Kuan Yew," said Mr Krishnan, who was born in Malacca but came to Singapore with his family as a kid.

He is proud of how the country has come through.

It is a question I am asked time and again not just by friends here but across the Causeway too. To be honest, I do not know.

"We are grown up now. We just need to nurture the seeds we have sown. We must do it and we will do it," he said quietly.

His daughter Chitra Devi, a 43-year-old teacher, agreed.

"That we are what we are today shows how good our government is. Our country is recognised for its living standards. I'm really proud to be a Singaporean," she said.

"I am proud to be a Singaporean" was a refrain I was to hear throughout the day.

I feel proud, too, and I'm not even Singaporean. But my emotional roots in this country are very deep.

I guess Serendipity engineered my arrival here in 1981 when I was 18. Having just completed the Malaysian equivalent of the A levels, my friend and I were walking past the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur one day when he suggested going in to get application forms for the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I hesitated. Studying in Singapore had never crossed my mind because my family would not have been able to afford it. Moreover, I did not think my results would be good enough.

The forms, if memory serves me right, cost $20 which I did not have. But my friend waved away my protests and said he would lend me the money.

The irony was, I got into NUS; he did not. There was also another offer from a Malaysian university to study Malay Literature and History, subjects I did not apply for and was not keen on.

Since I was the first member of my clan to go to university and to one ranked better than any in my country, my relatives were more than happy to chip in.

Singapore nurtured me in more ways than one. Unlike in Malaysia, I competed under a meritocratic system where my ethnicity was not an issue when it came to educational or professional opportunities. I had a stab at different professions - teaching and corporate communications - but found my niche in journalism.

Perhaps I am lucky but I love what I do for a living and earn a decent wage doing it, enough to get myself a pad and a trip or a good meal when I feel like it.

I also found mentors who nurtured me, allies who opened doors to new possibilities and friends I love and care for deeply.

All said, I am who I am because of Singapore. So why have I not traded in my passport?

It is a question I am asked time and again not just by friends here but across the Causeway too.

To be honest, I do not know.

It probably has to do with emotional ties.

Living away from home and loved ones has its perks. You are free to come and go, and you have respite from petty family squabbles.

But freedom comes with a price. You feel bad missing out on birthdays and other happy occasions, and even worse for not being there when loved ones grow old and frail.

It is irrational but, for a long time, part of me believed that giving up my passport was akin to giving up on the people and things I love about Malaysia. But a mentor told me not too long ago: "Changing your passport doesn't mean changing your heart."

When I told my mother, who died last year, what he said, she replied: "He's right."

Recent events about governance and racial tensions back home have made me revisit all these emotional territories. Yesterday morning, I wished I had Madam Chitra's certainty when I asked her what she thought Singapore would be when baby Dinesh turns 50.

"Of course, he will have a stable country to live in and a bright future. There is no question about it, it will happen."

All said, I am who I am because of Singapore.

So why have I not traded in my passport?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'Born in Malaysia, nurtured by S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe