LIVING HISTORY

Soul searching times

In 1968, then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (below) talked about the "grave problem of identity". All new countries faced this problem when an era of stability comes to an end, he said. In Singapore's case, there were added complications.
In 1968, then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (below) talked about the "grave problem of identity". All new countries faced this problem when an era of stability comes to an end, he said. In Singapore's case, there were added complications.ST FILE PHOTO
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam

Tracing the birth and development of the Singapore identity

National identity is a lot like individual identity: It begins to take shape after birth and continues to form well into maturity.

Singapore's sudden, traumatic birth after separation from Malaysia in 1965, its youth and astounding success have combined to make the question of national identity an especially fascinating one.

The issue has been examined time and again in the pages of The Straits Times: by leader writers and letter writers; columnists and ministers; academicians and foreigners. And by way of interviews and polls, speeches and discussions or just layman comments.

In Singapore's early years, building a national consciousness was no intellectual exercise. It was imperative to the survival of the state. As a deliberate construct, it sometimes tended to be seen as aspirational or even artificial.

In Singapore's early years, building a national consciousness was no intellectual exercise. It was imperative to the survival of the state. As a deliberate construct, it sometimes tended to be seen as aspirational or even artificial.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first raised the "grave problem of identity" three years after Independence, observing in September 1968 that all new countries faced the problem when an era of stability came to an end.

In Singapore's case, there were added complications. In the first place, Singaporeans did not want to be Singaporean. "We wanted to be Malayans," said Mr Lee. "Then the idea was extended and we decided to be Malaysians. But 23 months of Malaysia - a traumatic experience for all the parties in Malaysia - ended rather abruptly with our being Singaporeans."

He also provided an "emotive definition" of a Singaporean: "A person who feels committed to upholding this society as it is - multiracial, tolerant, accommodating, forward-looking - and who is prepared to stake his life for the community."

The "idea of Singapore" as a separate entity took hold by 1970, when The Straits Times reported the findings by University of Singapore sociologists that showed nine in 10 citizens identified with the term "Singaporean" rather than Chinese, Malay, Indian or any one race. The study called it "a shining testimony to a strong feeling of national identity among Singaporeans". In the ensuing years, a few key words and concepts crystallised in describing national identity or its lack: pragmatism, passion, meritocracy, creativity, materialism, bilingualism and tolerance.

PRAGMATISM VERSUS PASSION

In 1979, physician and social advocate Nalla Tan noted in The Sunday Times that while Singapore had succeeded in forging a national identity to establish itself as a "self-respecting and reliable society", materialism and smugness had unfortunately emerged as offshoots. The lack of passion and its cousin, patriotism, also became a concern. But pragmatism, which is antithetical to passion, is one quality Singaporeans felt they had in ever-growing doses.

Mr Lee was close to tears at the 1989 National Day Rally when he spoke of Singaporeans emigrating, a problem compounded by falling birth rates. He urged Singaporeans to "have the conviction that Singapore is their country and their life... to build a country, you need passion".

In 1985, a columnist noted that pragmatism had both positive and negative overtones.

It signalled a realistic approach to life but it also reeked of crass materialism.

Still, he added, there were people willing to break the mould, and they had a "symbiotic relationship" with the pragmatic majority. The two types would "always be critical of each other".

SOUL SEARCHING TIMES continued...


1953

BETTER MACHINES

The purchase of a new rotary press enables The Straits Times to update its traditional short square format into a more modern layout, which has pages two inches longer and slightly wider lines of type. This new machine can print a million newspaper pages, or 40,000 24-page papers an hour. At top speed, it can produce almost 1,400 12-page papers per minute.

The Straits Times’ vision of becoming the national newspaper is stated as the tagline “Malaya’s National Paper” is incorporated into the masthead.

1955

THE GENERAL ELECTION

Labour Front leader David Marshall emerges as the winner of the 1955 general election, though The Straits Times, like the rest of the business community, supported the Progressive Party, which it views as most able to provide stability and economic balance in the lead-up to internal self-government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Soul searching times'. Print Edition | Subscribe