IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Will Singapore's collective spirit prevail?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 9, 2013

WHEN August comes around each year and the national flag adorns Housing Board apartments and major buildings, one's thoughts turn to Aug9, 1965.

Singaporeans who lived through that period will recall what they were doing when they heard the announcement of the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. It was totally unexpected and everyone - outside a small circle within the Malaysian and Singapore governments - was taken by surprise. The afternoon announcement was carried live on radio and television and was followed by a televised press conference by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose choking sobs revealed his anguish.

Moment of trauma

WE ARE now jaded by 24-hour news channels. But in 1965, the anguish and trauma of the moment was instantly conveyed to homes throughout Singapore.

I was studying for my A levels and living in Telok Kurau. Soon after the announcement, there was far less traffic than usual on the road which was clearly visible from my home. People went home and gathered around their radio sets and, for the more fortunate ones, their TV sets as black-and- white television had only been introduced to Singapore in 1963.

I learnt later from our neighbours that they had hurried to the nearest provision shop. Panic buying occurred as families rushed to stock up on essential goods like rice, tinned provisions, sugar and coffee. They feared another outbreak of violence similar to the two race riots in 1964 that had pitted Malays against Chinese as a result of inflammatory appeals from political extremists.

Years later, I realised that my mother had kept a stockpile of essential rations in our home from the time of the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, in which Caucasians and Eurasians were targeted by Muslim mobs. As we grew our own fruit and reared our own poultry, we were more self-sufficient than most of us would be today.

Many homes did not have telephones and neighbours went across to inform those living near them in case they had not heard the news. People gathered in homes to discuss and ponder an uncertain future ahead.

Some saw it as a moment of celebration as occasional bursts of firecrackers were heard through the evening. Living in a mixed neighbourhood and with a brother who taught at a secondary school in Kaki Bukit that had a majority of Malay students, I quickly became aware of the trepidation of Malay friends and neighbours.

You knew your neighbours

WHAT was striking was that at the local level, there was a sense of community and of shared interests. You knew your neighbours and interacted frequently with them. No one worried when a child went down the sandy potholed lane to play with a friend.

At a broader level, in the months following independence, the mood of national vulnerability created a willingness to forego immediate gains and to forge a new state from the disparate elements of a colonial Singapore. Some left the new country as they feared an uncertain future, but the many who stayed saw this as home and sought to build their future here.

Fast-forward to today, 48 years later. Such kampungs have been replaced by condominiums and HDB estates. The sense of social solidarity has diminished. We are less likely to know and interact with our neighbours, especially if we live in condominiums and posh bungalows. As common corridors are replaced by direct access lifts in new-generation apartments, interaction will decline.

But housing arrangements are not the only reason for this change. The pace of life today, the pressures of school work, the prevalence of dual-career families and smaller family units have led to an increasing focus on the individual. We may mix more with other people in Singapore but we tend to do so with those who share a similar education, jobs and social status.

Rising domestic inequality creates fissures that will pose a major policy challenge. Although Singapore is increasingly middle-class, attention is being focused on the gains made by those who have benefited most, not on the rising living standards enjoyed by nearly everyone.

Shaping expectations

IRONICALLY, this is happening at a time when there is greater convergence with demands and concerns elsewhere - as increased mobility, better education and access to the Internet create an instant awareness of global trends. Governments will have to deal with rising aspirations and increased grievances as experiences are transmitted instantaneously.

Singaporeans are increasingly influenced by news of developments elsewhere, which shapes their expectations. Better education and greater confidence have led to a willingness to speak out, to articulate their demands.

The result is more individual empowerment even as social solidarity declines. Developments in Singapore mirror global trends. The rise of the middle class is the most significant global change in recent years. While there is greater scope for individual initiative, many societies will find it increasingly difficult to pull together to achieve common objectives.

Greater job mobility is accompanied by more insecurity as there is increased competition for jobs. The complaints by Singaporeans about foreigners taking over available jobs are mirrored by people in the United States, Europe and Australia.

On the other hand, Singaporeans are becoming more mobile. Young Singaporeans who have studied abroad are now more likely to seek employment overseas, especially if the jobs are located in economically vibrant regions like Silicon Valley, New York City or Shanghai. I have seen colleagues move to jobs in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, just as Singapore institutions are seeking to recruit internationally for globally competitive positions.

Building a Singapore core

AS WE become more globally oriented, the issue of maintaining a local identity will attract more attention. The challenge is to build a Singaporean core so that institutions which are being established will take a long-term view and reflect a Singapore identity.

This task is made more difficult as the information and communications technology revolution results in the individual becoming more empowered - a positive development in that it can lead to greater individual responsibility.

But the flip side is a process of self-selection. People read blogs they agree with, search for the like-minded and interact less with those physically present around them. Technology reinforces the decline of social solidarity at the local level even as it creates bonds across borders and distance.

For a country like Singapore, which is at the technological cutting edge and whose population is almost universally connected through the Internet and mobile telephony, it will be increasingly difficult for mass media, long-established religious institutions and universities to exert their traditional influence. Likewise, governments will find that individuals and private groups with shared interests will gain more autonomy and will pay less heed to the concerns of the state.

Although Western observers assume that this transformation will have a democratising effect, it could also lead to greater intolerance and a closing of minds as people only read and hear views they agree with. In China, for example, the ultra-nationalism of online reactions has been a constraint for the government in responding flexibly to developments in relations with the US and territorial disputes with Japan.

A cursory scan of chat groups in Singapore would reveal that they tend to gather those who share identical perspectives, drowning the reactions of dissenting views.

In the next decade, the continued rise of the middle class, divergent economic gains for different sectors and greater individual empowerment with technological change will result in a more fluid social and political landscape in Singapore.

Expect more ideological competition as traditional values are challenged by varied perspectives resulting from a widening of educational opportunities, international exposure and global connectivity.

The risk is that the collective community spirit of the nascent nation of the 1960s will be eroded by the soaring individual well-being of a cosmopolitan and maturing Singapore.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 9, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/