Home is where my heart is

Why does one love one’s country? In the end, it’s down to the intangibles

Typhoon Nangka was moving towards Japan's Shikoku island and my mother was worried.

Her sister, who is 82, lives alone in a house by the coast there.

My mother said she would call my aunt to find out how she was, but I said I didn't think that was a good idea. Imagine the phone ringing while a storm is raging, I said. It might frighten her.

I sometimes wonder what my mother's life would have been like if she hadn't met my father and come to Singapore.

By extension, I wonder what it would have been like if I had been born a Japanese.

I suppose the lives of my Japanese cousins are an indication of how I would have turned out.


One is a lecturer at a college in Tokyo, where my mother was born and grew up in. His sister is a housewife in Saitama, on the outskirts of Tokyo, where their late father - my mother's brother - had a small Daihatsu distributorship. Two other cousins are salarymen in Tokyo.

Chances are, I would have become a housewife in Saitama, too.

On the other side of my gene pool are my Chinese relatives.

My paternal grandparents were from southern China. If they had remained there instead of crossing the seas to Singapore, my father would have born there - and so would I.

Again, my cousins are a good gauge of what my life would have been like.

Last year, some of my Singapore relatives made a trip to Chaozhou to visit the ancestral home. As one of my Singapore cousins puts it: "It's quite sad... I think our relatives haven't done too well for themselves."

One cousin is a farmer while his brother is a butcher. The farmer's wife works in a production line in a factory a long bus-ride away. It is a tough life and money is scarce.

The family home is in a rural village. It is in a shambles, shared by the many descendants of my great-grandfather's seven sons. There is no toilet in the house and they use a public loo in the village square.

My cousin the farmer borrowed money to build a house with more modern amenities not too far away. His daughter is doing better. She went to university and speaks some English.

I suppose if I had been born in China, I would be a factory worker like my cousin's wife.

In terms of education and material comforts, my Singapore cousins have done well. Almost all went to university, many are professionals, and they hold good jobs. Life has not been difficult and the future for their children looks bright.

Would we in Singapore be what we are if we hadn't been born here, I wonder. How much was Singapore a factor in our "success" compared to our cousins in China?

If my farmer cousin and his butcher brother had been born here, would their lives have been easier?

And am I better off here in Singapore than if I had been born in Japan?

I've never ever wished to live anywhere but Singapore. I've never felt the grass was greener elsewhere, and the longest I've been away from home was about a month, when I was on a study tour in the United States decades ago.

Of course Singapore isn't perfect, no country is.

The weather is horribly hot and humid. My Japanese and Chinese cousins are way better off on this score, at least during their spring and autumn.

Unlike those two countries, tiny Singapore also doesn't have areas of outstanding natural beauty that people can be proud of. And being just 50 years old, this is a country that doesn't have much of a culture or even traditions to speak of.

There are social issues. The rich-poor divide is widening and the space for political discourse has always been limited.

There are other things to rant about - from overcrowded trains to the stressful school system to how there are too many foreigners - but despite all that, I thank my lucky stars I was born in Singapore.

It is safe, stable and secure, and everyone has opportunities to get a good education. The system works, is mostly meritocratic, and hard work is rewarded.

I also like how Singapore is a small pond. It is easier to do well because there are fewer people to compete with. My cousins in Japan and China have it much harder.

I look at my niece and nephew in the United States and H's daughter in Britain and think how much easier it would be for them to shine and stand out if they were living here. Where they are, they are just one in a sea of millions of children.

But while Singapore is a small pond, it is also a shimmery pond, respected around the world and with a reputation disproportionate to its size.

As Singaporeans, we have become blase about hearing how the country is an "economic miracle". We do not pay much heed to those international rankings that place us high on anything from low crime rate to ease of doing business.

But if I am honest, I always feel a prick of pride when I am travelling and some stranger gushes about the good things he has heard about Singapore. It is nice to come from a country that is admired.

Singapore's high standing has come about because its first generation of political leaders were very capable.

You might not have agreed with their policies or politics, but few would doubt their sincerity in wanting to improve the lives of Singaporeans, and by many measures the country in 2015 is vastly better than what it was at Independence in 1965.

In the end, though, it is hard to put a finger on why exactly I love my country - warts and all - and why I have no doubt my cousins in Japan and China love theirs, warts and all too.

Love for country is not dependent on how wealthy or how poor it is, or how many skyscrapers or shanty towns it has, or whether it has a rich culture or even a good government.

"We love our country, not because it is perfect in everything, but it manages to touch our heart despite all its imperfections in everything," said Turkish novelist Mehmet Murat ildan.

The reasons are, ultimately, intangible.

You love your country because you were born there, you grew up there, the people you love are there, and because the early memories that make you who you are as an adult were formed there.

You love your country because you know all too well its quirks, its vulnerabilities, its strengths and also its smells.

You love your country because it has given you your identity and your sense of self.

You love your country because it is the place you feel the most comfortable in .

You love your country because it is, simply, home.

I am a week early, but Happy 50th Birthday, Singapore.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'No place like home'. Print Edition | Subscribe