City of a thousand histories; island of a thousand cities

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Throughout history, port cities have been meeting places and soft sites: nexuses for the exchange and trade of not just goods and services (and, not infrequently, genes) but also vocabularies, practices, habits, pastimes, friendships, prejudices, superstitions, dreams, ideas, idiosyncrasies, vices, virtues; all at once.

Such places have thrived on a capacity to take in, hold, negotiate, and make the most of the inherent ambiguity of engaging with multiple, different viewpoints - even if the dominant polity may not.

Perhaps more than most other forms of human settlement, such places have been more protean, more prone to rapid evolution - steeped as they are in the winds of what drives growth and change.

As denizens of one of the world's storied port cities, such traits - generosity towards diversity and difference and a generative capacity to create opportunity out of ambiguity or uncertainty - are also part of Singapore's heritage and potential.

The Singaporean identity can seem a little fuzzy around the edges: Are we "East" or "West"? Open or conservative? Traditional or modern? But that can be a good thing.

In 2017, we celebrate sovereign Singapore's 52nd "birthday", yet many of our most cherished institutions have their origins well before independence: from vaunted schools and trusted businesses to familiar landmarks, places of worship and public services.

The Straits Times, founded in 1845, predates the illustrious New York Times (1851). Indubitably, since 1965 the ingenuity and labours of the pioneer generation have had a revolutionary impact on what Singapore is today. But our story was not inscribed whole upon some tabula rasa: no nation's is. Building upon countless elements old and new, from near and far - whether imposed, inherited, invented or fashioned anew to suit - the Singapore we have today is the outcome of a long continuum of accommodation, adaptation, reimagining and risk. More to the point: we are not done with our changes. We continue to become.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

This bears remembering. Many societies and groups around the world, unsettled by rapid currents of globalisation and technological change, have sought reassurance through a variety of political, economic or cultural forms of protectionism, sometimes violently so.

Such attempts can seem regressive, counterproductive, disturbing, atavistic. They are also, for the most part, futile. There is no golden age to which we might return: the world and its conditions (including its resources and climate) have moved on. We its inhabitants have been shaped by what we share with each other, for better or worse. Historically, societies that have shut their doors to the world have invariably withered.

Yet it is understandable that a young polity such as Singapore might, as we did in our Jubilee celebrations in 2015, seek firmer purchase on what we might call our own: our shared history and values, our common gain and gait. But this may not be the time to cement what ought to be kept fluid.

My own experience as a creative practitioner over the past two decades suggests that we do not do enough to acknowledge or to harness the diversity of cultural, intellectual or imaginative resources within our shores. I have argued elsewhere, for instance, that there is an untapped trove of significant written work from Singapore across our many different language communities, some predating independence.

I once interviewed the senior executive in charge of innovation in a leading Korean company known for its cutting edge products. He surprised me by expressing his envy for Singapore's relative youth, because to him it represented untrammelled potential for the new, while he, in his field, has had to push back against more entrenched ways of doing things, from both staff and customers alike. In our foundling anxiety to arrive, to be settled and to be named, we risk overlooking our most profound opportunities.

Consider: sociologist Daniel P.S. Goh, in an essay surveying the construction of pluralism and multiculturalism in post-colonial Malaya and Singapore, argues that the notion of distinct, clearly defined ethnic categories - such as Chinese, Indian, Malay or Other, which we in Singapore are accustomed to today - was largely a colonial imposition that has in many cases become entrenched and internalised by post-independence governments in former colonies.

By casting "race" as essential, immutable, univocal and inherently antagonistic, colonial administrations legitimised sweeping state powers to ensure order and social harmony. In the process, Goh argues, many meaningful engagements between and across communities, which had developed in pre-colonial times, were downplayed or weakened. In time, civil discourse and exchange atrophied.

We may have inherited some of our pieties and preconceptions from past masters. Yet the record of racial tensions and race-based violence is very real. However we came by them, many of us have come to accept such categories as important markers of who we are. Some few may even be prepared to use extreme means to enforce such boundaries.

But the world is always changing. Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan, for instance, has pointed to the growing social diversity and increasingly common phenomenon of bicultural and mixed heritage families in Singapore. She argues that now is the time to encourage regular "safe conversations" that are broader, more inclusive, and oriented towards the future: about what Singapore and being Singaporean means - and what we want them to mean. This involves accepting our ideas about who we are as subject to inquiry, negotiation and evolution, not cast in stone.

My own experience as a creative practitioner over the past two decades suggests that we do not do enough to acknowledge or to harness the diversity of cultural, intellectual or imaginative resources within our shores. I have argued elsewhere, for instance, that there is an untapped trove of significant written work from Singapore across our many different language communities, some predating independence. Most remain unfamiliar to Singaporeans, due to lack of access, a dearth of translations, or sheer neglect - but these could greatly expand our notion of the Singaporean sensibility, not to mention our sense of history, community, and our place in it. Early pioneering figures such as Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang, acknowledged in our contemporary cityscape through place names and accounts of their civic contributions, were also writers who sought to nurture intellectual discourse in the city of their birth, through fiction, essays and other literary efforts.

Much more recently, a community of self-styled Migrant Worker Poets has come to public attention. Originally comprising mostly South Asian nationals in the construction industry but now also including domestic and other guest workers from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere, these individuals have been writing poetry in their meagre free hours. Since 2014, they have made these efforts public through competitions, performances and publications, even appearing in the Singapore Writers Festival and TEDxSingapore. They lend particular (and certainly under-represented) perspectives to what it means to live in this city we share.

So, too, a cadre of Burmese writers and artists who reside here (including professional administrators, engineers, students, business owners) but are significant figures in their home countries. These and so many different communities and groups besides share our island home, yet they do not figure in the formal equation or narrative of what Singapore is and could be.

  • The essays here are from The Birthday Book 2017: What Should We Never Forget?, published by The Birthday Collective. It retails for $25 (with GST) and is available at Kinokuniya, major bookshops and www.ethosbooks.com.sg

We have the privilege of hosting guests from cultures rich in tradition and complexity, story and song - brimming with potential - but they have yet to be part of our public conversations and our imaginative life, even though their labours help make our living and thriving possible.

We have a lot to learn from them, if we are prepared to learn. It could further enrich our urban life and stimulate new possibilities. Of course, this will require humility, sensitivity, acceptance, curiosity - and an ease with uncertainty and ambiguity that can only come from long practice and a mutual willingness to engage.

We are a port city. Even as we profit from the flow, we can let it change us, help us grow. If this is where the world meets to trade, then we, too, must meet it and mingle, steep ourselves at all levels and know its diverse currents, make friends, learn - and we may not even need to leave home to do so.

We should mind our civilities and our constraints, true, but we must also make the effort to make more and better of ourselves, to expand our still-fledgling notions of what we are. There is more to come. We are not done with our changes.

•The author was Singapore's Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005 and received the Singapore Youth Award in 2007. Active in literary practice around the world, he has over a dozen books to his name. His writing has been translated into more than 20 languages. Among many engagements, he is editor-in-chief of a public policy journal and a PhD candidate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'City of a thousand histories; island of a thousand cities'. Print Edition | Subscribe