Sunday With Chua Mui Hoong Opinion Editor

Many Singapore Stories, one resilient nation

People's narratives of triumph in the past bear telling and retelling in celebration


It's that time of year when red and white are in the air and you're faced with a choice of whether to hunt down your national flag (if you had one) or to part with a few dollars to buy a flag-emblazoned cover for your car's side mirror. (Hint: The latter is available at your friendly neighbourhood petrol kiosk... or on Chinese e-commerce portal Alibaba for US$0.37 (S$0.45) apiece, minimum order of 50 pairs, shipped direct from Guangzhou, China.)

Which brings me to the point of my ruminations.

What does it mean to be a Singaporean, in this day and age?

To me, it means being a polyglot, and living in comfort knowing that we possess nothing and therefore we are open to owning and operating anything from around the globe - and thriving while doing so.

Some people say Singapore is becoming more xenophobic and insular. But how can a Singaporean be insular?

National Day car mirror covers made in China aside, the water we drink from our taps comes from Johor, Malaysia - mixed with water from our own reservoirs, and from desalination plants and Newater.

The food we eat is more than 90 per cent imported. Beef from Argentina, pork from Australia, and poultry from Brazil. Vegetables from China. Rice from Thailand. And lots of stuff - eggs, chicken, vegetables, fruit - from Malaysia.

The very soil we stand on is in part foreign, as is the construction mix for many of our buildings. That's because Singapore has imported sand from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China. Even Australia: Resorts World Sentosa imported sand for its beach pool all the way from Down Under.

A United Nations Environment Programme report in March said: "Having imported a reported 517 million tonnes of sand in the last 20 years, Singapore is by far the largest importer of sand worldwide and the world's highest per capita consumer of sand at 5.4 tonnes per inhabitant."

And as we can all recall from the terrible haze last year, the very air we breathe comes with free added ingredients from burning forest fires in the region.

When you live in such a tiny country, a little red dot with no hinterland, you learn to accept the reality of your dependence on the world.

Singapore's expulsion from the Malaysian Federation - and our consequential independence as a nation on Aug 9, 1965 - was predicated on our dependence on the world.

Singapore had no choice but to throw itself at the mercy of the world, so to speak. Without that radical dependence on the world, we would not have thrived as a nation.

Singapore is 49 this year, on the cusp of our golden jubilee. We have grown up on stories of our unexpected nationhood, and read or heard stories of how the nation leapfrogged from Third World to First with ingenuity.

And through it all, the silver thread of the narrative goes, we are vulnerable as a nation because we have no hinterland, no resources; we are fragile as a society because of our ethnic mix; we are forever doomed to a state of anxiety as a prosperous shining red dot of a Chinese-majority nation in a sea of Muslim-dominant neighbours.

I know many younger Singaporeans do not buy into this narrative. Some older Singaporeans, too, consider this a tired story, akin to a bogeyman invented by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to keep the children-citizens in order.

I am not of such mind. I agree with the prevailing storyline about Singapore's history: We are an accidental nation; a creation of will; with nothing more or less than sheer cussedness to make us sovereign - and to keep us so. The world truly does not owe us a living.

But I think that having come so far as a nation, we should do more to turn our weaknesses into sources of strength.

So yes, we are dependent on the world for a living. It would be foolish to turn insular, and close the door on foreign imports - of sand, or of people. But having lived by our wits for five decades, should we still doubt that we can continue to do so?

Perhaps it's time to turn our narrative about struggle and survival into one of resilience and triumph against the odds, by the people.

Thus far, a lot of the story-telling has been from the point of view of the elite: We have heard the Singapore Story from the politicians who led the country; from the mandarins; and some from the captains of industry.

A lot of the celebration around Singapore has to do with celebrating the state - the Establishment, the political entity of Singapore as a state, the regime.

This is inevitable, because the fate of Singapore has been so bound up with the fate of the PAP that has governed it since 1959. It was the PAP government that created the symbols and rituals of statehood: A PAP minister wrote the national pledge; a government committee designed the flag.

But the National Anthem predated the PAP government. "Majulah Singapura was played for the first time by the Singapore Chamber Ensemble as a concert item to mark the reopening of the Victoria Theatre on Sept 6, 1958. It was written before (composer) Zubir Said himself became a Singapore citizen and was originally intended for the City Council," according to the National Library Board's Infopedia website.

What Singapore Stories might we tell, of our own lives, and the lives of our parents, and friends?

My story would begin with the arrival of my parents from Shantou, China, in 1949, as they fled the Communist takeover, and eventually settled in Singapore. It would include their story of struggle for a livelihood, as clogmakers, as itinerant street hawkers, eventually settling down at a hawker centre.

It would include the stories of my siblings and myself, as we Teochew-speaking kids went to school in the 1970s, where we learnt English and Chinese, and were put on the milk programme for malnourished kids.

It would include the stories of the third generation, my niece and nephew, as they try to find their way in the adult world.

The Singapore Story we are familiar with is the story of how a country was unified under a political system to become a state. And what a successful state it became.

My wish for Singapore this National Day and the next is that we celebrate ourselves as a nation: Telling and retelling the many Singapore Stories of people who have made the past five decades such a triumph.