At a talk to Temasek Polytechnic students on Friday, I devoted a segment of it to a short exercise I called Stand up For Singapore.
I was speaking about openness to the world being a Singaporean trait. Singapore has 5 million people and 15 million tourists a year.
It has 3.5 times the volume of trade to its Gross Domestic Product. 40 per cent of people here are born outside Singapore.
Singapore should remain open and friendly to foreigners and new citizens, I argued.
I told the group of students: "Okay, let’s Stand Up for Singapore. Everyone, please stand up."
The group of about 200 shuffled to their feet.
"Those who don’t carry a pink NRIC, please sit down," I said. About a fifth sat down immediately.
"Now think of your parents. Those with at least one parent not born in Singapore, please sit down." Another large group sat.
"Now think of your grandparents. Those with at least one grandparent born outside Singapore, sit down."
Much movement ensued. When the group quietened, I looked around. In an auditorium of about 200, there were only about 20 people left standing - or 10 per cent of the crowd.
When I planned the exercise, I hadn’t known what to expect. I had thought perhaps half the students might have one grandparent who was a migrant. I hadn’t expected that about 90 per cent would have migrant grandparents.
My point to them: Singapore is a very, very young migrant nation. Most of us are directly descended from migrants. My own parents, I told the students, were from China. I was born in Singapore.
So what makes a Singaporean? Does being born here make me more Singaporean than someone born elswhere, who took up citizenship later? I don’t necessarily think so.
My parents left their homeland and chose to come to Singapore. After the merger and separation, they remained here. By that token, they chose to be Singaporean. Both chose to die here, rather than return to their ancetral homeland.
If, as S Rajaratnam said, being Singaporean is a matter not of ancestry but of choice and conviction, then new migrants can be even more Singaporean than those born and bred here, if they subscribe to Singapore’s values and ways of life. Those who take up citizenship in their adult years chose Singapore. Those of us born and bred here never had to exercise that choice; we were born into it.
If subscribing to certain values makes us Singaporean, what are some of those values? I would say first and foremost a commitment to being a multi-racial society (and defending our right to cook curry and have the smell wafting down open corridors; championing the use of English as a neutral language across the races); and a commitment to a meritocratic system where able young people with no family wealth or connections can excel.
Beyond those rational commitment decisions, familiarity and cultural affinity also make us Singaporean.
During question time, I was asked to give one word to describe a trait I consider most uniquely Singaporean. I turned to my fellow panellists of students and asked them to give their word. They said: Kiasu. Competitive. Insecure.
I said: "Our tummy. Food is one of the strongest bonds of what makes us Singaporean."
Singapore’s food is a celebration of our varied communities.
Our ability to cross cultural divides in one day, via our gastroeosphagal tract, is testament to our globalised palate. We may sometimes be parochial in our minds, but our stomachs are gloriously global, open and welcoming of foreign influence.
Sometimes, the head and heart just have to catch up with the stomach.