At 25, hoping for a more inclusive country

Recent accounts give me hope that the nation can also become a more understanding society

Growing up, I was lucky enough to catch the National Day Parade live on more than one occasion, while in other years, my friends, the family and I would crowd around the television set at home.

At the stirring trumpet-calls announcing the National Anthem, a sense of pride would swell in my chest. Yet, I could not understand why I had this inexplicable love for country. Was it simply an evolutionary need for group belonging?

When I left Singapore for four years of study in Britain at 19, the reasons became clearer.

I missed Singapore dearly for the sense of security it gave me. In the quiet neighbourhood of Canley in the West Midlands where I stayed, the streetlights were few and dim. I would often speed-walk home, a hand in my pocket clutching my keys, and never with earphones plugged in.

I missed the ease with which I could get an affordable and warm plate of food, the sheer variety of which any hawker centre provides.

As a foreign student on a budget, I cooked most of my meals as food was otherwise costly.

I missed the efficient manner in which things were done. Opening a bank account took weeks.

While I loved London for its hustle and bustle, the ceaseless grey of its buildings everywhere paled next to my memories of the leafy trees sheltering the walk from my home in Singapore to the nearest - or, for that matter, any - MRT station.

These aspects of Singapore have always been hallmarks of the country, but as we celebrate its 55th birthday, I hope that we can look into developing other parts of society that we can be proud of.

Having lived through about half of the nation's birthdays - I'm 25 - I am proud to see what our little island has become. But there is much more I hope it can be, and that I would like to see in the next 55 years.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, I have read and written stories of people who went out of their way to help the vulnerable in our society.

 
 
 

Some have made special masks with a transparent portion to help deaf students who rely on lip reading. Two siblings, aged 17 and 21, decided to take matters into their own hands to set up a mentorship programme for those out of work, while many others continue to cook and offer free food to those in need.

At the same time, we witnessed Singaporeans hoarding food and toilet paper, and strangers being shamed on social media for not wearing their masks properly, rather than being told in a way that would engender positive change. There were also comments on social media with a twinge of xenophobia when foreign-worker dormitories began experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases.

And while our front-line fighters were doing their best to tackle the virus, there were incidents where healthcare workers who were in uniform on public transport on their way home were shunned by other commuters.

I would, therefore, like to see Singapore become a more inclusive and empathetic society, and for Singaporeans to better understand that others may be going through invisible struggles, such as special needs and disabilities.

Recent accounts give me hope.

Last month, my colleague Ting Wei wrote that bus operator Tower Transit hired a wheelchair user as a customer experience and inclusivity officer - the first role of its kind here created by a public transport operator.

In June, President Halimah Yacob called for employment for persons with disabilities to be looked at as a national issue, rather than for it to be the purview of welfare organisations and social service agencies.

We've also seen social media being used for good, such as in May, when a Singaporean woman diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer while in the US was able to reunite with her family here, after the public raised more than $300,000 to fund her trip home.

 
 
 

Such moves make me hopeful that out of the economic dislocation and uncertainty caused by Covid-19, greater inclusivity and more empathy are also the result.

I would also like to see us tackle difficult topics of religion and race with greater sensitivity and objectivity, and less divisiveness.

I believe there is room for us as a society to address these difficult issues together, rather than by sweeping them under the mat. The Government has indicated it wants younger Singaporeans to have more say in how such topics are discussed, and the onus is now on my generation to do so assiduously.

I've been having more conversations about these topics with my friends, and have also come across several insightful reads online. If more of us take a step towards better understanding these topics, we would have space for more civil and constructive conversations.

Singapore is already known worldwide for its efficiency, organisation and security, even though it took being away for me to realise this.

Let us make inclusivity, empathy and understanding our hallmarks, too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2020, with the headline 'At 25, hoping for a more inclusive country'. Print Edition | Subscribe