National Day 2020

Making a united Singapore

As a nation, we can be empathetic to others, to new ideas, and embrace openness and inclusivity

What does a united Singapore mean to you?

A red and white flag with a crescent moon and stars, perhaps raised each morning to the voices of young people singing, as one, a song of hope and progress.

A shield flanked by a lion and a tiger, embossed in gold on the bright red cover of a small booklet that says: "I am a Singaporean."

A flower in hues of violet and pink, adorning keepsakes for visitors to fondly remember their days in the Garden City.

These images stir a sense of nostalgia and pride in me, a feeling you will no doubt share - especially today, our nation's birthday.

They are, after all, the Republic's national symbols, created exactly to forge a sense of national unity.

But with Covid-19, dust has dulled the sheen of the national crest emblazoned on our passports in the past few months.

It has gathered on the images of our beautiful Vanda Miss Joaquim, the orchid imprinted on shelves of languishing tourist souvenirs.

School assemblies in the mornings, usually filled with the voices of students singing the familiar lines of Majulah Singapura and reciting "We the citizens...", have gone silent.

National Day itself, normally a boisterous annual celebration replete with these symbols of nationhood, has not been spared.

Today's parade has been pared down and celebrations are decentralised.


Instead of tens of thousands gathered at the Padang or Marina Bay, most of us will be hunkered down in our homes.

Amid these muted, tedious days of the pandemic, I find myself asking: Whither is the rousing roar of the Singapore spirit this National Day? With everyone scattered, where will we find a sense of unity?

Some might reply that the crisis itself has presented an answer.

They might say: There is spirit in the quiet strength of our nurses, doctors and other front-liners, who have toiled for months in the fight against Covid-19.

There is unity in our collective strength in meeting this crisis, the resilience and fortitude of our people as they weather this storm in solidarity with one another.

I fully agree, and I think it would be hard to find anyone who does not. Perhaps a different question to ponder is: Who does your united Singapore include (or exclude)?

Even as the pandemic has shown us a side of a Singapore united in the face of an invisible enemy, so, too, it has revealed a Singapore divided in other ways.

All of us felt the edge of the circuit breaker - a harsh but necessary stop on most activity to control the spread of the virus - but some felt it more keenly than others.

Those who were already vulnerable, such as the elderly living alone or lower-income families, struggled to meet their basic needs.

Migrant workers living in the dormitories make up more than nine in 10 Covid-19 cases.

Of course, the Government's efforts have improved the situation at the dorms and addressed the more immediate issues faced by the vulnerable.

And after reporting on some of the issues these groups face, I have often found myself overwhelmed by the outpouring of offers to help them from readers and community groups moved by their plight.

It gladdens me to see Singaporeans display such compassion. But beyond pity, I hope we can go a step further, to truly include them in our society.

Some of us may also exclude those who hold dissenting opinions. A different point of view may not necessarily mean a person loves Singapore less.

Our political leaders have given encouraging signals on being more open about discussing race and religion.

But some, perhaps among the older generation, may still feel the topic to be taboo, even if this may risk silencing those who have suffered discrimination.

While great strides have been made for gender equality in the last five decades, women continue to be paid less than men for the same work, and are under-represented at the top.

And while there are the beginnings of greater legal protections for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people, as a nation we have some way to go before accepting the community more fully and equally as members of society.

There is no simple solution to the tension between unity and the inequalities and diversity of any society. This is especially the case for Singapore, a nation still young in years, and with existing fault lines along race and religion.

It is a difficult terrain we have been carefully negotiating for 55 years - and counting.

I inadvertently found hints of an answer while listening to the National Day theme song.

In contrast to the upbeat patriotic tunes of the past (think Stand Up For Singapore), this year's Everything I Am, written by Joshua Wan, is slow and thoughtful, perhaps even philosophical.

In one part, local singer Nathan Hartono pleads, in an odd turn of phrase: "Teacher, teach me to be kind. / Quick to embrace, and slow to close my mind."

To move forward as a united Singapore, we - as a nation - need to be open and empathetic to others, to new ideas, and to reconnect with our core national values of openness and inclusivity.

To this end, I think there have been several signs of hope.

The pandemic itself has created a space for civil society to provide suggestions on various policies.

Where older generations may find it difficult to talk about certain issues, younger ones seem more willing to address them head-on.

Commitments have been made to improve the living conditions of migrant workers in the future.

Singaporeans recently elected a record number of women into Parliament - 27 of 93 seats.

The Prime Minister, after the polls, also acknowledged that Singaporeans want more diverse voices.

So, what should a united Singapore mean to you and me?

Beyond our national flag, flower and crest, I invite you to imagine a society united by a common resolve to be just and equal to all, that truly includes, rather than rejects, differences.

A Singapore where, in Wan's words, "Because of who you are / I can be everything I am".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2020, with the headline 'Making a united Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe