Shared memories at the core

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 31, 2013

When I visited the Clementi Mall library recently, a schoolgirl sitting at a desk at the entrance beckoned me over. She told me she was collecting memories of Singapore, and did I have any to share?

At this open sesame, memories from over 20 years tumbled out. I saw the dark whip of a cobra on a jungle walk, I saw smiles at an East Coast picnic, I wiped a tear away as a neighbour sobbed over the death of a pet.

And then I wondered, why were they of interest to this schoolgirl? She explained that she was collecting memories for the Singapore Memory Project, a nationwide scheme to capture recollections related to Singapore. People, organisations, companies and groups could submit their memories to a website or mobile phone app (go to for details), and the National Library Board had set up "memory collection points", as it called them, at its 24 libraries.

I paused. Perhaps this youthful collector of memories - what an important task, what a wonderful job title - was too enthusiastic in seeking mine. I explained that I was a foreigner on an Employment Pass, and that my memories might not be wanted for the Singapore-specific project.

But she said mine were welcome, and painstakingly wrote down my offering.

If only I could remember what it was that I remembered - but such is the fleeting nature of memory.

Still, at least this now-lost memory has been recorded somewhere, among the five million personal memories that the project aims to collect by 2015.

There are two timely backdrops to this memory-collecting. One is a New York Times piece that The Straits Times ran on March 23, which looked at what makes for happy families.

It found that one thing is a strong family narrative - the stories you tell your children about things such as where your parents came from and how they met.

It cited research by two Americans at Emory University who found that the more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. This was especially so in terms of being able to be resilient in the face of life's challenges.

This is linked to the second reason why the Singapore Memory Project is a timely one - the talking point of retaining a Singaporean "core", as if this were some impermeable centre of steel around which lighter weights spin.

This core doesn't seem to be that solid, given the introspection and self-doubt about Singapore's identity as a nation that has emerged in public debate. This is especially so in the light of the White Paper's controversial population figure of 6.9 million in 2030, and the Our Singapore Conversation stimulating discussion of what it means to be Singaporean.

What might make that core more solid? I don't mean just in terms of more "true-blue" Singaporeans, but in a national identity that is more concrete.

One way is through exercises such as the Singapore Memory Project, where everyone is regarded as having something to contribute to the narrative of the wider idea of a Singapore Family, whoever that might be.

At a personal level, projects like this help give a context and validity to the jumble of family memories, whether you are a foreigner or local.

At another level, they recognise that family narratives of foreign workers do not exist in a vacuum distinct from the country where they happen. We may one day leave permanently, but we take away memories that are interwoven with those of the Singaporeans we have met, and which continue to exist in, and influence, the minds of each individual.

These memories linger, to be shared, laughed over and learnt from, should those individuals meet up again in the future. This resonates in my own case - over the years, I have seen Singapore neighbours grow from babies to teenagers.

Indeed, the US researchers cited in the New York Times article said an intergenerational sense of self is important for children. "They know they belong to something bigger than themselves," as one of the researchers put it.

So in this light, perhaps my family narrative, along with those of other foreigners, benefits the core of the true-blue Singapore family, too. It gives emotional depth to the core that makes up what it means to be Singaporean citizens by birth.

Sure, a foreigner's narrative can be seen as defining who is a Singaporean and who is not, and where a Singaporean is from, and where he is not, and where Singaporeans are going and where they are not. But a bigger story unfolds - a universal one of surviving life and its challenges and finding a place or places called home where family history keeps being made.

Understanding that the Singapore story is part of many seemingly unconnected but actually quite relevant narratives, Singaporeans know they are part of something bigger than themselves. As the researchers' findings on resilience and self-esteem show, this makes for a stronger and happier family at the "core".

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 31, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to