In the last 50 years, we’ve built the country. In the next 50, we need to build the Singaporean.
Harried and alone, I wandered from trashcan to trashcan in the wee hours of the Spanish morning, a stick in each hand. “Is it in here? How about here? Here?” Half-drunk revelers passed me by, mistaking me for one of their own. Hours ago, and steps from safety, I had been robbed, my bag with all my valuables taken from me. Luckily, I still had my phone in my pocket and some money in a pocket. What I was looking for was my passport—my ticket home after four years overseas obtaining my Masters degree in America.
Three hours earlier, I had just stepped off a plane into Spain, en route to an exchange program in London. My plan was to make a whirlwind run: crash on a couch for the night, pick up my luggage in the morning, straight onto a plane bound for London, spend two weeks there and then back to the US of A.
Instead, I had been derailed, forced to search trashcans for a mile in every direction, and confronted by the sleepy nonchalance of Spanish police too polite to tell me I was just another statistic.
In fact, the whole incident fit the profile: “You tourist, yes?” “Yes.” “Who rob you?” “Three men, tall.” “Dark-looking?” I nodded. “Ah, Marraki… many, many come now, from elsewhere.” I shrugged. “You lose bag?” “Yes.” “Okay, you write down…”
“Here phone. Call bank. Cancel credit card. Here numbers.”
The next day I went to the office of Singapore’s Honorary Consulate-General. The paperwork had already been handled via email. Stamp, stamp, sign, and I was done. “Be careful now,” and I was out in the bright noonday sun, travel papers in hand, ready to return home to Singapore.
Singapore prides itself on the fact that things work as they should. The fact that I was back on home soil within 72 hours losing my passport is testament to that. Many nations struggle with things we take for granted—safety, security, clean water, electricity, plumbing, transport and education.
Friends speak with admiration of Singapore’s clean streets, of the miles of underground, air-conditioned walkways. They gush over the trees that green the city. Romantics talk about the beautiful skyline, and of the way Singapore has turned swamp into city. Cynics, like my Hungarian classmate, point out the cost: “Yes, yes, but you have no chewing gum, eh?”
In recent years, it seems that the cynics have stolen the microphone. Behind the multitude of issues they raise—single mothers, documentaries, alcohol, smoking, cycling on roads—the message is this: After 50 years of paternalism, we are tired of being treated like children. Stop deciding for us. Stop saying that this is “for your own good.” Stop telling us what the “social norms” are. Stop telling us about “Asian values.” We have grown up. We can decide. We are ready.
But, are we, really?
I must say I have my doubts. We have built a strong and resilient government and a stable infrastructure. We have trained doctors, lawyers, engineers, civil servants. We have smart people in power and an educated citizenry. Our students’ math and science scores consistently rank among the best in the world. We even recycle our own pee.
While the country has overcome its meager circumstances, Singaporeans today aren’t the clear-headed problem-solvers they think they are.
On the plane, recently, I sat beside a Singaporean girl who was separated from her friend seated a row ahead. There were two empty seats beside him. Instead of asking the stewardess if she could change seats, the pair spent the time gossiping about a colleague. When the door closed, and the stewardess seated a French couple, who were similarly separated, on those two seats, the little miss took it personally. “This is what happens when you’re not white enough,” she said, stiffly.
Not all Singaporeans are passive-aggressive. When the trains and buses failed, and authorities floundered, it was humble Singaporeans who saved the day. Some helped to guide traffic, others ran ferry services. Singaporeans overcame their straitened circumstances with grace, wisdom and charity.
When I was stranded in Spain, I caught a glimpse of this same grace and charity from my fellow Singaporeans, former classmates from secondary school, who let me stay in their apartment, eat their food, sleep on their couch—until I could get my papers sorted out. I am ashamed to say that I did not expect this of Singaporeans; their generosity humbled me. I realized then, that I had become bitter toward the country of my birth, wanting to cast it off, like a too-small set of clothes.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve forgotten what Singaporeans are capable of. Forgotten that we are more than grousers and complainers, that we are more than kiasu kings and queens. Forgotten that though we’ve moved into nice modern HDBs, that we are from the same kampong. Forgotten that it is these hands that have built the homes we are staying in.
Enough nostalgia. As we go from 50 to 100, my heartfelt wish is for Singaporeans to spend time developing themselves. We should develop skills we have previously neglected, like the skills of citizenship—political knowledge, respectful discourse, loving disagreement. We should move beyond our narrowly-defined “meritocracy” and realize the gifts in every person. At the same time, we should eagerly desire the greater gifts, to continuously strive for improvement. We ought to enjoy childhood while we can, but not be afraid of growing up.
I thank the Lord I’m a part of City Harvest Church. There is a spirit of excellence in this church that we need to carry into society. I pray we never lose it. If we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the word, we must bring this spirit into everything we do. We have spent the last 50 years putting the bricks and mortar of Singapore together. Let’s spend the next 50 building up the Singaporean.