It’s almost amazing to believe that Singapore’s celebrating its 44th birthday this year.
I remember clearly, as a child, Singapore celebrating its 25th year of independence. That was almost 19 years ago, and I mere a 5 year old child. The pomp and fanfare of the National Day Celebrations back then never failed to intrigue me, and they still do now. Living rather near Paya Lebar Air Base where the helicopters and jets would propel themselves overheard en route to the National Stadium at Kallang during the Parades, I remember running ecstatically to the window grills, plastering my face as close as possible to them, just to catch a glimpse of the magnificient aircrafts above. I remembered how glad I thought I was to be living in Singapore back then, to able to catch the stately spectacle on television and watch in utter fascination as for once they swooshed so close to my house.
I still do now, but for different reasons. I am a third-generation Singaporean; true-blue, born and bred here if you would call it. My late grandfather who just passed away recently was born in Singapore in the early 1920s, received an English education and worked humbly as a clerk for the government of the Straits Settlement, going through the asperities of war and raising a family of ten along the way. My mother was the youngest daughter, and times were hard back then, with education definitely a special privilege for those who could afford it. Clothes were passed on between siblings and only the eldest in every family had the chance to choose their own clothes. Between all her sisters there was only one Beatles record whom all had to fight over with. How this family of twelve, inclusive of my late grandparents, could live in a small house in close proximity to one another without a war breaking out still beats me today!
In a matter of years, how times have changed. Having ten siblings is no longer a common currency for the family unit in Singapore, for health care standards and technology are infinitely superior to the past. Hard labor, ploughing and tapping of rubber trees are no longer the means by which anyone earns a living. And neither are they living in small houses, where 3-4 of them are expected to cloister and sleep in a single bedroom. Whereas it took a long bicycle ride for my Uncle to pick up my mother from outside, we could probably get to the heart of Orchard Road, Singapore under an hour from anywhere in the country. Not to mention that we’ll probably get some air-con however we’re travelling too.
While the English-educated and speaking in those days were thought of as snobbish and disconnected from their traditional roots, English is now the lingua franca of our country, spoken and written with a reasonable level of decency among the average Singaporean. While on a fall academic exchange in Chicago, many American native speakers of English expressed surprise at my command of the language, pleasantly finding out that I was not sporadically tripping in my sentences and had a clear, coherent diction. And they were even more surprised to find out that English is the primary language of communication in Singapore, and the medium by which classes and business dealings are conducted.
For all of these I am thankful to the foresight of our leaders, and the early generation of Singaporeans who gathered together and struggled collectively for our freedom. Without their precious foresight and sagacious decisions, it is without doubt that the Singapore that we’ve come to call home today would have been very different indeed. Had the late President Ong Teng Cheong not pushed strongly for the development of the MRT system at which time was a heavy and expensive investment, we would probably have not been enjoying 30 minutes ride downtown today in all of its comfort. If the HDB as a low-cost housing unit was not proposed by the late Lim Kim San, many of us may be now sequestered in cramped living quarters.
A very different challenge faces us today. Unlike our earlier generations who were shaped by life-changing experiences, most of us are born with access to education and opportunities, with neighbourhoods and roads safe enough to walk in even at night. While the experiences of the brutality and horror of the Japanese occupation convinced the late Mr. Lim to take control of his own country’s fate, “never letting our fate be decided by others”, many of us do not have the same life experiences to politicize us. Although I was born in the mid ’80s, the important events that happened throughout the world in 1989 made no sense to a 4 year old kid, and left no indelible mark.
As we approach our nation’s 44th year of independence, the struggles we all commonly share now is markedly different from the past. While creation of low-cost housing units, a feasible transport system, and a stable economy amongst many others were the crux of our challenges in the past, we now demand for sexual minorities to be given equal opportunities and treatment, for greater accountability and transparency in the handling of our national reserves, for more freedom in the press and media, and to bridge the income disparity and inequality among groups of Singaporeans in a list of issues that confronts us now.
Singapore is my home and there is no where else in the world, no matter how beautiful or magnificient that could usurp its special place in my heart. As we answer to the rigors of these new tests, what worries me most is the increasingly conspicuous indifference a number of people share about our country. Singapore has no other resources to count on other than the sheer determination and will of its people. But for us to run this leg of the race, we will have to first jettison our fear — whether real or conceived — of engaging society actively and constructively, in order that we may ask the right questions and arrive at the right answers.
The early generation of Singaporeans did not dispose of their responsibility and were not wanting in their duty of making Singapore the best possible place for us — their future generations — to live in. And we must be faithful to our duty to our own future generations insofar as this is concerned. It is for this reason that the Kent Ridge Common as platform to encourage an active engagement and discussion was developed by a group of like-minded students and alumni of the National University of Singapore.
The crescent on Singapore’s national flag represents our country’s boundless potential to grow and develop into a full-moon with time. An old adage ran, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Let us all strive for the future of Singapore collectively today.
Happy National Day!
The writer is a 4th year NUS student.