Should we be mainly Singaporean?

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By Tan Bah Bah

The subtext of that question are these points:

Should we not be more cosmopolitan?
Being regional has its limitations.
Being Singa-centric is even worse.
We have no choice – change or we stagnate.
Who is Singaporean and what is it?
New immigrants, new Singapore?
Fishing village, anyone?

imagesThe question in the headline posed by Mr Goh Chok Tong at a REACH Contributors’ Forum (the Government’s feedback unit) is odd. It is as if he suddenly feels that Singaporeans have to learn to live with people of races other than those they are familiar with and that they are too closeted in their outlook.

First point first. The business of race is something we need to talk about a bit more openly.

There is a school of thought that it is the Government which has, whether inadvertently or not, been responsible for the inability of many Singaporeans to see beyond their racial origins. Think CDAC, Sinda, Mendaki, SAP schools and a host of race-based institutions.

Years ago, during a live telecast of a select committee in session, Lee Kuan Yew found out to his surprise that an RSAF captain had no non-Chinese friends. The first PM asked: How come? The officer could not give an answer other than that it just happened.

Over-emphasis of Mandarin-speaking in later years did not help non-Chinese feel very comfortable about the direction of Singapore’s cultural makeup. I always thought that the policy-implementers had been more than a tad overzealous in pinyinising well-known street and place names. We lost Nee Soon to Yishun, nearly lost Raffles to a weird undecipherable concoction and lost Tekka for a number of years to Zhujiao before reverting to Tekka, much to the relief of many Singaporeans. I also noticed one famous MediaCorp star kept insisting in her interviews that she stayed in Zhenghua when many more Singaporeans knew her estate as Bukit Panjang.

A study on racial and religious harmony released in July by the Institute of Policy Studies showed that the majority of Singaporeans did not have a close friend of another race. Only about 45 per cent of respondents did.

This insensitivity to the existence of a real world – right here, right now – other than an artificial Middle Kingdom-centred one seven hours’ flight away from the authentic one in north-eastern Asia is going to be a big problem in the years to come.

This leads to the second point. With the rise of China, and a perception of more business opportunities presented by the world’s second largest economy, there would appear to be every reason to forget about everything else – and join the scramble.

But forget that it has been only 49 years since we could decide our own destiny? Forget that this country has been built by the sweat of local Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians?

Forget that we have to be unique for us to find a place in the world? Who needs us if we are just a mini-China, especially when they can easily cut us out of the picture and deal directly with the mainland Chinese? For example, does Malaysia really need us at all? The country has 6.9 million Chinese, twice the number of Chinese in Singapore. Other countries in the region have their own Chinese connections – Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam.

Much has been said about how Deng Xiaoping was so stunned by the success of Singapore when he was here in 1978 that he was went back to China determined to open up the country and use it as a model for Beijing’s journey back to the open market world.

It must be pointed out that the Singapore he saw and was impressed with was built by, to repeat what I said, the sweat of local Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

The issue is not whether we should have our feet planted in this region before we fly all over. We have to. It is non-negotiable. We are what we are. And this is our first natural hinterland – our geographical and cultural reality from which any other expectation can only be an illusion.

Ironically, it was the first-generation PAP leaders who saw strength in Singapore’s racial composition and sought to maintain that mix when they embarked on the public housing programme. They also saw that a strong command of English gave us an edge over other countries in an English-dominated inter-connected world.

Become a totally sinicised society and we are of no use to anyone.

Mr Goh Chok Tong also asked: “Should we be a global city? Or should we be a regional centre?” We should be both.

The most important thing is that we be ourselves even as we strive to be relevant. Yes, we can live with that – being mainly Singaporean. It has worked well so far.