The rojak nation

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Singapore News

singapore_multi-racialPoor Kevin Rudd. The Australian PM can’t be happy catching flak from a media tycoon who is no longer even a 100 per cent Aussie. That can’t happen in Singapore. The media here is wholly Singaporean. Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp are descended from companies that have been Singaporean longer than some of the new citizens.

It is only fitting that foreign interests should not be allowed to control Singapore media and influence local politics. Of course, there is the issue of media coming under the control of local political and business interests … but that is another story for another time.

When we talk of foreigners, let’s consider how much Singapore owes to the outside world – not just its prosperity as an export-oriented economy, but a whole lot more. Even the people going about the island are either themselves – or descended from – outsiders.

The original inhabitants, according to legend, were not homo sapiens. Remember the story of Sang Nila Utama? He was an outsider, a prince of Palembang.  When he reached the island of Temasek and landed at the mouth of the Singapore River, he went hunting and saw a strange animal. He was told it was probably a lion. So he named the city he built, Singapura.

Centuries later, when Raffles landed on the island in 1819, however, it was a wilderness.  It was his successor, William Farquhar, who developed Singapore as a British port and settlement. They were followed by waves of immigrants.  The Malay enclave became a Chinese-majority city.

And then came independence.

In one respect, Singapore followed India. The national anthem is a song composed in the language of an ethnic minority. ( Ditto the Indian national anthem: Composed by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, it is in Bengali, not Hindi.)

As the Singapore flag fluttered proudly from buildings and flagpoles in the run-up to National Day, no doubt, you could not keep your eyes from it. It is unique. The only flag with a crescent moon representing a country without a Muslim majority.

Singapore is inclusive – we are one nation, one people, one Singapore, to recall a popular song.

We’ve built a nation with our hands
The toil of people from a dozen lands
Strangers when we first began, now we’re Singaporean
Let’s reach out for Singapore, join our hands forevermore.

We are a “rojak “ nation, as one of the emcees at the National Day Parade said. We are from all over the place – there would be no Singapore without outsiders.

The foreign influence did not end even with self-government and independence.  Lee Kuan Yew acknowledged his debt to the Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, who was chief economic adviser from 1961 to 1984. “Singapore, and I personally, are indebted to him for the time, energy and devotion he gave to Singapore,” Mr Lee said in his tribute when Dr Winsemius died of pneumonia in The Hague in 1996 at the age of 86.

Yes, Singapore owes a lot to outsiders, but we are not copycats. Is there any other nation like Singapore? No. We don’t just borrow but adapt and improve.

Singapore was not the first country to launch public housing. But our neat, orderly HDB estates with their  town centres and greenery are a vast improvement on council housing in England and the “projects” in America.

Our education system is considered one of the best in the world. Our economy is second only to Switzerland’s, according to the World Economic Forum.  Singapore Airlines, Changi airport, Singapore port have all been ranked No 1 at some time or the other.

How did a tiny island soak up so many superlatives?

We have got to be more creative, we are told, but look at our record. We have even made the English language our very own.

Yes, let’s not forget Singlish, lah. It’s not English, we are told. But that’s the whole point. We are creative, damn shiok, not copycats lah. English also can, but Singlish more powderful, lor!