Director's Note (Jul-Sep) 2014
1986. Singapore’s 21st birthday and the year the rousing “Count On Me Singapore” was introduced to the public. As darkness shrouded the National Stadium where the National Day Parade was underway, the beats of Chinese, Malay and Indian drums reverberated through the night sky for the performance “Unity in Rhythm”. In that magical instant, the parade came alive and a palpable excitement swept like a whirlwind through the 50,000-strong crowd. It’s hard not to use a well-worn cliché, but that was the first time I felt a tingle down my spine while watching the parade.
In this vein, the essay “Parades, Flags and Rallies: Celebrating Singapore’s National Day” by Lim Tin Seng traces the evolution of the celebrations and the marked shifts in tone from the 1970s’ socialist-tinged “rugged society” messages that urged Singaporeans to pull together and work harder, to the parades of the 80s and 90s that were supercharged with pride and emotion.
As we reflect on our identity this National Day, take a minute to ponder on the perennial question by Kishore Mahbubani in “So, What is a Singaporean?” as he considers if our multicultural harmony and identity is a result of careful government planning and policy, or a natural assimilation and acceptance of different cultures over time.
Food is a great leveller in society and the idea of unforced multiculturalism is best expressed in “Of Belacan and Curry Puffs: A Taste of Singapore’s Past”. Bonny Tan’s essay reveals how the humble curry puff is a “product of the ingenious marriage between colonial and colonised taste buds” – the spicy chicken filling from an Indian merchant and the puff pastry, a distinct British influence.
The most powerful articulation of the complexity of identity comes through our literature. Through the works of writers such as Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng, Hwee Hwee Tan and Boey Kim Cheng, librarian Michelle Heng takes us through Singapore’s literary landscape, in “Home and Away: Literary Reflections on Nation and Identity”. Identity of a different kind is explored in “Standing Firm: Stories of Ubin”. Ang Seow Leng offers a glimpse into the life of the community in yesteryear Pulau Ubin – just minutes away from the mainland and yet imbued with its own distinct social mores and culture.
Perhaps the identity of being Singaporean is far too complex and ephemeral to encapsulate within a few pat catchphrases. While thinking about this issue, I chanced upon a book by Paul Johnson on the life of Socrates in Athens at the height of the Greek civilisation. In examining the flourishing of the city state under its leader Pericles, Johnson described Athenian optimism as a constructive, dynamic and practical force propelled by the belief that Athenians were capable of turning their attention to anything – arts, science, philosophy – and making it better than anyone else could.
Can the fledgling Singaporean identity match the vigour of the Athenian spirit of 5th-century BC? Yes, perhaps, in time to come. In the meantime, we should take heart in the experience of the talented late Singaporean writer Goh Poh Seng. When visiting Singapore in 2007 after a long absence – having emigrated to Canada in 1986 – Goh was asked if he could ever live in Singapore again. Yes, he replied almost immediately, to paraphrase his words, “like how a duck takes to water”.
Director, National Library