Soulless Singapore, are we really?

Yesterday, I went for a soccer game, Singapore vs. Malaysia. It was a must-win game in order to qualify for the semis of the Suzuki Cup. We are honestly still light-years away to be considered a threat in soccer in Asia, let alone the world. But that did not stop throngs of enthusiastic supporters from heading out to the National Stadium, despite the torrential rain in the afternoon.

I expected some cheers, some excitement that came with a live sports match. But what I did not expect was the stadium awashed in a sea of red, the forgotten Kallang Roar, and the sharp sense of heartache when the Lions lost due to a debatable penalty call.

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I agreed that we were way more reserved in our cheering, as compared to the Malaysian fans, and that the Kallang Roar last night was lackluster compared to the 1990s. But it was a valiant effort to reawaken the inner Singapore pride in every citizen. The stadium was reverberating with support for the home team, and looking at it, I was proud of our small nation.

Last week, my friend from Hong Kong came for a short visit. She was craving for a good plate of Nasi Lemak, so we headed to the hawker centre at Chinatown.

Hawkers were shouting out orders in Hokkien, there were people speaking in a mix of English and Mandarin aka Singlish, and aunties gave an annoyed stare when we were blocking their way to collect back the dirty plates. It was hot and stuffy, but yet Singaporean in every way.

Image from YourSingapore

Image from YourSingapore

My friend was unfamiliar with the items at the Nasi Lemak store, and we asked a couple of questions. “Is this fish? What about this…” Yet, the auntie’s warm smile never left her face despite us holding the queue. “I love coming to hawker centres in Singapore. The food is cheap, and there is this something I cannot find back home,” my friend told me after we were done with our meal.

Why am I saying all these?

Because a few weeks ago, a frequent traveller friend of mine sent over a link to an article. “Hey, read this, the part about Singapore”, he said.

I have read a number of Manson’s articles, and found them to be great advice. I feel empowered and enlightened after reading them, a little like why didn’t I think like this, and this article was no different.

Except until I got to the part my friend was talking about.

“Today, Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world. The island is more or less devoid of crime and poverty…. But this appearance of perfection came at a cost. The country is a bit soulless.”

Are we really? Are we Singaporeans, the fundamental of the nation, only concerned about financial gain and nothing else?

Yes, we make practical decisions, even if that meant turning our backs on history, and joining the ranks of development without a second thought. As a tiny country, we had to carve a different path from our neighbours in order to remain relevant in the global world. We had to maximise the opportunities knocking on our doors in the form of huge foreign investors. They were looking for a safe, developed, and forward-looking hub to deposit their cash. So we had to sacrifice our landmarks of rich heritage value such as Bukit Brown Cemetery, Margaret Drive Hawker Centre to make more space.

Yes, we value results, and are driven by them. Growing up, even though I loved doing sports, they took a backseat when it came to examinations. Nothing mattered more than that A for my Mathematics paper. It was the key to securing a good job, and a good future, and the government encouraged that, with a meritocratic system. Students were rewarded for their efforts in their studies.

Yet at the same time, we were taught since young, the importance of racial harmony. Every Singaporean knows that we began as a country made up of immigrants from all over the world, and without the contributions of each racial group, there will be no Singapore today. We have deep respect for the different religions, and celebrate different festivals ranging from the Lunar Chinese New Year, to Hari Raya and Deepavali.

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Image from YourSingapore

Image from YourSingapore

The ancient Confucian principle of Xiao (孝) still has deep influences to the younger generation. We value filial piety, and respect our elders. As a nation, the government introduced a Pioneer Generation Package this year, to honour and thank the older generation for their contributions to Singapore.

Not exactly a nation with “no history, no identity, no deeper values, no deeper respect for individuals beyond money and productivity” isn’t it?

Yes, I will no doubt still see steely-faced professionals while on the streets of the CBD. Some people might refuse to help when I ask for directions, others might give me a glare when I block their way by walking too slowly. The entire city is filled with concrete buildings, and people constantly competing with each other as to who walks the fastest.

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Yes, I will probably be labeled as a lunatic if I go around saying hello to the strangers I meet, and Singapore in general, is still too uptight as a nation.

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But somewhere in this tiny country, there are still hawker aunties with the patience and warm smiles of grandmothers, willing to slowly explain the different dishes to a tourist. Slow down, and you can hear beyond the gray buildings, there is a unified roar of a nation waiting to surface.

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Go to the neighbourhoods, the markets, and take in all the gibberish and improper Singlish resonating around, coupled with bargaining for a 10 cents discount for a vegetable purchase.

The kampong spirit is not entirely gone.

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So, soulless, are we really?

I for one, strongly feel that a soul resides in Singapore. You just need to look at the right places, and slowly uncover them.

Incidentally, Singapore is voted as the top country to visit in 2015 by Lonely Planet. Along with our 50th birthday, I am eager to see how visitors will see Singapore as a nation.


2 responses to “Soulless Singapore, are we really?

  1. I can’t help but agree with your post here. Many times I have heard my friends from overseas tell me that Singapore is not authentic enough and doesn’t have soul or character.

    At times I wonder if it is the Occidental’s construct of how we should be like as an Oriental – exotic markets and costumes. Yes, we are developed and yes we have Subways (the metro and the sandwich shop), but we still retain part of our roots in the cultural mishmesh that is Singapore.

    And when I look around my neighborhood and at the food stalls, I find an authenticity and a sense of camaraderie in the community.

    There was once I went to a chicken rice stall at Jalan Besar and the uncle was very busy, being the only one at the stall. His customers, many of them “old-timers” – recurring customers, started helping him out. In a reversal of roles, I found myself carrying chicken rice plates to the tables and collecting cash on behalf of the uncle for a good 30 minutes until I was able to collect my own order. I walked away, packets of chicken rice in hand, feeling great and thinking “Only in Singapore – this is home.”

    • Thank you for your comment Ying! And the insightful sharing about the chicken rice incident!

      I can’t help but think sometimes, foreigners might be so immersed in the atmosphere of our neighbors (vietnam, indonesia, thailand etc.), that they expect something like that from Singapore. We don’t exactly fit the “SEA perception” some people might have. And whether or not they associate this disappointment with the lack of character is another matter.

      Then again, that could be too much of an overgeneralization. But I am glad we share the same consensus about the Singapore spirit. Guess is up to us to show any friends we have from abroad, that Singapore is not a soulless society! (:

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