Yesterday, I attended a National Day observance cum celebration. It was an extravaganza of sorts. Besides the obligatory pledge and Majulah Singapura, which I hadn't sung in one year, the afternoon was filled with very creative and fun activities on stage. There were many stage items put up by various groups. Many of them were comedic to keep the occasion fun and entertaining. There was an item that went retro with dances stretching from the 1950s (a-go-go) right up to today's hip-hop. Some were more cultural - more dances again of which one was put up by our Myanmarese friends, all decked out in their traditional costumes. I didn't know there were that many Myanmarese in this single organisation. They managed to put on garbs from the various ethnic groups that make up Myanmar and did a fascinating traditional dance display. In the midst of this dance, I began to feel adrift as a Singaporean.
These people aren't rich, materially, but they have a culture and tradition they could articulate and call their own. They had come from afar to seek opportunities in Singapore, but they would have a place they would call their home to return to one day, nevermind if those places aren't as well-to-do or sophisticated as Singapore is. Their homes may be rural villages, but it has a history that probably goes back hundreds of years. And they have immediate neighbours who share a cultural and historical continuum. In contrast, Singaporeans have nothing.
We do not have a dance we can call our own. Whatever that it is, it looks awfully (and I mean awfully) like a product or adaptation from Hollywood, Bollywood or Shaw Organisation. Whatever songs we have come up with - "Stand up for Singapore", "Count on me, Singapore", "One People, One Nation, One Singapore", "Where I belong", "We will get there", etc., all of them are effort to try to psycho ourselves to believe that we belong to this tiny island. We do, so why insist on it? It is un-natural. That is why I rarely, if ever, sing these songs. Unlike our Myanmarese friends, we Singaporeans are trapped on this island. China will never accept Singapore Chinese as one of their own. Our fathers and grandfathers perhaps, but not those in my generation and those after. Ironically, many China Chinese seem to have migrated in droves to this island and called it their home - for now, that is. They still have a Shanghai or Suzhou or Tianjin or Beijing to go back to when they choose to. It is such a fluid world we live in today.
But of course, some would argue that the Singaporean can easily uproot himself to places such as the US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. But that is hardly going home. The Singaporean may be cosmopolitan, and he would fit in nicely in these places, but at heart, he knows it is not home, and can never be. Some Singapore Chinese would like to call China our home. That is where our forebears came from anyway. But we know we are not one of them and they know that too. And it doesn't help when our Chinese language abilities are half past six.
So for better or worse, there is really only one home, and that is located on a tiny island on the tip of the Malay Peninsula. We are not old enough to have a unique and ingrained culture and tradition. We should not pretend that we have. We experiment through copying and adapting from others what fancies us at that point in time. It is not us - at least, not yet for people like me who straddle different histories and memories. We still wear costumes that our forebears wore in their countries of birth - China, India... Any pretense at a National dress has been torn in tatters years ago. We may have an island full of engineers, but we have failed dismally when it comes to engineering an identity. That will take time and perhaps we shouldn't rush it. In the meantime, at 47, we can continue (is there a choice?) to be cosmopolitan in our outlook and mercenary in our pursuits. I am sure some time down the road, perhaps 40, 50 years from, we will have evolved a peculiar and genuine Singapore culture and tradition our children can call their own.
We are, after all, only 43.
Image taken off Mediacorp's 'Live' Web TV during the National Day Parade 2008 on 9th August 2008.