Thursday, August 12, 2004

How to be true to our roots


In the early hours of National Day, as I arrived at Singapore Inc's answer to our former colonial master's Ministry of Sound - the institution of nightlife known to many of us as Zouk - I set out to wish "Happy National Day" to as many people as possible. Rest assured that there was no event for Young PAP, or Young Democrats, happening there.

For two hours of mixed happiness and madness, I shook hands with ah bengs, ah lians, ang mohs, bartenders, bouncers, cashiers, young professionals and other fellow Singaporeans.

Everyone greeted me with a warm response, except one - a person that a friend lovingly named "Dixy Chix".

Dixy Chix, a tall and affluent-looking middle-aged Chinese woman who spoke fluent English with a faltering ang moh accent, shouted: "What's there to be happy about Singapore? I hate Singapore!"

Her response brought me back to the final address to the nation made by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong hours earlier.

Mr Goh had said: "Building a nation is not like building a block of flats. It is not a matter of laying bricks and pouring concrete. Material wealth alone is not enough to root Singaporeans to Singapore.

"More important are the emotions and intangibles that bond us to our country - our shared values and memories, our families and friends, our progress as one people and our common commitment to a society where each of us can achieve his or her full potential. I believe Singaporeans will love their country more when they feel valued and have the opportunity to shape its future."

How true - but isn't it also true that in order to root Singaporeans to Singapore, the relevant Singaporeans must also be willing to stay rooted to Singapore.

People of Indian or Middle Eastern origin have a saying: "You can bring camels and donkeys to the water but you cannot make them drink it, unless the animals want to."

The same can be said of Singaporeans too. (No offence intended to Singaporeans, or the camels and donkeys.)

Opportunities to shape the future of Singapore will come to nothing in the face of Singaporeans who do not wish to have a hand in such opportunities.

Is there any way to instill willingness in such Singaporeans to be a part of these opportunities and stay rooted to Singapore?

Let me share with you two personal experiences.

Until recently, one of my sisters was very much like Dixy Chix. She left for England two years ago and has been back once. Last year, she wanted to volunteer at a radio station in England. Her offer was refused.

The station instead sought help from an ang moh less qualified than her. She was flabbergasted. When we spoke, she said: "This would not happen to me in Singapore. I miss Singapore."

My sister learned the most powerful lesson that no history book could have impressed upon her - a lesson many before her had learnt.

Early last year, I realised that I had a preference for working for non-Singaporeans. I set myself a goal of working for a Singaporean company and joined one soon after.

My friends did not expect me to last more than six months, since I had taken a considerable pay cut to work for the company.

This month, three days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is sworn in, I will celebrate my first anniversary in the company.

My only regret has been the fact that I could have contributed more to the company had I joined it earlier! The company has made me more proud to be Singaporean.

PM Goh was right when he said that in the era of Mr Lee, "many more Singaporeans will live and work overseas".

I wonder if he is imposing too great an expectation when he says that the future PM Lee "MUST make sure that their hearts continue to be Singaporean" (emphasis added).

We must accept the reality that as many more Singaporeans live and work overseas, some of these Singaporeans will no longer be Singaporeans.

Yet, we also want Mr Lee to live up to PM Goh's expectations. Instilling pride in the hearts of our countrymen to want to remain Singaporean may be the way to go.

Dharmendra Yadav

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