November 6, 2009
I had a friend called Kevin in secondary school. He was a clever boy. He was smiley and polite. But Kevin came from a poor family. His father was usually unemployed and his mother worked on the factory floor of some garment manufacturer. This made Kevin pretty insecure, especially when he hung around us middle class boys.
And because of this Kevin was always trying to be someone else. He tried to talk like us, tried to act like us, tried to become us. Pretty soon, Kevin stopped being Kevin. And because he could never become us, he became nothing, neither here nor there. And because he was neither here nor there, we found him less and less interesting.
Singapore is like Kevin.
According to Goh Chok Tong Singapore needs a new identity to ‘stay ahead’. We must project a new identity – “one that captivates the eyes, moves the heart, stirs the soul and inspires the mind”. In other words, lie. We do many things. We knock down old buildings for fun, we sue people for saying things we don’t like, we censor films, we have androids for MPs, we have a “nation-building” press, we have leaders we have to worship, we deny people the right to love others of the same sex, but we certainly don’t do ‘captivation’, ‘soul’ or ‘inspire’. Anyone who says otherwise either works in the Singapore Tourism Board or wants to get his letter published in the Forum Page of the Straits Times.
We do safe. We do clean. We do efficient. We do corruption-free, green, family-friendly, and very good propaganda. We already have an identity – a hardworking obedient people with a keen ear for the jangling of coins. Inspiration is one of those high falutin ideas for the birds.
Goh tells us that we must be a “Distinctive City”. But O Great One, we already are! ERP, CWO, COE, no chewing gum, no spitting, no littering, no opposition, no opinion, no intellectuals, no newspaper, no satire, no TV, no one man assembly, hell, we couldn’t be more distinctive if we wore neon pink thongs and a feather boa to the Church of Our Saviour holding hands and singing “It’s Raining Men”! Let’s decide once and for all what kind of Distinctive City we are ok? “Boston of the East”, “Global City for the Arts”, “Renaissance City”, “City of Possibilities” – I’ve not been this confused since Father Mathews asked me to sit on his lap!
This neurotic desire to keep re-inventing ourselves, to be what we’re not, tells us more about our insecurities than anything else. Londoners don’t say they need a new identity. A new transportation system yes, but not a new identity. Nor do New Yorkers, Parisians or any other global city dweller. They know that what they are is exactly that which distinguishes them from the competition.
But like Kevin, Singapore is never at ease with itself. It’s a little ashamed, a little awkward and completely unaware of how to accentuate its qualities. And like Kevin, we’re in danger of becoming neither here nor there.