The Distinctive City

November 6, 2009

gohct-kevinlimI 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.

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5 Responses to “The Distinctive City”

  1. Esmeralda Says:

    I think the eyebrow-raising phrase he used is “Singapore must therefore project a new identity…”

    Basically, Singapore Inc. needs a new image. It needs to be re-branded.

    Mind you, it’s done a darned good job so far. In my travels, whenever I mention that I’m from Singapore, the reactions have always been postitive (indeed, admiring): “Oh, Singapore is a very good country, very safe/clean…”.

    Bewildered as I was by these unanimously positive comments, I shocked myself by actually being proud of this: Singapore’s got a damn good marketing campaign.

    I wanna hire the PAP as my marketing firm leh. Sure will make money one. Look at their track record.

  2. deathscythe Says:

    Amazing clarity. A very well-written post. It’s always been a pleasure reading your writing.

  3. Distinguished Distintive Distinction Says:

    We are already a distinctive city,

    1. A city that only honours those who score distinctions in their ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level exams;

    2. A city that becomes elitist by catering mostly for the welfare and happiness of the elites;

    3. A city that distinguishes between the rich and the poor;

    4. A city that gives referential treatments to foreign talents instead of local talents;

    5. A city that distinguishes between Men-in-White and Men-in-Blue;

    6. And the list goes on and on.

    • Ayn Says:

      I totally agree! We are already distinctive. Every country has its own distinctive traits. Singaporeans jus need to embrace and appreciate the nitty gritty bits of distinctiveness that we already have and stop creating ‘new’ ones (which are usually copies of others)which will only lead singaporeans become more confused our identity!

  4. sgcynic Says:

    Makes me wonder whether what we see of Goh and his party is only what they want to project, not what they are.


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