Two Peoples, One Nation: A Divided Singapore

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In an anxiety-ridden night on July 11, Singaporeans’ bated breath over the results of the 2020 General Election erupted into a collective emotional uproar — the Workers’ Party (WP) had secured another historic win at Sengkang GRC, wrestling away a total of 10 seats from the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Parliament. 

Four fresh, young faces faced the press confidently. Their presence on the podium marked the new generation’s desire to question PAP stalwarts and alter Singapore’s trajectory towards a different future. At long last, blue skies have come to mediate the formidable force of lightning and thunder. By voting for diversity, Singaporeans are hammering in a more mature political climate.

While this was still a considerably small victory compared to PAP’s supermajority of 83 seats, a growing laceration between the desires of the young and old is clearly evident. There is an increasing polarisation between more liberal values versus the economic pragmatism of older generations, which may be a cause of future disagreements. As we continue to progress, this divide needs to be carefully examined and bridged for Singapore to become a healthy, inclusive society where both sides are respectful and tolerant of each other. 

Nature of civil society

Singapore traditionally has a weak civil society. Many channels for democratic expression and activism are carefully managed by the government. Although we can observe active citizenry in national conversations like the recent Singapore Together in 2019 as well as organisations such as Sinda and Community Development Councils, these are still generally top-down initiatives where the government has some form of control over what is being said or done.

The government prefers activities on issues that they deem ‘safe’ and ‘practical’ such as housing and finance. This is why many civic groups that advocate for more controversial social causes, for example LGBTQ+ rights, find it difficult to thrive. Though not overt, these groups usually meet with restrictions that hinder their progress.  Ground-up organisations that are truly free of government control are rare here. 

Generally, the older generations seem to be content with this paternalistic approach. They fear government intervention and are happy to maintain their individualistic lifestyles focusing on work and family. Why go through all the trouble to change society when you may not even see the results? It is far more convenient to just enjoy the comforts that life brings and comply with rules.

According to Seow Ming Fang, a 49-year-old accountant, the reason for this mindset all boils down to a different context. “Growing up as children of the Pioneer and Merdeka generation, Gen Xs saw how hard our parents had to work to ensure stability for our families in a harsh world. From them, we learnt the importance of studying hard and making practical decisions in order to secure a good job. For me getting a position in a multinational corporation (MNC) to provide for my children was my utmost priority in life, and I focused all my efforts to achieve that – little else.”

“As I near retirement, I just want to take things easy now and don’t have time to get involved in complicated social issues. My energy has been used up on work. I’m satisfied with how society is and just want to reap the fruits of my labour.”

On the other hand, many young people want to have these difficult conversations. They recognise the need for a consultative approach to collectively build a better future and don’t like their views to be suppressed. 

For a start, aggrieved students want their concerns to be taken seriously, not swept under the carpet by larger authorities. Regarding the forced recall of Singaporean undergraduates on overseas exchanges in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Wilson Ler, a computer engineering student from the National University of Singapore (NUS), 24, commented, “We were not given a choice or even a chance to explain ourselves. All of our appeal letters to the HR department were rejected. Promising us ‘zero losses’ to get us back home quickly was unrealistic as many of us had to sell our cars for cheaper prices and be retrenched from once-in-a-lifetime internships.”

“Instead of justifying the recall as a directive to look out for our safety, perhaps it would be more reasonable to convince us and let us decide on our own. I believe that right should be given to us as independent adults.” 

Hence, the young want greater participation in matters that affect them directly rather than blindly following what the authorities think is in the nation’s best interests. Many youths want the autonomy to scrutinise details and use their own critical judgement to determine their fates without fear of censorship. 

Discourse on race

Another point of contention is the state of race relations in Singapore. The government has always promoted a rather linear and simplistic narrative of racial equality in Singapore. During Racial Harmony Day, we see stock images of individuals from the four races holding hands and smiling. Teachers remind students of the 1964 racial riots and encourage them to  uphold our multiracial character or risk reopening “fault lines”. 

Diversity is treated as a potential threat and something to be safeguarded at all costs rather than a natural strength of our identity to be celebrated. Moreover, what we do on Racial Harmony Day to “foster appreciation of other cultures” is a shallow, once-a-year exchange of food and ethnic wear — an act of tokenism that does nothing to address deeper problems on race lurking within. 

On the surface, it is definitely true that Singapore appears to live up to its name of being a multiracial nation. The older generations have learnt to be tolerant of others and generally work well with one another in the workplace. They act in a civil manner in front of counterparts from different races, and are supportive of government integration policies. 

Unfortunately, things are more insidious beyond this facade, especially when looking at the Chinese majority. Growing up as a child in Singapore, I have often heard my Chinese parents and grandparents using racial slurs such as “Ah Pu Neh Neh” and “Bangla” behind backs in the domestic sphere, disapproving of people from other races as potential husbands and tuition teachers. This perpetuates negative stereotypes of minority groups and assumes a sense of superiority just by virtue of being a Chinese. 

They also make condescending remarks towards the teenagers smoking in the neighbourhoods who consist of a disproportionately high number of Malays, claiming that bad parenting styles or their inherent ‘laziness’ made them that way while ignoring structural socio-economic factors that might have contributed to what they see. The “ownself check ownself” culture that rewards individual hard work to achieve material success and their ability to thrive in it makes them insensitive to others who fall behind. 

So, racial equality is again the result of top-down policing that creates an appearance of inter-ethnic peace whilst not truly inculcating an instinctual moral compass towards cultural diversity, as evidenced by some older, conservative Chinese citizens’ racist comments. As acquaintances and friends, minorities are fine, but any deeper connections may make these older Chinese uncomfortable. 

However in recent years, the younger generations have been putting a spotlight on subtle discriminatory practices pervading the fabric of our society. Instagram and Twitter are proving themselves to be rich platforms for raising awareness on social justice issues, including discussions about race.

Pages run by millennials and Gen Zs such as @minorityvoices and @rachelpangcomics share the lived experiences of Singaporeans who  were victims of or casual racism or observed it happening first-hand. @wakeupuridea is another page that breaks down extracts of scholarly articles to spread rational ideas on race to wider audiences in a clear and digestible manner. 

All in all, these projects serve to promote more informed racial discourse that has normally been avoided, tratead as taboo or clamped down upon by authorities for fear of stirring interracial enmity. They lead a new generation of socially-aware individuals who are unafraid to speak up for the marginalised, daring to dream for a fairer and truly inclusive society. They are tired of being told what to think and want to have a say in shaping the world too. 

On national identity

The ideology of survivalism should be familiar to Singaporeans, drilled into our heads from school lessons and national campaigns. We learnt that as a small country, we should be proud that we still managed to overcome trials and tribulations such as the Japanese Occupation and separation from Malaysia to become an independent-first world nation. 

Our emphasis on economic growth under the hard-nosed perspicacity of our founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP team has created a society where the ruling party dominates discourse on national belonging. The inseparable association of Lee Kuan Yew with Singapore has caused a conflation between party and state. When we think of Singapore, we think of the PAP.

What this has set up is a “rational sense of cost-benefit analysis instead of an emotional attachment to cultural values” (Ortmann, 2009). From the perspective of the young, they want to believe in bigger ideas that they can participate in and relate with distinctly Singaporean experiences, not a streamlined, pre-prepared narrative of how we came to be. Economic materialism is too superficial a trait to represent the beating heart of a nation. 

While it may be argued that the Pledge presents a set of shared values, such a forced imposition has caused many young, average Singaporeans to recite it in a perfunctory manner without thinking about what is being said. They need reasons to believe in it; not just to be told to believe in it. 

Instead, to develop their sense of belonging, they have turned to alternative mediums that highlight unique aspects of the city-state’s national identity — music, literature, film, theatre and even memes on the internet! Just take a look @sgag or @memedef to find a plethora of posts depicting everyday troubles that resonate more with the young. Performances such as Those Who Can’t, Teach and the film Money No Enough also feature the use of Singlish, showcasing typical Singaporean lifestyles. 

Additionally, many local literary works emphasise the fact that our identity is an ever-evolving one with strong cultural hybridity and room for social change. These alternative channels appeal more to the youth as compared to the authoritarian conception of a civic national identity, which is proving itself to be unsustainable for new audiences.

Negotiating different priorities

The growing intolerance between the young and old can be observed in everyday discourse. Older generations continually exhort young people to be grateful to them and focus on attaining stable livelihoods, while the young often dismiss older people’s attitudes with the disdainful catchphrase “ok boomer”. 

However, it is not as if the two sides do not completely understand each other. Young people also care about bread-and-butter issues but they focus on progressive social ideals because these constitute the bigger picture and influence material concerns– by bringing discriminatory hiring practices to light, for example, it will also create better job opportunities for all Singaporeans. 

They just do not want to solely talk about material comforts because unlike their predecessors, most of them already enjoy a certain level of stability and can afford to think about more progressive ideas to take societal improvements to the next level. 

On the other side, some older Singaporeans also recognise the need for alternative voices. Vincent Sng, a 56 year-old engineer, expressed that “More members of the opposition have to be elected in Parliament because they need experience in governing too. Should a day ever come where the PAP becomes corrupt and loses its credibility, then there will still be capable politicians from other parties who know what to do and can take over from there.”

Thus, this demonstrates that it is possible for the divide to be bridged. 

Different generations will inevitably have different interests, priorities and goals. After all, they have different experiences that necessitate different concerns. 

But being members of the same society means that more healthy conversations need to be held to engage all citizens, whether young and old, in negotiating a common future. While young people want to see a shift in politics that is more befitting of a modern democratic society, they still need to respect the contributions and hard work of the older generations that built solid foundations for the current generation to work upon. That was certainly not an easy task.

Despite that, this national narrative cannot just stop there and remain stagnant. Older Singaporeans need to accept that the times are changing. This entails bringing in a future-oriented outlook with new ideas and concerns. Heavy-handed bulldozing and silencing of views on uncomfortable topics will no longer work when running the country; we need to openly talk about them. 

As we prepare for the upcoming national day celebrations, these issues remain as relevant as ever. But beyond all the smiles, singing and fireworks, we need to ask ourselves — what exactly are we celebrating? An achievement of past struggles? Our hopes for the future?

Only through settling intergenerational differences and mutual understanding can we then truly become “One People, One Nation, One Singapore.”

Further Readings

*Please note that this article does not represent the view of the publication, nor is it attacking an individual, group or class in particular. It is simply the personal view of the writer.

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