Happy 48th, Singapore! Many Happy Returns!

On National Day I cannot say that I unreservedly love the country. In my mind, I can easily provide counter-responses to the reasons why Singapore is worth loving. The to-and-fro as I imagine, would sound like this:

“Singapore is my home, where all my family and friends are!”

Retort: “If you are able, you can easily move your family to an Asian neighbourhood in a different country, and make new friends. You mean you cannot make new friends in other countries?”

“Singapore has low crime!”

Retort: “Just find a safe neighbourhood, or live in a gated community.”

“Singapore is multicultural!”

Retort: “You haven’t been to NY, London ah?”

… And on and on.

Ultimately, the basis for our patriotism is emotional. There’s just this emotional connection that we feel, and when we celebrate National Day, we celebrate this emotional connection. No country is perfect, and Singapore is no more or less imperfect than other country. By sheer choice of deciding where we want to belong, individual and national identities co-mingle, and it’s on that basis individual Singaporeans come together and decide to celebrate National Day.

I don’t want to overstate how good or bad Singapore is, but to state some of the facts: material growth contrasts with growing inequality; education anxiety is as high as ever with more tuition centres; I don’t know if the the structural unemployment is more or less of a problem; our transportation system is expanding – the “step” improvements in capacity contrasts against the creeping increase in population.

And here I speculate: I wonder if the physical constraints lend themselves to a zero-sum sense of the world. I would think so, and as I read Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, I come to terms with how the impulses for environmental and historical preservation can be opposed to the need for development, and to keep housing affordable. Supposing if, one day the pretty shophouses at Katong have to make way for more high-rises for an increasing population to keep housing costs affordable – what then? Despite the genius of Singapore’s urban planners, there still is only so much that can be done, and very difficult choices have to be made. Today one of the choices is already before us: that the Cross-Regional Line will be cutting through the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the Nature Society has already provided a report and alternatives about the routes that the line could take. If the land transport agrees to the alternatives, it can be seen as having compromised to environmental interests. Yet in another way, Singaporeans and future passengers of the CRL would also have won – to be able to both enjoy nature, and to enjoy cheap and quick transits across the island. In a physical sense, some of the choices are indeed zero-sum.

In policy and national issues, the central frame can appear to be zero-summed – that the gains of someone must mean the loss of another. The rat-races in education and materialism (5Cs) also demonstrate the zero-sumness frame – that the achievements of someone means someone else’s loss, or even my loss. Rankings tend to have this framing – everyone has ‘their place’, and one can only progress at the expense of another. If Singapore should thrive in an uncertain future, then we’ll all have to progress together.

People live in families, in communities, and in societies. No one truly lives alone, and no one is truly independent of another, or totally self-reliant. Being reliant on others isn’t so much a personal fault as it is a necessity: how can we live relying only on ourselves?

My own thoughts are that Singapore’s future progress will come from what Singaporeans will give to each other, particularly those who have been marginalised, and neglected. Some of them might not even be Singaporeans, and we’ll still give all the same.

This spirit of giving, of accepting compromise and to do so in amicable ways, could define the way the big G deals with people, communities and organisations and shape the future to come.

Here’s to many happy returns.  Happy 48th.

Edit: There won’t be a post over the weekend! Happy Long Weekend, Singapore!

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