Sep 9, 2012

RE: Letter to Singapore

You’re more than people just scraping by, dreaming of money and five-star hotels. You’re a hell of a lot more than just a good air-conditioning system. You’re everybody, not just the dream citizen; you’re the Malay kids skipping school, hanging out at Peninsula Plaza in black jeans and trucker caps. You’re the unemployed kopitiam uncle with his songbirds. You’re the schoolgirl holding hands with her classmate, hoping the teacher doesn’t see. You’re every one of them, but for some reason you just won’t acknowledge this. You like to hold on to this idea of you being this clean, perfectly efficiently city, when really it’s the dirt that makes you who you are.
- Letter to Singapore

No, it's true. The crime rates are low, the sidewalks are clean, the restrooms are good. Singapore's a great city to come to to work, but I've always felt like it was never much of a place to live. To grow up. I've always felt more than safe here - the closest I've ever come to being a victim of harassment was when a couple of guys wolf-whistled from the park across the road in the afternoon (and that was when I was fourteen and butt ugly) - but perhaps it's been a little bit too safe. I always tell people that you can't live unless you've died.

Singapore isn't a place to die. There's no room to die when you've got the grades to worry about, the endless piles of homework and the teachers and parents breathing down your necks, the school that keeps you engaged in a myriad of activities from before the sun rises to after it sets; the focus on the safe route to success. People assume that one always strives for the best - "best" isn't a personal perception, but society's. People assume that if you're capable of getting into law, you're going to go to law school. If you're doing the humanities in university, they assume it's not because you chose it, but because you had no better option.

We all know this, really. But it's okay, because we're equally as tired of it as you are, and our generation is about to change this. Give the nation some time. We're such a young country. Most of our parents are older than Singapore. This nation has only just crawled out of its years of hardship, turbulence and turmoil - third-world status, racial riots, the war - to become the efficient, safe, rich country it is today. The dream of our grandparents. We've only just realised this dream, and the ecstasy of having reached it is infecting the minds of those who grew up with Singapore. Mainly our parents and grandparents. It's only understandable that they make sure we continue to fight for that success. Dog-eat-dog. Fierce competition. They're terrified of returning to that state of turbulence, even if they see only a glimpse of it again.

My paternal grandmother survived the war, where six of her brothers died. My grandparents' house was broken into, and the millionaire family became bankrupt overnight. My mother grew up in a village in a family of ten, and all of them would share a single fish or chicken for dinner. Poverty was real, even just forty years ago.

All of my mum's sisters climbed out of that. From that lovely village in Ipoh, they're now in KL, Singapore, Australia and America, big houses and nice cars and a great education for their kids. Their generation has seen a lot - from the times of poverty to the present, where university education is the norm. Where you can be a millionaire and still be unable to afford a condominium. Of course you would expect their generation to want to make sure their children find nothing but success. Never find their way back to that hole of despair again. And what better a route to success than the tried and tested way?

"You’re more than surviving. You’ve done well. But now you need to stop holding your breath, stop acting like everything can be taken away from you in an instant. This kind of warlike paranoia isn’t doing you favours. You could be so great if you just relaxed and let go, just a little."

Singapore is, like you say, a bit to obsessed with this idea of material success. We've achieved it - streetlamps at every corner, Marina Bay Sands, one laptop per student and two per working adult - but this success is so new that the generation that fought for it is still so afraid of going back to what we once were. You're twenty. I'm nineteen. We grew up in a time of peace. The times in which a people grows up do affect the characteristics of the country when that generation takes the lead. A large part of our current workforce and leadership grew up in a time of hardship, and despite the success, they're still in fear mode.

And it's almost time for us to take the lead in this place.

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