Singaporean by birth and choice
By CHUA MUI HOONG
WHAT WE SHARE
[ Source: The Straits Times, 9 August 2006]
Head down, eyes ahead, a foolish grin on my wet face, I pedalled through the rain. On my left, rows of tall casuarinas swayed in the breeze. In the distance, the sea beckoned, grey-green.
I had spent a hallowed half hour on a secluded stretch of the beach. Facing the waves, my Marin mountain bike behind me, I got into some yoga poses.
Standing tall, arms raised, I am strong like a Mountaintop. Body swivelling, arms raised, eyes ahead, I am fierce like a Warrior.
There was no one around to stare. Only a couple of white-collared kingfishers flitting around the palm trees. A (human) couple engrossed in their own world having a picnic under grey skies. A lone man, who emerged from a tent and tossed a coconut husk into the sea. He sat and waited for the waves to bring back the husk, then tossed it out again. Of such simple joys is life made.
And then the rain came. I got back onto my bike and pedalled in search of a pavilion.
At that moment, I knew one thing: There is nowhere else, no time else, I would rather be in than right here, right now, in Singapore, where I grew up, on East Coast beach which holds so many memories, on my new bike (which cost not much more than the Progress Package I got), in the rain.
I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and in the United States as a student. I’ve travelled to some 20 countries. And always, when someone asks why I’m still working in Singapore, as though it’s some inferior option to be explained away, I britle.
I live here because I like it here, because this place gives me a good quality of life in the Great Glamorous West would be better. Somewhere in my 30s, I got reconciled to the simple truth: I am Singaporean and I prefer Singapore to any other place I have been.
This being National Day, it’s a good time to take stock and appreciate what we have, and unleash the latent patriot in all of us.
There are many things, after all, that we share.
Like the memories in places like Macritchie Reservoir,
the old National Library,
or East Coast Park, where I I learned to cycle a quarter of a century ago, a feat a new generation in the person of my nephew Jonathan recently repeated. (I took several weeks, he took 15 minutes).
We also share common experiences. Like the Use Your Hands Camapaign, splashing the classroom with a hose, sweeping away the water with a “sapu lidi” (broom made of twigs). When else can you play with water in class?
We share a common repertoire of folksongs, taught in school. From the Philippines, we knew Planting Rice is Never Fun, bent from morn till the set of sun. We know Di Tanjong Katong. And everyone who went to school here knows at least one Tamil song: Munnaeru vaalibaa munaeri endrum. Thoduvaan noakkuvaai …
The other day I looked at my niece’s school song book and realised a new generation is learning those songs. We may disagree on her music and mine (I can’t get into Lindsay Lohan or S.H.E. She thinks my music from the 1980s is just weird.) But at leasst we booth like singing “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree”.
Question: How do you pick out a Singaporean from a bunch of other Asian-looking folks?
When he opens his mouth, a the Great Wall, the Grand Canyon, the Zambezi Bridge, you shudder at the familiar twang, the flat vowels, the inability to enunciate clearly, the shortening of sentences.
We also know a Singaporean from her palate.
If appetite and health were no constraint, this would be her desired menu for a day: Breakfast of nasi lemak, extra otah please, with teh tarik at Adam Road hawker centre.
Or maybe bak chor mee, Chicken rice from Wee Nam Kee at Novena for mid-morning.
For lunch, perhaps tauhu telor or briyani or Katong laksa, maybe all three, and Sanur’s avocado cream. For tea, Ghim Moh char kway teow,
Joo Chiat prawn noodles.
For dinner: Peranakan, with ayam buah keluak and chap chye. Or maybe Italian or Japanese.
Food is the great social glue and leveller. If you don’t know your murtabak from your nasi lemak, your otah from your orh luak, than I’m sorry, I have to question if you’re really Singaporean.
CEO or cleaner, we sit as equals in the great, grimy (okay, now not so grimy after the renovations) hawker centres like Tiong Bahru, Maxwell Road adn Newton.
From among their bowels rise future leaders. That young boy serving you wanton mee? One day he could be a President’s Scholar, a future inventor, your future boss.
Fondness for food aside, you also know a Singaporean by what he says – or doesn’t say.
That old joke: Two people are asked, what’s your opinion of food? The Ethiopian goes: “What’s food?” The Singaporean: “What’s an opinion?”
When Singaporeans do venture an opinion, it’s often negative. Grumbling, next to eating, is a national pastime.
We sit in groups trashing Singapore and the ubiquitous, mysterious thing called “the system”. We complain about the heat, the lack of space, the COE system, the education system, the political system. We say “They” should do this or that; “They must change; “They” are the ones screwing up things.
Have you ever come across anyone who admits to being part of Them? I haven’t. Not citizens, not activists, not even senior civil servants or politicians.
Like teenagers, we need a mythic authority figure to rebel against and to blame. Without a Them, where would We be?
You also recognise Singaporeans by their chronic insecurity and angst. Do we have a national identity, we ask, even as our eyes well up at every National Day Parade and we swell with pride that home-grown Shamsui Maidin refereed at the World Cup.
We are too prosaic a society, we have no poetry, no soul, we lament, forgetting poets like Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng, painters like Chua Ek Kay, and the myth-makers in our midst.
We may grumble about this place and put ourselves down, but really, deep down, underneath the reserve and self-doubt, we’re all proud of this little red dot.
In the words of that Dick Lee song: This is home truly , where I know I must be.
Happy birthday, Singapore.
The archived newspaper article by Chua Mui Hoong and selected photos with courtesy of National Archives of Singapore and NewspaperSG, National Library Board to be shared on this blog.