2015 was a year filled with celebrations of Singapore’s milestone 50th year of independence (SG50). Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University, observed that the SG50 celebrations were about knowing our roots and “appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of our journey as a fledgling nation state”. He commented that through these activities, Singaporeans saw that they should remain positive about the nation’s future. But, that Singaporeans should not think that Singapore’s development is complete, as nation building is a “work-in-progress”. Looking back at the year’s events, he pointed that each citizen needs to reflect on and respond to what our independence means, what Singapore stands for and what being a Singaporean is.
In his 2016 New Year message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained why he found the four moments in 2015 — the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the SG50 celebrations, the NDP celebrations, and the GE — memorable. “Because they showed the world — and ourselves — what a determined and united people can do; why Singapore is a shining red dot … But most of all, these were moments when we came together, and took responsibility for one another. We wept, we sang, we celebrated, we bonded together, and emerged stronger as one united people.” PM Lee said that creating a common identity was one of the key challenges that Singapore will face over the next 50 years.
In response to this survey, the Channel News Asia program, Talking Point, hosted a special discussion to identify the factors that make up a national identity. Panellists and viewers were asked to share parts of Singapore’s culture that resonate with them, and whether 50 years has been enough time to evolve a common national identity. The panelists included local food consultant and TV host KF Seetoh, rapper Shigga Shay, comedian Muhammad Fadzri (better known as Fakkah Fuzz), LUSH 99.5FM deejay Rosalyn Lee, and writer Gwee Li Sui. They identified Singlish, cultural diversity and hawker food important in forging a national identity.
Dialects and Singlish are very important to our culture
Singlish – Singapore’s own patois that mixes English with local dialects and languages – has been a source of discussion for years, with many saying that it detracted from the learning of proper English. But, it was celebrated at the 2015 SG50 National Day Parade. According to Shigga Shay, “Dialects and Singlish are very important to our culture. I try to infuse them into my music,” said the rapper, whose real name is Pek Jin Shen. He is known for hit singles like ‘Lion City Kia’, whose hip-hop lyrics include Singlish rhymes and phrases. Mr Gwee said that the heritage of language, “has developed across generations … [which is] great because it means the vocabulary is growing bigger and bigger.” The panel of local personalities and celebrities agreed that Singlish connects Singaporeans with their heritage, and serves as a reminder of how culturally diverse Singapore is.
Other common cultural identifiers?
Apart from Singlish, the panellists also pointed to a few cultural aspects specific to life in Singapore, such as calling seniors ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’, and ‘choping’ – or reserving – a table with a pack of tissues. Food has also been highlighted as an important aspect of Singapore’s national identity. Ms Lee said: “I feel that ‘have you eaten’ is our way of saying ‘how are you’.” Mr Seetoh added: “Laksa, satay bee hoon, Indian rojak, cheong gai, mee siam, mee rebus, bak ku teh – we’re Singaporeans, we see food with our mouths. Local food is multi-sensory.” But some are worried Singapore is losing its hawker food culture, because of food courts and commercialization.
Preserving local culture
The panellists said that the preservation of these aspects of Singapore’s culture and physical spaces can help protect a common national identity and national heritage. This could include conserving old buildings and sites, like the Bukit Brown cemetery, and language dialects which show diversity and help us find out more about each other’s culture. Ms Lee said, “I think Singaporeans are obsessed with nostalgia. Over the past 50 years we have grown so fast. It’s like holding on to a precious piece of us.” Shigga Shay, said that he thought National Service was also important as, “It brings all the different classes of Singaporeans together.
What do you think makes us Singaporean?