My Singapore, Our Home?

"Singapore is not perfect; no society is perfect."

This recent statement, by a senior government leader, reveals that not all is well in the land that has been my home since birth. Mr Tan Chuan Jin, the Acting Manpower Minister, was making these remarks in response to two letters from Singaporeans giving reasons why they no longer want to call Singapore their home. While one writer lamented that Singapore had lost its soul and has developed an "obsession with GDP growth" over social and cultural concerns, the other author expressed frustration at the government's lack of acceptance and tolerance.

I can understand why both these writers have such deep-seated grouses; the cost of living is at an all-time high (Singapore has remained on the Top-10 list of most expensive cities for the past three years), and the government-citizen relationship has been at its most strained in years (the last General Elections saw the ruling party returned to power with its lowest share of the popular vote since independence). Housing, healthcare, transport, education  and the economy have all emerged as top concerns for a citizenry grappling with significant changes to the way they live. 

In the light of Singapore's 48th National Day, these issues have become particularly poignant, and the Singapore Prime Minister has promised to address all these concerns during his annual "State of the Union" speech - the National Day Rally. 

As a parent, what impact do these issues have on me or on my children?

For a start, it has been revealed that there will be major changes to the educational landscape. The national exam for elementary school students, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), is expected to undergo an overhaul. This will be coupled with other changes in the education sector, as well as in other areas of concern to Singaporeans, such as housing and healthcare.

As a parent, I can only await changes I hope will have a positive impact on my children. I am however also concerned with another issue I feel has an indirect link to education - the issue of graciousness.

In his reply to the two letters, the Manpower Minister alluded to graciousness - he suggested that Singaporeans should try to improve the country rather than merely criticise all the wrong policies. From my personal observation, I am of the opinion that a gracious disposition is cultivated from childhood. For instance, we are all too familiar with the boy screaming in the shopping mall, demanding for a toy that he must have at that very moment. Then there is the girl who insists that her foreign domestic helper cater to her every whim and fancy, and that without even a simple acknowledgement of thanks.

It was with these classic parenting stories in mind that we have insisted for our children to say "please" and "thank you". It started even before they could speak - our younger child E does look rather comical with both his hands at the tips of his ears when trying to say "please" in sign language; he is of course oblivious that the correct way to sign would be to take the hand and to rub it in a circle on the chest. As for our older boy Z, he has begun to say "thank you" on his own accord in response to something that has been done for him. Just the other day we were almost in the carpark after a long day of driving, and I was on the verge of parking the car; that was when our 3-year-old articulated at the top of his voice, "Thank you Daddy. Thank you so very much." 

I am of the firm persuasion that if children are not taught from childhood how to appreciate small acts done for them, then they would not have the inclination of how to express gratitude when they are older. As an educator and youth sector developer, I have seen many students who expect things to be done for them, and many of these youths treat others more like service providers rather than fellow human beings. I feel sad when I meet such students, for I know that these behaviours probably stem from a lack of parental modelling and guidance. And what is especially sad is that these children eventually grow up to become the critical Singaporeans whom the Manpower Minister was referring to, citizens who are always complaining about everything that the government does, no matter whether it is good or bad for the country.

National Day songs capture the imagination and contribute towards the entire nation-building exercise by evoking strong memories of days gone by or through the overt inculcation of national catch-phrases, which are intended to create a sense of shared identity and community. For instance, the song Home by local singer-songwriter Kit Chan conjures the image of a place imbued with belonging and where the identity of the individual is rooted to the collective presence of the community:

This is home, truly
Where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me
Where that river always flows

This is home, surely
As my senses tell me
This is where I won't be alone
For this is where I know it's home.

For Singapore to build on its created narrative of being a nation, and cultivate Singaporeans who aspire to consider this place as their home, it is my opinion that the people of this country have to desire co-existence with others who are only just beginning to set foot on its shores. In this sense, the social constructs of what constitutes a "local" and who is a "foreigner" are only separated by how long the individual has occupied the land, and also the extent to which assimilation has taken place. And I believe that the glue that pastes societies together has to be a common understanding and a measure of graciousness towards others. 

For belonging is when one feels loved and accepted by another, despite the inherent physical and cultural differences between the two.

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