Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally (NDR) speech on Sunday, again spoke of what makes us Singaporean — the Singaporean Soul. It is a reiteration of what he said two years ago, also in his NDR speech, about what constitutes the Singapore Spirit.
Simply put, it goes to the very heart of what our identity as Singaporeans is.
The question is more acute and indeed more important now than perhaps since the day we parted with Malaysia. Amidst all our much recognised and much lauded economic achievements, this fundamental question of identity persists. It is given more urgency now with the momentous change in our demographics, with the infusion of a large number of foreigners and our ageing population. The fear is that who we are is fast being diluted.
Perhaps, as writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh said in this article, we should accept that the Singaporean has changed and will continue to change in a world which itself is undergoing fundamental changes.
But there are some basic, underlying values which we should adhere to, even as we embrace global phenomena. PM Lee spoke of these — shared values like multi-racialism, meritocracy, or respect for every talent; shared loyalty and commitment to Singapore; shared responsibility for each other and pride in what we have done together; shared memories as well as dreams and aspirations.
While all these are desirable and indeed should be inculcated in our people, I would also urge the government to go beyond these and realise that all these can only be achieved and cemented more firmly if we also empower Singaporeans. Otherwise, these would be nothing more than dictates and artificial prescriptions which could easily come undone when situations change.
Empowerment, of course, comes in many ways and in different forms but one which has so far been overlooked (perhaps purposely) is political empowerment. By this, I do not mean in the area of partisan politics necessarily but more specifically the allowance of space for Singaporeans to engage in causes and in the expression of their (political) passions.
In short, allowing Singaporeans to champion causes or express themselves in areas which the state might feel uncomfortable with. The argument that we now have more political space is one which has often been offered but it doesn't address the fundamental and underlying sentiments many still feel — the fear of speaking up or the fear of expressing themselves in various ways in areas which the government would disapprove of.
So many constraints
Singaporeans still face several restrictions as far as these are concerned. Just recently, Function 8 — the group formed by former detainees of the Internal Security Act (ISA) — had to cancel its book launch cum reading of a play event at the Substation. The group posted on its Facebook page:
"Function 8 is greatly disappointed by the turn of events as we have been informed that the government‐funded venues and support for these events will no longer be available to us. On this note, we register our disquiet at the uncalled‐for interference by the authorities."
In June, the Singaporeans For Democracy society announced it is dissolving the group "to draw attention to two sets of rules that hinder its work as a political advocacy group in Singapore." One set of laws pertain to the registration and the day-to-day operation of SFD while the other other set of laws pertain to the operation of SFD's programme of activities.
Even blogs which engage in political commentary are at risk of being gazetted by the Prime Minister's Office, as one indeed was in 2011. It continues to be a sword of damocles hanging over bloggers' heads. In addition, further restrictions through the Films Act are in place, and the Public Order Act (POA) effectively outlaws public assembly. Restrictions on the mainstream media and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) are still in force.
Party political films are subject to approval by the authorities and the Arts scene is also being shackled.
While the government encourages Singaporeans to engage in its National Conversation initiative — and they should — it is also important for the government to recognise that the so-called "mavericks" of our society must also be given space to express themselves. Indeed, they should be encouraged to champion causes and fight for what they feel is right. As writer Catherine Lim, herself described as a maverick by some, said:
"In Singapore, after years of marginalisation, this must be a very, very small group indeed. But it has a crucial role to play. Its dissident voice and contrarian stand are the very yeast to enliven the political dough. Even its unruliness and rambunctiousness are the very genes, though dangerously mutant and rogue, to give new life to a tired species.
Instead of crushing it, the government should engage it and allow it to play out its role in what ultimately must be a beneficial political education for all. For only through engagement with difference can convictions be strengthened, courage tested and characters moulded. Only in the rough and tumble, the cut and thrust of political battle, can there be the conditions to throw up a political genius who will one day lead the society with vision and courage."
So, is there room for those who trudge the road less travelled in this new Singapore which the prime minister speaks of? Mavericks or those who disagree with the government, and those whose causes may not be supported by or interest the majority, are no less one of our own. They too are Singaporeans.
How inclusive, then, are we willing to be? Or are we — again — going to demonise and circumscribe the space (whatever space there is) which this particular group of Singaporeans has to express themselves?
In a Straits Times report in August, MP Inderjit Singh, referring to the National Conversation initiative, warned that the government must be willing to make radical changes. "If the committee comes out with incremental changes which are not significant, we would have wasted our time with this exercise," he said.
While Singh may not have been specifically referring to political changes, or changes to allow more space for civil society, his warning nonetheless holds true for these areas just the same.
Without space for these "mavericks" to champion causes and engage in activities (even those like a simple book launch or a reading of a play), Singapore cannot expect that a soul will emerge somehow.
Defining the country's soul
A soul is something which runs much deeper in us, and I would argue that it has little to do with whether we have places in schools, or that we have a small income-gap, or that we are able to buy a HDB flat — important certainly as these are.
The Singapore Soul must necessarily mean an empowered citizenry.
It is futile, really, to speak of a soul when that soul is curtailed, locked-in, and disempowered from doing things for itself.
While the Prime Minister's NDR speech urged Singaporeans to decide what kind of Singapore they want and to do their part to realise this, it seems the government is still the one taking the lead and setting the agenda. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. One would, however, wish that the government would also realise that perhaps it is better to open space for Singaporeans to organise themselves, hold activities, and champion the causes they believe in, without having to look over their shoulders all the time.
What would cement the government's commitment and give credence to its words in encouraging Singaporeans to do things for themselves would be for it to clearly enshrine citizens' rights in the Constitution in unequivocal language.
For in the end, whether mavericks or not, we all are not championing causes because we have nothing better to do. It is because we care about the disenfranchised and the forgotten of society.
As Halimah Yacob said in her NDR speech:
"Caring Singaporeans looking out for one another is the most powerful individual expression of the values of our nation."
That is a beautiful summation, actually, of what the Singapore Soul is all about. And who is to say that those in civil society and the political groups care less for our fellow Singaporeans or for our society?
On the contrary, the very fact that they take up causes which few may be interested in, and with not much to gain in doing so, shows the passion which they feel for this island of ours.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his NDR speech, "We need to restore a balance to the hardnosed material pragmatism."
Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.