‘I’ve never felt prouder to be Singaporean’

SingaporeScene

During my time in Spain, it surprised me how proud I was of the Singapore flag. (Yahoo! photo/Jeanette Tan)

Yahoo! Singapore reporter Jeanette Tan shares her experience spending two weeks in August in various parts of Spain for Catholic World Youth Day, an annual  gathering of  youth from around the world that culminates in a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.

COMMENTARY

Gratefulness and relief washed over me when our plane touched down at Changi Airport Terminal 3 last month.

I was grateful that my 13 friends and I were back home safely, health and belongings mostly intact. Also, we were able to clear customs and baggage claims within 20 minutes, versus the full hour we spent waiting for a faulty conveyor belt to spit out our bags in Barcelona just a fortnight earlier.

More importantly, I was relieved to be back in a country without protests or unrest, with significantly lower risk of crazy weather, and where police officers knew where things were.

The opposite of these were precisely the challenges we faced in Madrid, the host city of this year's Catholic World Youth Day (WYD). We dodged anti-Pope protests, were victims of last-minute program changes and were even locked out of the main area for the WYD mass, celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, because organisers had grossly underestimated -- by at least 200,000 people -- the space required for the event.

That night, two girls in the group I was travelling with succumbed to exhaustion and almost suffocated from major overcrowding -- one became dizzy and the other completely blacked out.

Shortly after both of them recovered, we were hit by a severe sand storm, and after it subsided, our attempts to approach nearby police officers for assistance to escort our friends back to our college came to naught. Most of the officers were on horseback or on motorcycles, and they all lacked blankets, knowledge of where the nearest medic tent was, or any practical means of helping us. They ended up spending the night with us in the cold outside.

During that time, all I could think of was if such a major event had been hosted in Singapore, none of this would have happened -- all pilgrims who were duly registered and had passes would not only have been able to gain admission to the main area, they would also have been able to access their allocated sectors in the area where mass was held. Toilets would not be choked and flooding, and volunteers and police would know how to get things done right.

I do understand, though, that global events are not the simplest things to organise, and I certainly salute the Spanish government for its bravery in hosting this celebration amid a stormy European economic climate. Unemployment in Spain, in particular, is at an all-time high. In August, it stood at 21.3 per cent, while youth unemployment was even more alarming: 45 per cent.

To give some perspective, that's 4.9 million jobless Spaniards, according to the BBC -- nearly the entire Singapore population of 5.08 million. In comparison, Singapore's unemployment rate is below what some economists have termed "full employment": 2.1 per cent. And it's not just Spain -- its neighbours Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Italy are also creaking under the weight of billion-dollar debt.

That said, it is true that our freedom of speech and expression may not be as liberal as it is in Spain, but I personally am thankful that we don't see protests or city sit-downs anywhere near as often as they do. I think back to the Singapore-hosted Youth Olympic Games (YOG), a global event held at the same time last year that many Singaporeans denounced for poor organisation. And to be perfectly honest, I challenge anyone to dispute that Singapore did a better job with the YOG than Madrid did with WYD.

At the same time, I realise this year's elections (both general and presidential) have shown that Singapore is at a crossroads now more than ever and that many of my fellow countrymen are grappling with a host of issues: rising cost of living, the steady influx of foreign talent, overcrowding and exorbitant housing prices, to name just a few.

But truly, I am glad to be Singaporean. My time in Spain has opened my eyes to the larger problems that the rest of the world faces. While there, all I heard about in the news was of protests in London, the rising death toll in Tripoli, and the ravages of Hurricane Irene. In contrast, our presidential elections, while important, just did not seem like a matter of life and death.

That is not to say that I don't understand or acknowledge that all is not well in Singapore. The reality of life in this city-state resonates in me -- I returned home to the very hefty $38,000 debt I still have with the bank from my four years of university tuition fees, a two-room flat in Sembawang I share with my elder sister, and endless concerns about how I will be able to afford what I will need to pay for in the forseeable future.

I, too, squeeze myself onto trains every morning, and cling to handrails on buses jammed in the central business district in the evenings. As a recent graduate, the competition with foreigners for jobs and opportunities is, and will be, a real life-long concern for me. Living on my own with my sister, the rising costs of food and household items have hit me harder than most for a person my age.

The Singapore contingent poses for a picture with pilgrims from the Philippines and Canada. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Goh)

But yet, I cannot shake the immense and unforgettable mark that my time in Madrid has left on me -- among many other things, what it truly means, and how it truly feels, to be a Singaporean. Instead of complaining and ranting about what we don't have, I now feel it more worthwhile to appreciate what we do -- peace, cleanliness, public order, safety, efficiency and a humming economy.

Over those two weeks I spent in Spain, meeting locals and people from France, Italy, the United States, Britain, Australia, Sweden, Angola, Venezuela, Portugal, Peru, South Africa, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and even Iraq (the list goes on), one of the things I enjoyed most was introducing them to Singapore -- telling them where in the world we are, what language we speak, and how our multi-racial, multi-faith society is at once diverse and yet harmonious.

Funnily enough, my proudest moments on the trip were when we flew our state flag high in the air. We were few, and we were rare, but that filled us -- me -- with even greater pride. It was in those moments that I never felt happier to see our nation's flag flying high among all the others -- and it was in those moments that I had never in my life felt prouder to be Singaporean.