Monday, 28 May 2012

Let it BE: My Dad, Singapore Politics and Identity

After the first by-election Worker's Party rally, my dad came home with these flags.

My dad is ardently supportive of the top opposing game in town now, the Worker's Party. One might be tempted to associate him with the hordes of unintelligible, foul-mouthed, immature online surfers who trawl political internet sites like Temasek Review and leave distasteful trails of cowardly anonymous and unconstructive criticism directed at the PAP in their wake. Conversely, my dad actively attends rallies to offer genuine support, sends encouraging emails to Sylvia Lim (whom he has some degree of personal contact with), does not bother with posting comments on political internet sites (but does amuse himself from time to time with visits to such sites), puts his mouth where his money is by actually not endorsing government (i.e. PAP)-linked products (even if this inconveniences my household), and holds profound and heartfelt reasons for being highly disapproving of the incumbent party.

I had a chat with him today, one of the many chats I believe I should have had but did not because I was a rebellious son most of my life, so I have a lot of ground to make up for. He was chiding me for my absence for a family dinner on Saturday because I missed out on meeting some very old neighbours. They're people I would never recognize because the generation I belong to today tends to be more disconnected from relatives and old family friends compared to generations past. I asked if they were the Peranakan family that stayed next to him at the old private house in Everitt Road with the chiku tree when he was young, and he said no, they were from another neighbouring household, and were Hainanese.

Over an afternoon lull of coffee under the lazy breeze of an overhead fan, I pondered for a moment and asked him, "back then, did people see other people as Singaporeans or as people with differing origins?" In other words, I was asking him about a classic psychological concept, the self-construal, whereby people are defined by how they perceive themselves (often in relation to others). In this case, I wanted to know what comes to mind first when my dad or other Singaporeans back then thought of other people - as Singaporeans or as originating from elsewhere (e.g. Peranakan, Hainanese, etc). What was the automatically defining trait of Singaporeans?

My dad immediately said Singaporeans, definitely. Even though his father was technically an immigrant from Fuzhou, he said that the kind of sentiments today compared to back then are clearly different. Foreigners and immigrants who came in, like my grandfather did in the 1930s, never received incentives for coming to Singapore - they were escaping a hard life elsewhere and were seeking opportunity and had to work equally hard as compared to locals (although there probably wasn't such a clear idea of what a local Singaporean back then was). My dad feels that these days, foreigners are more than welcome to come in, and with such entitlements they will not feel such a strong need to learn local customs and integrate. My dad said that my grandfather had to rough it out really hard and therefore earned his right to be a Singaporean. And perhaps, because of the tumultuous political climate back then against neighbouring countries, there was a greater sense of unity among such differently originating people because they had to work together against external elements and build up the economy. Additionally, households were closer back then - neighbouring families would visit often, look out for each other and their children would play and grow up together. One often could leave the doors open without fear of burglary.

So, my dad thinks that policy-oriented efforts today by the incumbent government to foster integration is bollocks because he doesn't believe it would work. Further, my dad actually doesn't believe the government really cares about integration; foreigners will always be welcome for not-so rosy purposes.


To accompany my dad and share in his enthusiasm (I support the WP now but I'm not particularly hardcore - support, to me, isn't all about allegiance) I decided to join him at the third WP rally at the huge Hougang field. I did not regret sweating it out and braving the stuffiness along with thousands of other highly (and rightly) discontented Hougang residents. Throngs of people were gathered to support the party that has stood by them for two decades, and if it isn't so much a preference for the WP in the form of votes for Png Eng Huat, it was to show that there was no way they were going to accept PAP's Desmond Choo running the show in Hougang, especially since the PAP has been punishing Hougang residents by denying them all sorts of residential improvements for twenty years, simply for being a WP stronghold.

There are two sides to everything. One could say that this episode (preceded by the watershed General Elections last year) is divisive and destabilising, and feeds hate and disunity. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge too that this means many Singaporeans (certainly not all) are shedding their apathy, standing up for something, and perhaps forging an identity that has been otherwise artificially decided for them by the government for over five decades. These are teething pains, but from the spirit I witnessed, I think it means we are growing as a nation just a little bit more.

Just a disclaimer though; I think unintelligible, irresponsible, anonymous, unconstructive online criticism is the most pathetic product I've seen coming out of this entire political saga. It is really disgusting to read comments consisting of nothing but cheapshots and mindless agreeing with many other people who just want something to hate. Maybe another post for another day.

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