Sounding Singaporean?

I wrote the following essay as a submission to Mothership’s essay competition. The winners of the competition wrote incredibly compelling pieces and it made me reflect more on my identity as a Singaporean —at least more than usual. Thank you to Alaska for always being one of my biggest supporters and pushing me to write this. He also bore witness to my constant edits 5h away from the submission deadline (what’s new?), so that was tons of fun. :) Anyway, here goes something:

Singapore and embodying the Singaporean identity are just some things I grapple with on a regular basis. Growing up here has been a privilege as a middle class, tertiary educated, Chinese cisgender girl. It has lent me opportunities to explore the world outside of our borders from a cushioned perspective and gain some precious insight into how others might perceive us.

In pre-pandemic times, the joy of the school holidays would be perfectly encapsulated in another chance to leave the country behind for a few days of escapism. The chance to attend school overseas trips was a privilege extended. In these instances, it allowed me to step outside of the bubble of being in Singapore. It also serves as another reminder of how people from different crevices of the globe sound so vastly different, even if we are speaking the same language, English most of the time. A vivid and relatable memory for most of us who get to travel that comes to mind would be walking along the streets of any common overseas destination for Singaporeans. You hear someone speak and a certain lilt or stress in a specific word acts as a giveaway of them being a fellow Singaporean, and an instant reminder of home being not too distant from wherever you are.

We pride ourselves on having a world class education system, with English as a common communication medium for every child who goes through the system and armed with our Mother Tongue Language as a compulsory second medium. This dates to post-independence times with a need to nationalise and standardise how our predecessors could think and talk, to have a stronger standing ground in the international market. It also shadowed our forefathers’ attitude towards mother tongue languages as instrumental in honouring our roots. Simultaneously, it also led to almost wiping out ethnic dialects, which are orally passed on, rather than through the written word. These dialects represent a far richer history of our oral linguistical background as a country, and the vast reach of our ancestors’ origins. Perhaps in an attempt to make up for our diminishing roots, Singlish has become a staple of the Singaporean soundtrack.

Singlish has wormed its way into our hearts and encapsulated the joy and importance of having a medium for communication, outside of formal contexts such as school and workplaces. We embrace it the way we’d hack away at our favourite subjects or detest it the way we shun a gross tasting food item; truly to each their own. I never thought I’d ever want to simultaneously wrangle it out of my system and cling on tightly the way a sloth does to a tree branch. It has been a journey of learning, unlearning, and acknowledging how it is perfectly acceptable to sound Singaporean, even if it may be deemed ‘unrefined’ to some. We do owe ourselves the fundamental process of not pedestaling our modern roots as a British colony and having to pander to the complex of white superiority being the default mode of operation. We also learn to endear to people hailing from different backgrounds sounding vastly different, be it the mannerisms communicated through language, or the colloquial expressions we’ve come to associate with being Uniquely Singapore. It is an almost impossible experience to mimic outside of our borders, except for our diaspora communities who keep the spirit alive. One of the distinctive features of a Singaporean voice would be how much we bemoan our everyday struggles. For the public, a lot of conversations include, “Aiyo, today so hot!!!” “Walao, Singaporeans everything also queue one.” The exclamations of whining interjected by clunky grammar, is an extremely Singaporean way of expression.

National Day is one of those special occasions that light a spark in the air and helps with keeping the Singapore spirit alive. It would do it no justice to not mention our quintessential National Day Parade (NDP) songs. There is a uniqueness in how NDP songs occupy nostalgic spaces in our minds, with the blasting of old favourites such as ‘Home’ crooning our ears off in shopping centres and schools alike. We allow ourselves to bask in the patriotic mood, even if it presents in varying intensities and forms for all of us. I am someone I’d consider a seasonal patriot, with the spirit of nation loving most concentrated somewhere around National Day, a landmark occasion I wish would encourage more self-directedness in reflection of not just how far we’ve come, but how much further we must go in terms of nation building. We’ve rode on the laurels of our predecessors’ efforts, but we cannot go on glorifying our colonial roots as something that lent us opportunities to grow from, because they were unnecessarily harsh for a community that could have rose in our own ways. Our songs being part of our Singapore soundtrack have always highlighted how far we’ve come, have invoked tears (some, on my part), outrage (some are frankly not worth listening to), and joy. It gives us hope that we can do better as a country, and that we should do better, regardless of our roots and our future aspirations, local or outside of it. Our NDP songs play a useful role in communicating this in a more pleasant and poetic manner.

We also sound Singaporean in terms of how we recognise our role as Singaporeans to appreciate how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go, as we always try to do during National Day, but many are quick to dismiss our complicity in delaying our progress. For a country with an intense and almost well-rounded education system (as previously mentioned), we sure are uneducated in the ways of the world. We lay waste to opportunities for us to engage in re-education, and are quick to say some variation of, “Last time like that can. How come now cannot? People too sensitive liao.” At some point along the way of our years of compulsory education, proceeding onto tertiary education as some linear path of progress, we’ve lost track of what’s truly important about education — learning. Sure, we’ve learned so much, and we can pride ourselves on having a mostly extremely well-educated and highly skilled workforce. However, we’ve forgotten to remember the essence of education being the willingness to re-educate, unlearning, listening, and processing. So many people are quick to denounce the lived experiences of others, just because they aren’t relatable. This is one of the uglier sides of sounding Singaporean for some, the blatant disrespect for opinions aside from what’s familiar. Ironic, considering our status as a rojak (a dish made by mixing diced fruits and mixing everything with a sweet sauce and chopped nuts) nation, which is propped up by our diversity and the accompanying experiences. Some people can ramble for onwards of weeks, denying the existence of Chinese privilege, mixing up racial tolerance with racial harmony, denying that class differences pay a role in meritocracy, to name a few. This will never cease to appall me, but it only serves as a reminder of while we can acknowledge our successes, we need to be mindful of our blind spots. We are ever evolving, nothing should stay the same, everything will always be in flux. We cannot expect to move onward if we choose to stay stagnant or to leave some people behind.

There are many ways I can think of what it means to sound Singaporean to me, but it is always going to be a working definition. I know that I will always have a soft spot for the country that’s sheltered most of us, albeit with its paternalistic instincts and physical safety as a low- crime state. I also acknowledge my privilege as a Chinese person from a middle-income family, and how it has shaped my perspectives and lived experiences. All these factors will impact how I perceive sounding Singaporean is, and how I am a living embodiment of some form of that voice. I am grateful to have grown up in one of the best places to be a child, in terms of practical factors like crime rate, provision of quality education (in most ways), amenities, etc. I also know that even if I choose to leave Singapore in search of other pastures, my voice is just one of the ways I will be reminded of the home I am a loving critic of. Our diaspora communities worldwide have found ways to connect, despite our difference, creating even tinier red dots elsewhere. What better way than this, to know where our roots lie, especially in the way we think, and we speak? There’ll always be belonging in the foreign and diverse.

a collection of thoughts, ideas, feelings, experiences. some personal, some impersonal, all authentic.

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