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What makes a S’porean? A debate returns

08 Apr What makes a S’porean? A debate returns

Debate has returned, for both the Government and citizens, about what it means to be Singaporean.

The issues do not relate only to culture and the arts, but have broader implications for the political and economic paradigms in Singapore as well.

What spurs this resurgence of a soul-searching debate that has been with us since the earliest years of nationhood — and perhaps more importantly, what is different about it this time? What implications will this have for the way the debate is conducted?


The key signs emerged with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), recently constituted and fresh from its first Budget debate last month.

With the change of name from what was formerly the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, the arts community fretted that their vocation was no longer in focus. It also protested a decision last year to pull out of this year’s world-renowned Venice Biennale.

Sportsmen wondered, too, if their passion was receiving less emphasis because of the name change, in addition to past delays over the Sports Hub and other facilities.

The Government’s Budget recently passed in Parliament will provide reassurance. Spending on sports will go up an extra S$400 million over the next five years, to benefit both top athletes and the many more who take up recreational sports. Arts groups will see the available grants double over the same period to about S$94 million. The museums too will get a boost, with S$62 million to acquire and preserve artworks and artefacts. Even participation in the Venice Biennale will resume come 2015.

The Ministry’s title has changed, yet the budgetary allocations show not only constancy but also substantial growth in emphasis invested in the arts, culture and sports, to bring them to a new level. It would be wrong to suggest that nothing has changed.


The term “culture” is broader than the arts; it also includes sports, heritage and even more so, the intangibles that go towards defining us as a community.

As MCCY’s Acting Minister Lawrence Wong put it: “Culture is about how we express and understand ourselves, from singing and dancing, to participating in sports and spending time with family and friends … it is about bringing people together across divides, and it is about strengthening Singapore’s appeal to us as a home.”

There is a sense of urgency to this mission.

Take, for example, the move to give citizens and permanent residents year-round free admission to all museums from May 18.

In revenue terms, this is not a huge hit; what is significant is the context. Mr Wong explained the step as part of a broader strategy to nurture a sense of belonging at a time when Singaporeans “feel disoriented, especially with the increase in population and new immigrants.”

The Government’s recognition of this discontent is welcome. The recent White Paper on Population was challenged by citizens on blogs, in the media and at a protest in Hong Lim Park not simply on questions of detail. At a deeper, more instinctual level, many registered their anger over the slew of changes in recent years and the prospect of still more to come.

My 2009 novel, City of Small Blessings, speaks to similar concerns. Physical and social change in the name of progress has unintentionally led many to feel a sense of loss about their place in their own city. There is, and has for a long time been, a search for the Singaporean identity and of the essence of what makes a Singaporean.

For some, the rallying call has become: “Singapore for Singaporeans”. If taken to an extreme, this carries an anti-foreigner sentiment. But the sentiment also more positively speaks to nationhood, much as popular National Day songs resonate with the refrains of “we are Singapore” and “this is home, truly”. The Hong Lim Park protest, notably, included the recitation of the National Pledge.


Questions about Singaporean culture and identity are returning.

For many decades, the search for and creation of a Singaporean identity was led by the Singapore Government. To the founding fathers, and especially the late Mr S Rajaratnam, our first Minister for Culture, the central tenet was nation-building. This was recognised as a social construction that was necessary to accompany hard infrastructure and public housing.

In the early ’90s, as second-generation leaders assumed the reins and promised a “Next Lap”, a then young Acting Minister for the Arts, George Yeo, ratcheted up ambitions and spending.

The building of The Esplanade and new museums and the creation of the National Arts Council paved the way for many more arts groups and practitioners. Government led nation-building, but with more sophistry and participation.

Looking back, especially over the first decades, some efforts now seem naive, clumsy and top-down. But with time, the idea of Singaporean-ness has taken root in society. This has changed the debate.


At the start, many had questioned if a truly distinct national identity could develop. Today however, the debate is reversed: The concern is that the Singaporean identity is being lost.

In the past, national identity was part of the effort to rally the people. In the protests over the Population White Paper, however, a Singaporean identity is asserted in opposition to government plans.

There is a broad appeal in the idea of Singaporean-ness. Even so, we have yet to clearly identify the cluster of values, ideas and habits that constitute the Singaporean culture and identity.

Broader questions of culture are returning, but differently from the case in past decades. The current mood will engender debate not only in controlled intellectual dialogues but also in the popular culture.

This discussion, moreover, will follow new processes that will not always give the Government full control over the outcomes, in the emerging contest over culture.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. His novel City of Small Blessings won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010. This is the first of a two-part comment in TODAY.