In a matter of weeks, we Singaporeans celebrate our nation’s 50th birthday and I have been thinking about what this milestone means.
The national narrative is as familiar to us as the ubiquitous red SG50 logo. Five decades earlier, emerging abruptly from a short-lived merger, we found ourselves thrust into an accidental independence, much against our will and good sense. Our viability as a newborn was threatened by unresolved racial tension, the prospect of poor economic growth and high unemployment, and the belligerent posturing of unfriendly neighbours, among other woes.
When independence was declared, I was a young man recently graduated from secondary school. Despite the optimism and energy of youth, I can still recall clearly the urgency for the newly independent Singapore to find its feet, and for its ideologically divided people to unite. All the while, waiting on the fringes, were those who could not wait to see us fail.
Thankfully, we did not.
But in 1965, things were far from certain. The race riots of the year before were still fresh in our minds. At the time, I lived in a largely Chinese community and, during the riot, rumours swirled of imminent attacks. Those in our neighbourhood armed themselves and huddled in their homes, frightened and suspicious.
In our midst was a Malay teacher who found himself isolated and alone. But he was our neighbour and he had read my friends and me Malay folklore. Though many were fearful of Malays attacking and Chinese counter-attacking, we were safe with him and he with us.
I remember him very well, for I could see in his face the agony of a helpless friend who could do very little to stop the violence outside our neighbourhood.
There are many factors that have led us to where we are today, but chief among them are the values that form the foundation of our nation. These values are enshrined in our Constitution, and entrenched memorably in our National Pledge, to be “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”.
I was a contract teacher when I first recited the Pledge. Unlike the National Anthem, whose introduction was accompanied by majestic and triumphal music that stirred in me a sense of national pride, the Pledge was a simple enough affair. I remember receiving a note from the principal shortly after Aug 9, 1966, informing us that we would be reciting a National Pledge at the assembly from that day onward. One of the more senior teachers led the recitation line by line, and I, together with my students, facing the flag, repeated the words after him with great gusto.
But what the Pledge lacked in pomp and ceremony, it made up in powerful words expressing a powerful idea – that as Singaporeans, we could build a functioning nation out of disparate and, in some cases, mutually distrustful elements. It promised that Singapore would be a multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious society, where we would all be equal, regardless of our differences.
The Pledge was more than just an ideal to strive towards. It was an essential roadmap for our nation, a vital social compact that enabled us to succeed in overcoming real and imminent dangers of self-destruction through insensitivity and intolerance in race relations.
To me, it is these values that have allowed us to come so far in 50 short years, and that is what we are celebrating – our shared commitment to be one united people.
It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This is why I believe that as we approach our 50th anniversary, we should spend some time, not only to remember but, more importantly, further reflect on the values that have allowed us to snatch success from failure.
The challenges that we faced 50 years ago are still very much present, albeit in a hugely different context. Our population has grown significantly over time, both in number and composition. But, in essence, we are still the same. We still have a diverse population, composed of different races and religions, and even more so now because about one-third of our residents are newly minted Singaporeans, permanent residents (PRs) and migrant workers. Together we continue to learn to assimilate and integrate, a work that is always in progress.
We continue to have differences of opinion, amplified today by the megaphone of the Internet and emboldened by the sense of having arrived at a new normal in our sociopolitical journey. In the past, these differences resulted in vocal protests and, in a few instances, death and violence. Today, our differences have led to loud threats of violence, larger peaceful gatherings of demonstrative citizens, a couple of trials and, in one regretful instance, a slap across the cheek.
These challenges are not something we will ever be rid of. Singapore has been, and always will be, a nation of diverse ethnicities.
And because we have grown a little older, we are also more self-assured in articulating where we stand in the spectrum of political construct. And as long as we remain a democratic society, we will always have differences of opinion.
That is not a bad thing, as long as we express them peacefully.
The way forward is for us to remember our past, to embrace our differences and not try to eradicate them. To be different, yet choose to be one united people – a choice my lone Malay neighbour made a long time ago. Being and living as one united people does not mean having to compromise on individual beliefs or losing individual identities or cultures, and adopting another. It does, however, require us to learn to live and work together, not because we are so alike but in spite of being so different.
Being one united people requires us to make an effort to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, to make an effort to understand a different point of view. And, if those divisions cannot be bridged, to make an effort to be tolerant of differences. Better still, we should embrace differences, which is a much more active, positive and pro-social mindset.
Being one united people demands that we respect each other’s right to belief and expression, regardless of whether or not we agree with those beliefs and opinions expressed.
Being one united people means we should be conscious of our shared future, and be considerate when it comes to exercising our freedoms, especially freedom of speech.
As the celebrations for our nation’s 50th birthday build up to a climax on Aug 9, I find myself wondering if there might not be anything to celebrate at all if those who came before us didn’t choose to pledge themselves to be “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”.
The Pledge embraces an inclusive and just society, which is what we all want. Only when we are one united people can we hope to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren 50 years into the future.
Dr William Wan
Singapore Kindness Movement
First published in The Straits Times – July 27, 2015