The superficial better angel

I refer to the 22 Apr 2013 Straits Times article “Choosing the better angels of our nature” by Janadas Devan [1].

Mr Devan remembers singing God Save the Queen first, then Majulah Singapura, then Negara Ku and then Majulah Singapura again during his school days. But when he describes his citizenship journey, he says he was British first, then Malaysian and finally Singaporean. There is a mismatch between his chronicle of the anthems he sang in school and the citizenships that he held. Somehow, Mr Devan didn’t consider himself Singaporean but British instead when he sang Majulah Singapura in Primary 1. But why would any British want to sing Majulah Singapura? How can anyone who sings Majulah Singapura not be Singaporean? Singapore attained full internal self-government in 1959 and our status was elevated to that of a state. With statehood, came our state flag, state anthem and a head of state, Yang di-Pertuan Negara. Singaporeans became citizens of the new State of Singapore while remaining British subjects [2]. Therefore, Mr Devan should have been British first, then Singaporean (under British), then Malaysian and finally Singaporean again.

According to Mr Devan, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Rajaratnam all began their political careers believing there was no such thing as a Singaporean until they themselves became Singaporeans and hence “new citizens” in 1965. It is not true that there was no such thing as a Singaporean prior to our independence. Newspaper archives reveal thousands of references to the term “Singaporean” by Singaporeans even during colonial times [3]. It is unlikely that the trio of Lee, Dr Goh and Rajaratnam failed to read newspapers regularly and failed to detect the widespread use of the term “Singaporean” prior to the start of their political careers. Even if they didn’t believe there was such a thing as a Singaporean, many other Singaporeans already saw themselves as Singaporeans and have been referring to one another as such. The trio were not only Singaporeans already prior to the start of their political careers; they were citizens twice over, first in 1959 and again in 1965. They were thus not “new citizens” but “second time citizens” in 1965.

Mr Devan also refers to the trio as the founding fathers of Singapore. But the trio did nothing to deserve that title. Washington, Sun Yat Sen and Ghandi all earned their titles of founding father by dedicating their lives to fighting for the independence of their respective countries. Mr Lee, Dr Goh and Mr Rajaratnam never once fought for Singapore’s independence. Instead, they gave away our full internal self-independence cheaply to the Malaysians. Luckily for us the Tungku rejected us after a brief union. Mr Devan also refers to the trio as the Old Guard. But which guard, old or new, would give Singapore away?

Mr Devan reasons that the natural thing would have been for LKY to base his political legitimacy on appeals to Chinese identity but LKY did not. LKY could not appeal to Chinese identity at first because he was English educated and could not connect with the Chinese educated masses. LKY had to go through Lim Chin Siong to appeal to the Chinese educated masses. Once in power, LKY started to crush the Chinese educated so as to destroy the power base of his foremost political enemies. So contrary to what Mr Devan says, Mr Lee’s political moves to first ride on the Chinese masses before cutting them down is race (Chinese) based.

Mr Devan says there would have been no Singaporean nationalism without the Chinese revolutions of 1911 and 1949, the Indonesian revolution or the Indian national movement. Singapore’s first general election in 1948 was the result of Singaporeans’ awakening nationalism and anti-colonialism post Japanese Occupation. Since Singaporean nationalism had already taken the first big step in 1948, why should it depend on the subsequent 1949 Chinese ‘revolution’? Furthermore, 1949 wasn’t a Chinese revolution but the conclusion of a Chinese civil war. There is similarly no evidence that our nationalism would have been impossible without the Indonesian revolution or the Indian national movement.

Mr Devan contradicts himself when he says on the one hand that culture has never been allowed to drive public policy but says on the other hand that policy is sometimes not race blind as in the case of the GRC, in other words policy had to accommodate race.

Mr Devan says that our juggling of cultural nationalism and Singaporean nationalism is neither natural nor inevitable but a human miracle that we engineered. But he goes on to say that people do not have close friends of different races and that we do not really live out this human miracle, meaning this ‘human miracle’ is merely superficial only. Why even call it a miracle when it is merely superficial only and not real?

Mr Devan suggests that the Singapore identity is forever expanding and not contracting as we enlarge our common space through greater overlap of separate identities. However, if decades of so-called human miracle social engineering only results in superficial overlap without growing deep roots, how can any future expansion be anything but superficial only too. Should the Singapore identity be an incessant quest to expand on the superficial?

[1] Straits Times, 22 Apr 2013, Choosing the better angels of our nature, Janadas Devan


[3] Singaporeans using the term “Singaporean” during colonial times

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 17 Aug 1848, page 3
While the peculiarities of his Predecessor, amounting almost to eccentricity, had laid us unfortunate Singaporeans under his ban …

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adverstiser, 15 Feb 1850, page 2
Do then the Singaporeans acquiesce in the opinions of the Straits Times?

Straits Times Overland Journal, 27 Apr 1869, page 4, “The Coming Races”
And last but not least comes “Snoutt-a-Goosta,” also new to Singaporeans …

Straits Times Overland Journal, 6 Dec 1871, page 4, “Reception of admiral Kellet”
I should be much surprised if it were found that the Singaporeans approve of this scant politeness shewn to a meritorious officer …

Straits Times Weekly Issue, 20 May 1891, page 13, “The Raffles Library”
The library is visited by large numbers of passing visitors and by numerous Singaporeans …

The Straits Times, 4 Nov 1925, page 10, Singapore Courtesy
… there certainly appears to be an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans in favour of the “Cuss you, Jack, I’m all right” spirit I had the misfortune to encounter …

The Straits Times, 21 Dec 1925, page 10, News Services
As another Singaporean, I wish to say that his last remark was quite uncalled for …

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 25 Aug 1928, page 10, Fullerton Building
Sir, it is curious how illogical, I almost wrote obtuse, are the minds of some Singaporeans.

The Straits Times, 1 May 1939, page 15, Waterloo Street in Singapore
The degradation of Waterloo Street here is known to every Singaporean …


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