One word cannot describe what being Singaporean means

I refer to the 9 May 2013 Straits Times report of its current events talk at VJC [1].

In response to a question about preserving national identity, Ms Zuraidah from the Straits Times asked the audience to say in one word what it meant to be Singaporean. From the multiple responses she obtained, Ms Zuraidah concluded that being Singaporean is different for different people and that the Singapore identity is fluid and can change over time except for fundamentals like multiracialism, mutual tolerance and respect.

Does the observation that different people use different single words to describe what being Singaporean is means that being Singaporean is different for different people? So if we ask several people to describe an elephant using just one word and they use different words like “big”, “heavy”, “tusks”, “trunk” and so on, the elephant therefore means different things to different people? That would be most disingenuous. Clearly the elephant means the same thing to most people but its effective description requires more than one word.

Ms Zuraidah should have followed on by asking the audience whether each of the single words thrown up like rojak and kiasu indeed describe what being Singaporean is. If the words struck a chord with the audience and they collectively agreed that the words describe what it means to be Singaporean, then we have a set of words that collectively describes what being Singaporean means and that reflects our national identity.

Fluidity is not a given but depends on the immigration tap. The more the immigration tap is turned on, the more fluid the national identity becomes and the more time it will take for the identity to set. The notion that the Singapore identity is fluid and can change while multiracialism and mutual tolerance / respect cannot suggests artificial elements at play preventing change amidst fluidity. But who should decide which aspects of our identity gets to stay and which gets to be washed away by fluidity? Should we allow a handful of elites decide and define our national identity?

[1] Straits Times, Population issue fires up students, 9 May 2013


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