Sunday, November 27, 2011

The nascent crisis of affinity

The Saturday edition of the Straits Times had a long series on heritage in Singapore. It was one of the better articles that they have published.

Why is it fashionable to talk about heritage now? Because with the progress and changes in the last decade, more and more Singaporeans are feeling that the parts of the Singapore Identity are being lost irrevocably. And as a result of this ineffable sense of loss, more Singaporeans are stepping forward to claim a piece of their rightful heritage.

I would wager most of us have never heard of Bukit Brown cemetery before part of it was put at risk by the LTA. Just like many of us had not stepped into the old National Library Building in years, or even decades, when plans were afoot to have it torn down.

And yet, like something long taken for granted, we are suddenly shocked when we are told of what we are to lose.

The Power of Place and the Power of the Narrative

It has been several years since the old Changi Prison was demolished. And while some parts of it were saved and a museum was built to commemorate the site, I still recall then how I marveled that Australian POWs and their descendants, literally thousands of miles away, actually made a formal effort to save the prison from being demolished. They stepped forward to claim what they felt was a part of their heritage, as far removed as they were on a foreign continent. Read more here.

I was naive then about the power of place and the power of the narrative. Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, no longer.

For Singaporean males who have served NS, the following should sound very familiar:

You don't see your NS friends on any kind of regular basis in your "real" life, but when the time for ICT rolls around, you pack up your stuff and grudgingly make your way back to camp. While doing ICT is a real drag, at least there is the bright spot of meeting old friends, friends you instantly connect with because of where you are and the situation you are in again.

That is the power of place. It provides an environment which allows you to pick up the conversations where you left off. There is no sense of awkwardness, unlike say, a high school reunion held in a hotel ballroom (which can be remarkably fraught with angst).

A lot of NS guys will find familiar the ICT routine of exchanging and retelling old stories from the days of full-time NS, of the pranks and practical jokes that people pulled, of the tics and mannerisms of various characters encountered, of the universally disliked officer or encik getting his comeuppance. They're all stories we've heard before and are familiar with, and yet retelling them is a comforting routine. You would think that we had all turned into doddering old men with no teeth in our gums, reminiscing over the glory days of our youth.

And that is the power of the narrative. Retelling a story keeps it alive and preserves the memory of it and how it binds the various participants and actors together. It reinforces a shared sense of history and the closeness of the collective.

In many ways, the power of place reinforces the power of the narrative. That is why some Australian and British POWs visited Changi Prison every year before it was demolished. In all likelihood, every time they visited the prison, they cracked the same old jokes, retold the same old stories and lingered over the same old corners of the Prison that they were imprisoned in so many years ago.

A place becomes a cultural and historical touchstone, and a metaphysical repository of memories. I use the word metaphysical because the memories are embedded not just in the artifacts or in the structure, but in the very space that is enclosed and defined by the structure itself.

In truth, the government should be glad that many Singaporeans are expressing disquietude over the destruction of Bukit Brown or the demolition of Rochor.

The unthinking civil servant believes that these Singaporeans are being difficult, obdurate and overly sentimental. The savvier civil servant believes that "engagement" with the public should have been done earlier, with consultation exercises carried out to assuage the disgruntled (but with the same end result as the government-crafted plan called for).

In contrast, the most enlightened civil servant would, I submit, rejoice that Singaporeans still care enough about their heritage to lock horns with the authorities over part of its demise. The enlightened civil servant would also recognize that the loss of any part of our shared heritage, however necessary, is lamentable, even if it is preserved with museums or commemorative plaques.

Because eventually, when there is little left to be lost, all that will remain will be the sound of silence. No one will care enough to speak up about what is Singapore. That is, if there are any who care who remain in the first place.

The crisis of affinity

This brings me to my topic for today, what I call the crisis of affinity, the erosion of Singapore's collective sense of belonging and a shared destiny and vision for the future.

As meteoric as our economic growth has been in the last decade, I think something valuable has been lost along the way. What is vexing is that it is so difficult to put a finger on what exactly has been lost. And yet, I sense the loss, as I wrote about it in the Two-Tier Society. And it is not merely a sense of misplaced nostalgia.

The last 10 years have seen great changes in Singapore, not all for the better. The pace of demolition and construction, and the loss of shared urban spaces and the memories they represent is bad enough. But to compound matters, we have had a huge foreigner influx and a widening gulf in income inequality.

Some would argue that having more foreigners doesn't dilute our store of memories, but only adds to it. A greater foreigner presence enlivens Singapore and makes it more interesting, diverse and cosmopolitan.

I would agree, but up to a point. That point ends where foreigners are privileged over citizens in work and school, when it is painfully clear that Singapore is a stepping stone for them to better places, or when by their sheer numbers, assertiveness, competitiveness and sense of entitlement, transform the very character of the place.

I never thought I would say this, being very much invested in my identity as a city person: To the Indonesian, Filipino, Mainland Chinese, Indian, Myanmarese, Vietnamese and Malaysian immigrant here in search of a better life, I appreciate that Singapore is your land of opportunity and your New York. But I don't much like the New Yorker that you're collectively turning me into (with all the attendant stereotypes).

What happens to Singapore if we all become a nation of narcissistic New Yorkers?

As for income inequality, what is there left to be said that I have not said already? Income inequality is inherently divisive and corrosive to affinity. People from different socio-economic strata lead different lives, have different narratives on what is important, what is to be valued, and what groups, ideas or philosophies they individually identify with. The Wee Shu Min incident years ago should have made this abundantly clear. You can trust me on this when I say income inequality is not conducive to building a strong society with a sense of the collective. I know.

A strong economy can cover up a lot of cracks. But who's to know what will happen when the shining facade is peeled away? I have called this a nascent crisis of affinity. But how nascent it is remains to be seen.

Goh Chok Tong drew a lot of flak/comments for his stayers and quitters remark years ago in a time of adversity. The government should not fear criticism the next time it decides to level such an question at Singaporeans. It should fear the possibility of a deafening silence instead.

1 comment:

unbrandedbreadnbutter said...

"The nascent crisis of affinity" - I think with these five words you have summed up what's lacking in Spore state-society in general, and also something lacking in our search for solutions to specific problems like mrt, 'ponding', ministerial pay review etc. Clearly the writings on your blog are beyond the nascent level of constructivism. Thanks.