"the whole notion of 'loving critic' and somehow a need to perform loyalty or patriotism before you can actually criticise is also a bit of a rhetorical trap" | Ways to Love Singapore transcript
Recording of Ways to Love Singapore
Ways to Love Singapore took place on 16 July, Sunday at Ethos Dreams, a pop-up bookstore and community initiative organised as part of The Singapore I Recognise, a National Day Initiative by Ethos Books. You can watch the recording above and access the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
What does it mean to love a country and why does it matter? Join pioneer civil society activist Constance Singam in conversation with author and playwright Alfian Sa'at as they explore national identity, discuss their unique relationship with Singapore across the decades, and share their takes on home and community.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
Constance: Thank you all for being here. If I had a choice, I would stay at home in an air-conditioned room. But that you made an effort is really fantastic. It’s amazing (that) you’re interested in Singapore and what it is all about. And I have been a Singaporean all my life, you know. I was able to vote when Singapore became independent, so that’s how old I am. And when Ethos asked me who I would like to have conversation with, I said Alfian (laughs).
Alfian: Thank you!
Constance: And these two minorities who have in fact, I mean, he’s known as the “enfant terrible”, and he wrote a poem which resonates for me, “Singapore You Are Not My Country”. Of course, people think just because you write poems like that, protesting, resisting, you don’t love your country. And because of who I am and my civil society activism, people think that we are anti-Singaporean. We are what we do because we are Singaporean. We are what we do because we want to aim for that dream that we had, the vision of Singapore we had—at least I had—when we first became independent. There is much to love, so Alfian, why did you write “You Are Not My Country”? Those were the days when we were very angry, now I am much older, and Alfian has also grown up, so—
Alfian: Grown older.
Constance: And we can all talk about what is it about Singapore that we love and dream of? What is the kind of Singapore that we want?
Alfian: Sure, thank you. So that’s a great question to begin. That poem was written when I was nineteen years old, and it was very interesting that it was surfaced in parliament after so many years. The book itself was published in the year…
Constance: 1995 or 1996?
Alfian: Very early, yeah. I think it could be ‘98. It was surfaced in parliament because of the YaleNUS thing. There was an experiential program [at YaleNUS] for one week, and it wasn’t even an entire module.
Since ‘98 to 2019, 21 years, am I right? For many years when the book was in print, it was never a problem. And then all of a sudden when the course was cancelled and people were scrambling for reasons to come up with a rationalisation for why it was cancelled, that particular poem became a sticking point. For me it was very clear; the book was already out there, if people had problems with it, they might have raised it in the past. It was quite clear that people were nitpicking on it, and of course selectively quoting from it as well.
This whole issue about loving Singapore and even, if I may talk about the phrase “loving critic”, it’s a little bit of a trap as well. I mean, as much as I really want to thank Tommy Koh for coming up with that phrase, for talking about critics who, despite their criticism, actually love Singapore, there also needs to be space for people who are just critics, and I’m not necessarily saying me. There can be sarcastic, snarky, frustrated critics, but the whole notion of “loving critic” and somehow a need to perform loyalty or patriotism before you can actually criticise is also a bit of a rhetorical trap, so there needs to be space for all kinds of critics, not just loving critics.
To go back to this particular question about ways to love Singapore, I think as much as we might want to explore the different ways, it’s also important to unpack what do we mean by ‘love’, and also what do we mean by ‘Singapore’. Whose Singapore? Which Singapore? When we say Singapore, do we mean the regime? Or the people—
Constance: Now when you talk about loving, it also means suffering. You don’t just love, you suffer. You put up with a lot of things, and we suffer. The more sensitive you are, the more dreams you have, you also suffer. So you go on with the love part. (Audience laughs)
Alfian: Sure. So the question is also, is it unconditional love? Is that love something that needs to be earned? Is that love also love-hate, because you need to go through a process where, before you realise you love someone (as you mentioned), there is that suffering that’s involved there. There needs to be that whole process, a certain kind of “baptism of fire” before you can really claim to love something or someone. And it’s important that we all go through that process. So if I may just throw out, rather than answering “ways to love Singapore”, one of the things I would like to propose is a way not to love Singapore, which is this development of a certain sense of superiority in what Singapore is, this idea of Singaporean exceptionalism. I’ve always had problems with that, because you are very blinkered to the merits of the others around you.
I feel that we have a Singaporean nationalism that is unfortunately constructed on being superior to, let’s say, our neighbours. And I’m gonna refer to that horrible video that was circulating about that Singaporean stand-up comedian Joycelyn Chia who's based in the United States. There was a Malaysian in the audience, and she made this whole joke about how "oh, your planes don’t work." So, number one, making light of the tragedy of MH370, which is really awful because I cannot imagine a Malaysian comedian making fun of the SilkAir crash, for example, which is something that happened in Singapore; it’s a national tragedy for us. And also she made remarks about, “oh, you didn’t want us, you expelled us, you kicked us out, but now we’re better than you.” She compared Singapore to that ex-partner that you rejected, and then the revenge is succeeding. And I’ve always had a problem with that.
That idea that our nationalism is built on spite and revenge is really problematic, and also I don’t think completely historical either, because we have had this narrative of being expelled from Malaysia for so long. This year, finally, they’re going to release what’s known as the Albatross Files, where it actually showed that there were these secret negotiations between the political elites on both sides. Toh Chin Chye knew about it, Goh Keng Swee knew about it, Rajaratnam knew about it. It was a mutual agreement to separate. It wasn’t this unilateral hit, "Tunku is just kicking us out". The whole idea of, “look at us, we’re doing better than you, our exchange rate is better” is a very shallow and quite toxic way to build up a certain kind of pride for your country. So I don’t think that pride needs to come from, "okay, we’re better than everyone else".
Constance: You’re excusing the politicians. There were politicians who thought we were superior.
Alfian: Of course, and I think this is a very dominant narrative, right? I do feel that the Malaysian backlash wasn’t just about MH370, it was a frustration by a lot of people who assume that Joycelyn Chia is merely verbalising what is already in a lot of Singaporeans’ minds. There’s this whole thing about ‘edgy comedy’, in which you say what you think a lot of people are already thinking. It’s easy to construct nationalism out of that, but it’s really the lowest hanging fruit, and I think we should really aim a lot higher for that. It should come much more from a position of humility, compassion, really appreciating our neighbourhood, actually.
Constance: That’s going to be hard for Singaporeans. My generation grew up as being part of Malaya. We were travelling up and down, visiting relatives and all that, so it was a difficult one for us to be a separate island. It also took us a long time to recognise that Singapore itself had a history. And it’s only really recently because our history was just PAP (People's Action Party) history, and the PAP’s responsible for a lot of modernisation and our wealth, but Singapore also has a very long history beyond Raffles. It is something we are not aware of and it has come to our attention only recently.
Alfian: Mm, the bicentennial.
Constance: One of the things about Singapore is that it’s a port city. There is a book by the National Library Board about port cities; you will find that port cities have always been multicultural. 400 to 500 years ago, we’ve always been multicultural. And if you look at Batavia, which is now Jakarta, Kochi, these are all port cities and they have always been multicultural. There is a tolerance of different religions and races. It’s a 500-, 700-year history which we are not talking or thinking about. Our multiculturalism is different, but it’s not new. And that’s the best thing, for me, about multicultural Singapore. What I love most about it is that—I remember once when I arrived in Changi Airport, [I felt that] it was so good to be home, just like when we go into our own home.
You open the door and say, “oh, it’s so good to be home,” because it’s comfortable, the aesthetics and so on is ours, we grew up with them. That’s the feeling you get when you arrive at Changi, but there’s a lot of story to it. In the same flight were about five or six young Indian men. And they were talking behind me as we came out to Changi. And one of them said, “Oh, we now can speak Tamil.” In other words, they were not able to speak their language where they were coming from. And that struck me! One of the best things about Singapore is we can be who we are. We can be Singaporean but we can also celebrate our language and our culture. That’s one thing about Singapore that I love, the multiculturalism.
I love going to Little India and I love the fact that I can go to Arab Street or Chinatown. I wish more of us would celebrate that multiculturalism. I remember when I had been away for some years and I came back home, I was celebrating Hari Raya, Deepavali and Chinese New Year the first year, none of which were my culture. I did that for a few years and then I got a bit tired of having so many celebrations (laughs). But I love those celebrations and different cultural events that we can all be part of. And of course, common things about multicultural food.
Where I have been living for 25 years, just along my corridor, we have my immediate neighbour, who’s a Muslim from Bangladesh. Their young children are fully covered; they can take public transport and not feel threatened. And then there’s somebody from Lucknow at the end of the corridor, and somebody from the Philippines—the rest of us are all Singaporeans, but in Singapore you can be living in such close proximity and not feel threatened, and if you think of what’s happening elsewhere in the world, we can be proud of that. I love the HDB centres. Places like this which is authentic and energetic, it’s got a truly Singaporean energy that you won’t find in Orchard Road.
Alfian: So just to pick up on what you said about language; they were mentioning the play Hotel that I wrote, and there are eleven scenes in the play, all taking place in the same hotel room. When we devised the play with all the different actors, we also encouraged them to also speak non-English languages, and at the end of the day, the play contains nine languages. We felt that was really reflective of Singapore. As you mentioned, a port city, where people have different backgrounds, so a certain kind of cosmopolitanism is there. A lot of churning is going on. And one of the things I find interesting is that, we have a Peranakan museum in Singapore, and I think that’s great because I feel that that’s a celebration of hybridity and all the kinds of intermingling that has happened.
The word ‘Peranakan’ in Malay also means ‘womb’. It comes from the root word ‘anak’ which is ‘child’, so anyone who is acculturated in a certain mother culture, but I do feel that in Singapore, when you say Peranakan, immediately a lot of people will think of Peranakan Chinese. But there were Jawi Peranakans, Chetti Melaka—a lot of these interesting acculturations between Indian and Malay culture, or Arab and Malay culture, for example. I was discussing with a friend the other day, and he was pointing out that in old Malay texts, there is also the term ‘Portuguese Peranakan’, which is practically Eurasians, right? So there’s the question, why don’t we have a Eurasian museum, or why is the Eurasian community not included in the Peranakan museum, for example. I feel like this is a whole thesis though, because why is it just intra-Asian interactions and co-mingling and inter-marriages that we’re celebrating, but not, European and Asian?
Constance: When I talked about the 500 years of mingling between Western traders and local traders, all the Chinese in Singapore and Southeast Asia—particularly Penang, Southeast Asia—Peranakan culture grew out of that. The mixture of Chinese, Indian, Malay. Whereas the Eurasians have a different background and history. They have their own museum because their history is different. I remember a friend whose father is English and mother is Chinese; she was put down as Eurasian (in her IC) and she went to the immigration (ICA) office saying, “that’s a different culture.” So she put herself down as Anglo-Chinese. [There are] these kinds of variations; the histories are different.
Alfian: I understand that those words have solidified and there are certain meanings attached to it, but I'm arguing for a more capacious definition of what could be included in ‘Peranakan’. Because I understand the colonial encounter for example, and I understand the history where—and this was happening in a lot of other colonised countries—where there was a certain racial hierarchy, in which the Eurasians were considered superior to people who were just Asiatics or Orientals or Asians. And in other countries, there’s the mestizos and the mulattos etc. that’s got white blood in them. That said, I do think this concept of the Peranakan, can be expanded as one that includes people of mixed ancestry. Yeah, I guess I’m going for a kind of redefinition of that term. But Peranakans are free to argue with me, it’s okay! I mean we argue about the origins of Malay food and Peranakan food, right, so yeah. You take my food, I take your Peranakan identity. I redefine it. No la, I’m just kidding about these culture wars.
Constance: When I was launching my book Don’t Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce, I had two women, very well-known in their communities (Malay community and Peranakan community), helping me to launch the book. I remember when one was talking, the other was protesting, and vice versa, because they were both questioning the authenticity of the origin of a particular food. It’s a really interesting conversation though.
Alfian: I think so, and this reminds me of how UNESCO is a source of so much conflict because it’s countries proposing their intangible heritage, cultural heritage and all that, and then you have, "oh, nasi goreng, who does it belong to?" Batik, is it Malaysian, is it Indonesian, for example? That of course is a critique of the nation state model, and basically that kind of UN nation state infrastructure in general. But I do believe, at the end of the day, a lot of these things are shared, and there’s so much porosity between them. The issue with this notion of Peranakan claiming Malay food, for example, is a bit complicated because as much as I would like to believe it’s shared culture, we also know that there’s a certain kind of class angle to it, so I always joke, I say that there’s Peranakan, and then there’s Premium Peranakan. And Premium Peranakan would tell you that their kueh is superior to Malay kueh because it takes more hours to prepare, for example. There’s a class prestige as you mentioned, so their coconut is from single-origin coconut—
Constance: What is a single-origin coconut???
Alfian: I mean, a lot of these things are branding, right?
Constance: No, no, explain single-origin coconut.
Alfian: It’s maybe taking some reference from malt whiskey? I don’t know, but it sounds good, no? Single-origin coconut? From special plantations with specially-trained macaques to pluck it and served on banana leaves taken from pontianak-free banana trees. So I’m saying that sometimes it’s a function of class and capital. That’s the stuff that I’m not so fond of. The idea that if you’re making Malay kueh, there’s not enough labour that goes into it, it’s very slapdash, whereas the Peranakan one is steeped in so much connoisseurship. It always seems a little bit more elevated, but I do think a lot of it is branding marketing language, and for me, fundamentally it’s really shared culture.
Constance: My mother comes from Kerala, as a first-generation. Coconuts from Kerala taste better. Vegetables that come from Kerala taste better, because their soil is better. But I think we have reached a state in our nationhood or in our culture where disputes about origins will disappear. One of the reasons why I wrote that book Don’t Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce is, it is a food memoir—I traced the 50-year journey of how we have changed in what we eat. When I was a child, I only ate what my mother cooked, which was food from Kerala. Now we eat all kinds of food. When I first ate pasta, I thought there was too [much] tomato, and I didn’t like it. But now I cook pasta quite often in my home. In that way we have changed.
And just by looking at the food and our eating habits, we have become better people. More tolerant of each other, so that’s why, when a foreigner protests against her neighbour cooking curry, 23 thousand Singaporeans cooked curry that weekend, and that says something about us. The kind of people we’re developing. And in spite of public policies, [this is] what I dreamt about when we had the independence celebration for this country, which can succeed as a multicultural country as nowhere else in the world, because we have been multicultural for the longest time. What has sabotaged those movements are public policies. But in spite of the public policies, there are communities in Singapore which have become more multicultural. And although we accept differences more easily, we don’t ignore differences, and we have reached a stage where we can ignore differences, and that stage will come when we are more mature and more confident. So to go back to the point that we are more arrogant Singaporeans, that’s the point. We are not mature, we are not confident about ourselves, about who we are, it’s a stage we have to reach.
Alfian: I totally agree with you, Constance, that arrogance, that posturing, there’s insecurity there. That we’re not that confident of who we are yet, and therefore we need to project this kind of energy—I was going to say BDE (big dick energy) but no, just energy.
I want to talk about language also. When I was talking about hybridity, one thing that people will always say when talking about Singapore identity is something like Singlish, for example. But I also want to say that even within certain languages, there have been a lot of loaned words that have been exchanged and imported and exported, so I know between Malay and Hokkien, there’s really quite a lot. I mean words like ‘tao geh’ has been imported into Malay itself, practically a Malay word, there are words like ‘kongsi’ for example which have undergone semantic shifts. So in Hokkien it would mean clan association, but in Malay to ‘kongsi’ is to share something, yeah. And I wonder these days, what are the Mandarin words that are loaned into Malay. To be honest I don’t think there are many. Somehow or the other I think that traffic of loaned words between the different languages has stopped, and I think that might have to do with the fact that we have English right now as a mediating language. But I miss that, actually, so even in Hokkien there are some Malay words, like ‘sabun’ which is soap, ‘jamban’ which is toilet, ‘kahwin’ which is marry, right, but from Mandarin to Malay I can only think of one word, and that’s the word ‘tabao’?
Constance: I thought it was Malay.
Alfian: She thought it was Malay! Because in Malay previously you would just say ‘bungkos’, but that would be for foods that are not soupy, so mostly rice, but I find that as the Malay palette has changed and they’re eating more noodles, more soupy stuff and all that, you can’t just wrap it in like newspaper or that brown paper, so then the word ‘tabao’ is a bit more expansive.
Constance: But also you have to remember that Mandarin is an imposed language. It was imposed on the Chinese population in Singapore, but their culture over the years had been the different dialects. So for instance, Hokkien was spoken more often in Singapore, some of the words would come to Peranakan-Malay use, that’s perhaps one of the tragedies of the language policy was that it deprived the Singapore Chinese of their dialects and their culture. So it would take a long time before Mandarin words would come to Malay language.
Alfian: I would like to also say that because the word ‘tabao’ is imported to Malay, and has been subjected to Malay grammatical rules, so in Malay there’s affixations, we like to put the word ‘meng-’ before a certain verb, so now in Malay you would say ‘mengapao’ for example, if you want to be grammatically correct. It shows it’s been assimilated into the grammar of the language. But you mentioned something which I thought was really interesting. Earlier on you talked about multiculturalism, and we were talking about language, but I think in Singapore we also have this official policy of multiracialism, and in Singapore, that word is very specific. We don’t say multiculturalism, we say multiracialism, and it is a reference to the idea of the four main races. What are your thoughts on this? Because on one hand, the Peranakan museum, celebrating hybridity which is basically the interstices between all these so-called “official” races, and then on the other hand, for the administration and governmentality purposes, we’ve stuck to and retained the CMIO model.
Constance: It’s a lack of imagination, I think. Multiracialism is an easier division to manage. Now, if you say multiethnicity – the headache of recognising all ethnicities, how do you do that? In England and France, for instance, you have a lot of mixes, multiculturalism, but they already have an established culture and language. We never did. We’re a new nation. It is an easy way to divide and rule; it’s not easy governing a multiracial country. So you do have to give [the governement] some credit for having managed to peacefully… while living and accepting each other.
I know as activists, we always think of the negative part of policies; I have been writing essays on civil society so I have been focused on what policies have done to us. It took me a while, the last few days, to rewind my brain and think about what is wonderful about Singapore. We have to forget about the politicians and the politics of it, we have to think of Singaporeans, the people and the country, and that’s something we have had difficulty dealing with, because we have a one-party system, and right from the beginning they have equated the party with the country. If you’re anti-PAP, you’re anti-Singapore. And that’s something we have to avoid. So I have to, then, rethink why am I living here? Because I love this country for its multiculturalism, for the way I can celebrate the various cultures, for its history, for the location of Singapore in Southeast Asia. I love that we are in the midst of many cultures and histories, and that we are part of that history.
Alfian: Before we open up [for questions from the floor], I have one question for [Constance]. Where I Was is such a wonderful, satisfying read; it gives so many insights especially into the work of activists who went through things like the Marxist Conspiracy, and she does mention the climate of fear that gripped many members in civil society, and how that was overcome. In your book, you do mention that a lot of your siblings are overseas, and my question is what makes you stay, Constance? Your family is so globally mobile, what is it that makes you stay in Singapore?
Constance: I didn’t have any children to worry about. That is a major point of decision-making for families. My sisters went to university in Australia, and they got married there and settled there [in the 1970s]. I can say that as minority Indians, they are doing much better socially and career-wise than they would have done here. They were teachers [here], saying that they go into the staffroom, and people were talking in Mandarin, and they felt alienated and marginalised. My answer to your question is that this is my country, I’m going to fight for it. I can, and because I don’t have commitments, I can do that. I’m not going to give it up to the Chinese, sorry.
I have been here all my life, and I want to be part of this process of being, having respect for each other, recognising each other, and the beauty of a multicultural society. I have to fight for it. I was involved in feminism and women’s organisations, but everything we do, whether we were part of the feminist movement or better human rights for foreign workers or the general civil society, getting people together, everything was leading to a value system. I’m not just a feminist, what I am doing is to make Singapore a better place, to work towards a value system where we can be—sorry, I’m sitting here and sermonising.
Alfian: No it’s okay! I think you’ve earned that right, Constance. And what you say actually reminds me of a quote by James Baldwin, and this is in a letter that he wrote to a friend, where he says, “the place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” And that’s what you’ve decided to do, to stay on and fight. That said, though, all these challenges that you’ve faced over the years, and you detail some of them in your book, people were warning you, saying "be careful, don’t be too vocal, people are watching", et cetera. How do you overcome many of these challenges over the years?
Constance: It was difficult. You wake up in the morning and you wonder if the police are going to knock on your door. You don’t go to sleep (without) thinking police will knock on your door at 2 o’clock in the morning. So those were fears, but there were other people who have really had to suffer the ISA. I didn’t have to, but you live day by day because you believe in what you do. You have a responsibility, a commitment to your organisation, and that keeps you going. Then, of course, I began to get old, and they don’t bother old ladies, so (laughs). I haven’t had many opportunities to be braver than I was when I was young, because now I’m not very involved, I’m just writing books. Living in old age where you live day by day, when you are activists you live day by day and do what you have to do, and I did fear the use of ISA for the longest time. When we say something, when we do something, [wondering if] the ISA was going to be used? Fortunately, it has not been used since 1987, wasn’t it?
Alfian: For the terrorists, right?
Constance: Marxist conspiracy.
Alfian: But they’ve used ISA for terrorism-related activities.
Constance: That’s right, terrorism-related. There was the use of ISA when we had worries about terrorism. And so even now, civil society is far more active, young people are more active, maybe because they’re more educated, confident, and articulate. When we were doing it, we were pioneers in that, so we feared, lived in fear for a long time. But also people who are very active now don’t fear—this is a gig generation, so they don’t worry too much about long-term career security that we did. One advantage that I had was that I was single, and therefore as a result I was president [of AWARE] many times. I didn’t have to worry about job security, I had financial resources and was financially secure, so all those elements and the security in my life allowed me to be who I was. Not many people are [that] lucky. I had the language, I could be articulate, and not many people are—if you look at the history of AWARE and its presidents, you’ll notice a pattern there.
Alfian: Thank you, Constance, and I love what you said about as you grow older you care less about these things. I really admire the fact that you’re still raising hell at your age; the fact that the book launch for Where I Was was supposed to be at The Arts House and then they cancelled the venue at the last moment. When I grow up I want to be just like you. To be deplatformed in your 80s is an achievement, it means that you’re still doing something right.
Constance: Hey, it wasn’t me, okay? (Laughs). It was those scaredy cats in the civil service who did that. Ten years ago, [Where I Was] was launched at The Arts House, but ten years later, they were too scared to use The Arts House. What is happening in civil society is something we have to discuss. Why did that happen? So the culture is getting worse? Our education system is not empowering people? It’s something that we haven’t started talking about. I do end up with positive remarks, didn’t I? I said I love Singapore very much! I did! I admire what we have achieved. I don’t like capitalism very much, which is why I was a flag-waving Singaporean when Singapore became independent. It was because we were a socialist democracy, and we were multicultural. Those were the three things that were promised to us. It is what I am still sad about, and if I talk about it I will cry.
Alfian: Thank you. My own coping mechanism when it comes to all these challenges is to always maintain a sense of humour. So I remember when there was the Aware EGM in 2009, and Thio Su Mien went up in front of the crowd and said, “I’m a feminist mentor,” and then she held up a book and said “I’m on page 73,” right—
Constance: I put her there, you know (laughs). I’m the only one who knew her history. The irony of it!
Alfian: So we’re tracing it back to you! Constance said she put Thio Su Mien’s name inside the book. So I came up with this game called the “I’m on page 73” game, where you open up any book, go to page 73, and replace a word with the name Thio Su Mien, and we had so much fun on Facebook. It was hilarious. I remember when my Yale-NUS thing also got cancelled. Of course I was upset, all the attacks were coming in that I was like trying to teach or groom students to become dissidents. It was quite a dark period for me personally, but when I look back at the Facebook posts that I made, apparently one of my responses was to counter-propose a program.
The [original] program was supposed to be called “Dissent and Resistance”, and my counter-proposal was “Dialogue and Compliance” or something like that. One of the events was Democracy Classroom by Kirsten Han, and my counter-proposal was to change Democracy Classroom to Detention Class. There’s a sign-making workshop, [I proposed to] change it to a line-writing workshop; write 1000 lines criticising yourself, “I will not blah blah blah.” Because of my own position in the arts, I actually find a lot of things quite funny at the end of the day, and that’s one way that I’ve been able to survive in Singapore. You really have to look at the absurdity of things. Things like civil servant paranoia, the stuff that they’re so scared about, it’s really quite surreal, quite absurd, and you can’t help but just laugh at it at the end of the day.
Constance: Alfian brought up the 2009 AWARE saga, when AWARE was taken over. Something that’s so wonderful about Singapore is that we take a lot of pride in our secular society. And AWARE won it back because a lot of Singaporeans who were not AWARE members became AWARE members on the spot to vote for the old guard of AWARE, to get AWARE back. So that speaks also something about who we are and what we love about [Singapore].
Alfian: Should we open up to the floor now?
Audience: Hi my name is Arun. Earlier y’all were talking about the porosity of culture, of language and food, and Constance was saying that it’s getting better? My experience hasn’t been that. When left by itself, the porosity is a lot more fluid, but when you add in administrative things like the CMIO, I feel like what has happened now is essentialised porosity. I was on a Grab recently. The driver was a Chinese guy, and he was like, “you have lunch already?” “No” “Oh I love nasi biryani, are you going to have nasi biryani?” and I was like, “Indians don’t actually have nasi biryani very frequently, and it’s a celebratory thing.” And he said “how can you be Indian and not eat nasi biryani.”
It’s nothing against him, but what I felt was, we do know stuff about each other's cultures, but there’s a significant loss of nuance. I wonder, when we are exchanging things on Racial Harmony Day or other events, are we actually transmitting the nuance as well? Are we giving a very massaged version of it, and what happens if this continues in the next generation.
Constance: It’s difficult. As an Indian I can say that I don’t know a lot of what North Indians eat or their language. Last year AWARE published a book called Growing Up Indian (What We Inherit), and several times I have been asked to appear on TV to talk about my culture or my food and so on. AWARE asked me to write [a piece for the book] and I said I’m not representative of India. I’m not even representative of Malayalee Indians because I grew up here, and there is no one culture, one kind of food, there’s a multiplicity of India, and it’s very difficult for Singaporeans who think in one way (because we are PAP-trained) to understand that. Eventually, AWARE did persuade me to write, and the book on Malayalee Indians didn’t include me. When I saw the writer I said, "why didn’t you include me?" Who can deny my existence?
But the thing is, my name, Constance Singam, doesn’t tell you I’m a Malayalee. So anyway, AWARE persuaded me to write a chapter, because my culture is different from the rest. There’s Hindu culture, there’s Muslim culture, there is—in Kerala anyway—there is Christian culture, and we all have different kinds of food. So I cannot represent all of them, I can only represent myself. And the essay I wrote was about growing up a Catholic, and the culture of the Catholics. We celebrated only New Year's Day, Christmas, Easter, Good Friday—well, Good Friday we marked—and I knew nothing about Onam for instance, until recently when people are picking up Malayalee (even Catholic Malayalees).
One day all the Malayalees in Singapore will celebrate Onam, without knowing that Onam was a harvest festival, which we as Catholics 500 years ago, whoever was in charge of us said, “dismiss these celebrations as Pagan.” Culture has changed over the years, and we will be celebrating Onam. It is impossible for all of us to understand what India is, and I wouldn’t want to be India now, [because of] what’s happening in India. So yes, they think everybody eats chilli; I don’t. My cooking is not very spicy, Malayalee cooking is not very spicy. They think we eat biryani, I had not eaten biryani till my adulthood, maybe because it’s not my cuisine. You just have to tell them, "look I have never eaten—"I know they protest. Because of my name, people come and ask me, why aren’t you speaking Tamil? Because I’m not Tamil. But there is that insistence, their stubbornness, their ignorance. Put it down to ignorance.
Alfian: To address your point about the biryani, I think it’s great that you spoke up to him and tried to educate him. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s an ideal response that you got, but often there are all these stubborn uncle taxi drivers where I find there’s no arguing with them. In Malay we say “buang current”, you just waste electricity trying to argue with them. The ideal response could be, obviously you are from that culture, you would be the authority in that, right? I hope that if we’re ever called out whenever for ignorance, the right response would be to be humble about it, and expect to be schooled by someone who is from that culture. That said though, I kind of don’t blame him for assuming these things, based on the fact that it’s widely available in hawker centres. Even stuff like rendang, for example, is also Malay community festivals kind of food. You eat it every day, you’re going to be morbidly obese. But then people assume those things. So I don’t blame him for his assumption but I do blame him for the whole, “eh no la, I know better,” because I don’t know why he knows better, but, you know, stubborn uncle, that’s all. Any other questions?
Audience: Hello! My name is Madhu. The topic is “Loving Singapore”, right? So when I was hearing both of you talk, I was just thinking to myself, what is Singapore? How do you define that national identity? And both of you have rightly pointed out in some instances that it was constructed specifically because we became an independent country, there was a need to pull out certain elements of society to create an identity so we could distinguish ourselves from our neighbours in some ways, especially since Singapore had to distinguish itself from the rest of the nusantara, so on so forth. When I was in university, I did a dissertation investigating why local Singaporean Indians don’t get along with migrant or foreign Indians.
During the interviews, there was so much emotions from the Singaporeans like, "oh they don’t talk like us, they don’t speak like us, they don’t get it, they don’t appreciate us". And then when I tried to find out what exactly, they couldn’t really answer me, because so much of what national identity is is these really constructed markers like serving NS (National Service), eating Singaporean food, so on and so forth. They could break it down. I want to ask you what you think of our national identity, do you think it is fluid, or is it constructed? Does it always have to be Chinese, Malay, Indian, should we recognise now that Burmese, Filipinos, Bangladeshi now also form what is now being Singaporean? Thank you.
Constance: It is constructed. We are still a nation in the making. And one of the things that has happened of course is that, we had different phases of immigration over 200-odd years. In the ‘70s for instance, it was more settled. And then we got new immigrants. So every now and then we get this—and they’re not small groups of people, they’re very large groups of people of a particular race or nationality coming in, it upsets the equilibrium of what it is to be Singaporean. So I don’t know when we will see that because population policies seem to then upset this equilibrium. I remember writing an article "why do I feel like a foreigner in my own country?" In one of the papers, in one of my columns. That was what I was feeling. In my old age, I have decided my community is my country. My community of civil society activists, my friends, people who I am surrounded by, they are my community. And in that community we have no racism, ageism, classism, all that we suspend because we focus on a value system. So that’s how I have my own comfort in my old age.
Alfian: Thank you. In one of my plays I have this line where one character asks another, how do you define being Singaporean? And the person answers, “a Singaporean is someone who spends too much time trying to define what a Singaporean is.” It goes in a loop, right? I think it’s a great question. But I also want to ask, why do we need a national identity, beyond certain things like defense, for example. Even then, one knows that within a military hierarchy, often it’s “do or die”, whether or not you love a country, it’s sometimes quite secondary to the fact that you belong to a certain kind of command structure, and that’s why some people make difficult moral decisions during war. Because you’re following instructions.
So this question of national identity; for people who are very nationalistic, very invested in the idea that Singapore is the best, Singapore is perfect, [they're] so proud to be Singaporean, I sometimes feel that that’s a lazy thing to do. Because you don’t develop personality. You don’t take time to cultivate yourself and your own interests, you just go like, “I’m Singaporean,” and you expect people to go "oh ya Singapore, your exchange rate is very good, you live in a clean and green country, wow." You’re basking in the reflected glow of how good Singapore is. I have some questions about why we need a national identity, and I’m concerned also in the brandishing of a national identity to divide and ‘other’ people. Because what’s more important is actually overcoming these kinds of divisions and just recognising that common humanity. So this idea about the local-born or foreign-born Singaporeans, I just wonder whether this harnessing or mobilising of national identity is a way to express already-existent prejudices against certain groups of people. It’s a way to exclude.
Audience: Hi Alfian, hi Constance, I’m Sarah. Thank you so much Constance for paving the way, for your courage, and really because it’s a cycle, you give me the courage and hopefully I’ll give my daughter the courage to do the same. I found hope, comfort and courage through your book, and my question is, through your experiences that have left you feeling psychologically unsafe, how do you reclaim that sense of psychological safety and belonging over the years?
Constance: That’s the purpose of my book. It’s a search for my place in Singapore and how did I get into trouble like I did during the AWARE saga; how did I get there? At the end of the day, as I said earlier, you form your own community, because you have to ignore what’s happening around you and we can already see racism surfacing because of what’s happening in the cabinet, but you have your own community of people. You have to nurture the community around you so you can ignore the negativity. That’s how I have found my peace. I have AWARE for instance, where we share values. I have civil society activists, civil society groups. I always tell people, join a group, and you will have a sense of belonging.
I remember Corinna, who is now the executive director of AWARE. Years ago, she was going to leave Singapore, because she was frustrated. 1980s, 1990s were frustrating times in Singapore because of the national language policy, particularly, and she was about to leave Singapore. Then she became very active in AWARE, and she decided "okay, this is the place for me". So you don’t think about the whole of Singapore, you think about your place in your own community in what you do, and that’s the only way. Because Singapore is so small, everybody is in your face, so it’s difficult to form that kind of idea. That’s the way to go. You raise your children among that community and empower them, give them hope.
Alfian: Just to close, to go back to this theme of “ways to love Singapore”, I think it’s very important that as much as we might discuss some ways, it’s so important not to be prescriptive about it. The way to love Singapore is to avoid having people tell you there’s one way it should be, or there’s only one way. It’s absolutely something that you have to figure out for yourself. In fact, I realise that I would certainly love a country much more if it gave me that freedom to love it the way I choose. Thank you.
About the Speakers
Constance Singam is a writer and civil society activist. Constance has led women’s organisations, co-founded civil society groups, been a columnist in national publications, and co-edited several books. Her nonfiction works include Re-Presenting Singapore Women (2004) and The Art of Advocacy in Singapore (2017). She has written two memoirs including Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce (2016), and three children’s books including Porter the Adventurous Otter (2021). She was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015.
Alfian Sa’at is the Resident Playwright with professional theatre company Wild Rice. His published works include three collections of poetry (One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript), two collections of short stories (Corridor and Malay Sketches), three collections of plays (Collected Plays One, Two and Three), and the published play Cooling Off Day. He is also co-editor of non-fiction essay anthology Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History.