SINGAPORE - Of late, I have been wearing many different hats. Besides being a singer, I have been playing the role of judge and mentor in The Final One, the latest singing competition reality show on MediaCorp Channel 5, as well as serving as Creative Consultant with Nexus at Mindef. Talk about having an identity crisis!
But I do not feel alone — I am aware that I’m in very good company of my fellow Singaporeans. We are a nation undergoing an identity crisis. Some have described Singapore as going through its teenage years, throwing tantrums, rebelling against the parental government system that has raised us (quite well, I must add), and now trying to find our place in the world, from both a personal and national perspective. Sacred cows are being analysed to death even if they aren’t quite slain, difficult questions are being asked of our leaders, of society and of ourselves.
This is definitely a time of awakening for many of us. It is a time of change and negotiation, and it can be uncomfortable and upsetting.
We find ourselves in limbo, somewhere between being a first-world economy and a somewhat provincial mindset that refuses to let go of what is familiar and comfortable. And so we cling on to nostalgia and everything local. In our fierce march towards being international and global, something has made us look back and realise we can’t make sense of the future if we don’t understand and cherish our past. And define it, too — put things on record.
I am an optimist. Even in the depths of my despair as a moody, brooding, overweight teenager, I always knew the tumult and the searching would be over one day, and I would be able to make sense of everything.
But we have got to be steady. And I use this word in its local Singlish context. Steady. We must not lose our heads. We must not go on a mindless tirade that adds unhappiness and noise to the already very unhappy and noisy blogosphere and chatrooms and forums, some of the scariest places on earth, inhabited by “ghosts” that wail and screech but have no physical form.
Okay, so I am not totally in tune with the communication and social platform advancements of the 21st century. But I have a proposal to make. Please hear me out.
YOU SAY MELTING POT, WE SAY ROJAK
One of the good things that has emerged from this state of flux we are experiencing as a nation is the recognition of all things local, and the need for us to support local, made-in-Singapore products, services, talents, artists, brands, et cetera. We can’t and probably don’t want to stop our nation’s march into the globalised future, but there will not be a future for us as a people if we do not embrace, grow and preserve what defines us.
And we can do this without cutting off our new immigrants. It is not a zero-sum game. These new immigrants (whom we were descendants of just three generations ago) do not take away our Singaporean-ness. Maybe we just aren’t steady enough in our own identity and skins. If we grow and support a very rich, proud and steady home culture, they will be assimilated into it, and might become happily-Singaporeanised much sooner than we can say: “Eh, so where you from ah?”
Look at some of the greatest melting-pot cultures in the world, like New York, London, Hong Kong, Melbourne … and actually, I still consider Singapore in this list. Our pot is just experiencing some curdling at the moment. The best melting-pot cultures manage to assimilate every nation, colour and creed into its mix. It’s about adding to the flavours of the pot, not taking away from it.
I was a locally born-and-bred performer who had to venture overseas so I could have a career in the early 1990s. I chose to move back home in 1998 — yes, coinciding with my debut performance of the song Home as providence would have it — because I knew that if I lived overseas for too long, I would sooner or later lose the connection I have with this place I have always called home, and along with it, all the relationships I have cultivated in my life.
I have since tried to work here as much as possible. And it is possible. It has been the challenge of my entire career to fight for the status of local talent (what stigma that term used to bring, and unfortunately still does for some today) to be recognised with no bias attached, on par with any other talents we enjoy and appreciate as lovers of music, art or fashion.
TELLING THE SINGAPORE STORY
I think that to be truly first world, we need to be able to look at ourselves, warts and all, and accept and embrace who we are. No doubt, we must seek to improve, or we do not deserve to be up there with the big boys. But more importantly, we need to be represented and defined, and the only way to do this is through culture, history, arts, food, and the softer things that describe us as a people, not just through numbers that reduce us to, well, a number.
If we do not develop our own writers, musicians, actors, poets, performers, architects, athletes, fashion designers, chefs, et cetera, then who will tell our stories, and express our hopes and dreams, grief and disappointments? Without stories and a collective memory, we will never be a nation, and we can never be proud of ourselves. Don’t we realise that bitterness, cynicism and constant blaming and complaining are a result of low self-esteem?
So, in light of The Final One coming to a close tomorrow (Aug 21), I am filled with hope and trepidation for the winner-to-be. I wish him or her all the best in what I hope will be an exciting and fulfilling journey ahead, and for the courage to soar even in the face of cynics and naysayers who are bent on taking down those who dare to dream and take risks.
I call on all Singaporeans to support and to nurture all our emerging and mature creative local talents, so that they may continue to tell the Singapore story through song, books, poems, films, food, beautiful clothes and furniture, and all those comforting things for living and for the soul. Help them to realise their dreams even as we realise our collective dreams through them. Be the wind beneath their wings when there is opportunity for them to fly our flag in places where their talents might take them.
From one Singaporean to another, I appeal to you. Let’s get through these tough teenage years together, live long and prosper.