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National Day Special: Why it's getting harder to make Singapore a home truly for all, and yet we must persevere

Most people, unsurprisingly, consider their home country to be their country of citizenship. However, the notion of home transcends legal status and the colour of one’s passport: it is also about one’s identification with a country and people. This in turn stems from the many facets of home that tug at our heartstrings.

Spectators at the National Day Parade rehearsal on July 30, 2022.

Spectators at the National Day Parade rehearsal on July 30, 2022.

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For many, "home" is about more than just a roof over our heads, yet it can mean different things to different people. The events of recent years, including the rise of identity politics around the world, the pushback against globalisation and the Covid-19 pandemic, have also forced some to rethink what "home" means.

As part of TODAY's National Day Special this year exploring the sense of belonging, academic Terence Ho lays out the need to make Singapore a home truly for all and the various challenges ahead.

Come National Day, we can expect to hear moving renditions of singer-songwriter Dick Lee’s composition Home.

This much-loved National Day song reminds us that home is more than a mere abode — it is a place of familiarity that imbues in us a sense of belonging.

When we speak of Singapore as our home, we may think of both places and people, physical landmarks along with intangible culture. Familiar sights, sounds, tastes and smells all make up our experience of home.

MANY FACETS OF HOME

Most people, unsurprisingly, consider their home country to be their country of citizenship.

However, the notion of home transcends legal status and the colour of one’s passport: it is also about one’s identification with a country and people. This in turn stems from the many facets of home that tug at our heartstrings.

Those who have grown up in Singapore may share a common set of experiences shaped by public housing, the school system and for men, National Service.

Integral to our experience of home are memories — of family excursions to familiar locales, hanging out with friends, a first date.

But Singapore is becoming more diverse. Among our population are new citizens who may see Singapore through fresh lenses, whose practices and preferences are informed by their cultural heritage and life experiences elsewhere.

They may be in the process of making Singapore their home — forging new ties to people and places as they sink roots here. While not all Singaporeans will recollect the Singapore of yesteryear, we are building a shared future together.

So it is vital for new citizens and old to get to know one another, and for Singaporeans of different races, ages and origins to embrace the rich and evolving cultural tapestry that makes up modern Singapore.

NOTION OF HOME BEING RESHAPED

For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of home and its significance in our lives.

As travel barriers sprung up across the globe in 2020, the world suddenly didn’t seem as borderless as before. Citizens who had lived and worked for many years abroad came home to be near loved ones or to avail themselves of vaccines and medical care here.

Over the past two and a half years, Singaporeans who would normally have been travelling abroad became reacquainted with Singapore — exploring what our island has to offer through staycations, nature walks or culinary expeditions.

A 2021 study by Turkish psychologists Meral Gezici Yalçın and N. Ekrem Düzen found that for many, the meaning of home has been reconstructed by the experience of the pandemic.

While national lockdowns have imparted negative connotations such as coercion and restrictions, home has also taken on added significance as a safe haven and all-embracing living space.

At the same time, the notion of home is being reinterpreted through the simultaneous rise of nationalism and identity politics in many parts of the world.

Right-wing groups in the United States, Europe and Asia are stirring up anti-foreigner sentiment, while various communities are demanding greater rights for members of their tribe or in-group.

Societies are fracturing along the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation, ideology and political affiliation, to name a few.

HOME UNDER EXTERNAL PRESSURE

Singapore is not immune to these pressures.

In fact, our society is becoming more heterogeneous. A range of identity markers — including but no longer limited to race and religion — are distinguishing us as individuals and groups. Nationality, then, becomes just one of the myriad markers of who we are as persons.

Some countries have responded to these challenges by foisting a strong national identity on all citizens, new and old — forcing conformity in ideology, language and dressing, or suppressing competing claims on personal allegiance.

Singapore, by contrast, has always allowed its constituent races to retain and express their cultural distinctiveness. This broad tent mindset should be extended to immigrants and new citizens, as is fitting for a global city and cosmopolitan society.

But those who take up citizenships must make the effort to acquaint themselves with local customs and culture. There is no compulsion to shed one’s culture of origin, but to embrace the Singapore identity and all that this country has to offer.

With heightened great power contestation, the pull of ethnic and cultural forces beyond our borders may generate strains within our multiethnic society. Various social and political ideologies are also spreading rapidly across borders through social media.

Whether Singapore can hold together as a nation depends on whether Singaporeans can learn to live with others who are different, or whether our loyalties are so divided by competing identities that we cannot move forward cohesively as a nation.

AN INCLUSIVE HOME FOR ALL

Looking around the world today, the impact of political and societal fissures is sadly evident.

A recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court has sunk to a historic low amid a heated debate over abortion rights; in England, supporters of a football club regularly boo the national anthem to express their grievances against the state.

These offer cautionary tales of what might happen here if groups feel disenfranchised or ignored.

Inclusive policies that affirm all citizens and their place in the nation are therefore important. Public policy has a role to play in setting the tone for the nation, but it too has to reflect the tenor of society — the prevailing social mores and attitudes.

Hence both the political leadership and citizenry are responsible for co-creating an inclusive home for all.

Regarding foreign relations or laws on issues such as homosexuality and the death penalty, the Government will invariably take positions that are welcome by some but opposed by others.

These are emotive issues for many Singaporeans; our ethnic, religious and other identities may well be bound up in them.

The question is whether we debate these issues respectfully, with an open mind and big hearts, and find it in ourselves to stand by our home and fellow citizens even when state policy goes against our personal views and values.

A home is for family, but it should also be welcoming of guests. These include our migrant workers — among them professionals, construction and factory workers, domestic helpers and other service staff. They play vital roles in supporting our economy and society.

Some may interact frequently with locals while others — by choice or necessity — socialise mainly among their compatriots or fellow migrant workers. How we treat the most vulnerable among them is a reflection of our society’s values. As hosts, it is incumbent on Singaporeans to make others feel at home in the city we call home.

All said, a home is one that accepts and empowers us. A home makes us secure and confident as individuals, providing the platform from which to spread our wings and take flight, enabling us to sing with all our heart:

This is home truly

Where I know I must be

Where my dreams wait for me…

Happy National Day.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Terence Ho is Associate Professor in Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the author of Refreshing the Singapore System: Recalibrating Socio-Economic Policy for the 21st Century (World Scientific, 2021). He will be spending National Day with his wife and two rowdy young kids, while hoping to catch a glimpse of the fireworks.

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