Divided, we fail

JUNE 13 — Somewhere in the suburb of Yishun is a shrine to the Hindu god Muneswaran. Believed to be one of the many avatars of Lord Shiva, he is a deity that Tamil families often worship for many generations.

It is one of my favourite corners on the island.

It was my father who first brought me to this shrine, and we wandered around the temple for some time afterwards and it is what I loved most about where the shrine is situated.

Hock Huat Keng is a Chinese temple in the industrial estate, can get crowded sometimes with Singaporeans looking for the comfort of prayer. Within this space, two cultures and religions not only co-exist but co-operate – brought together by shared values and mutual respect.

The Singapore experience is hard to describe to an outsider; we are so much more than just a wealthy city in the South China Sea, we are a constant exchange of ideas and experiences between vastly different cultures and ethnicities.

Two uncles – one of Chinese descent and another of Indian descent – can find common ground in the near universal Asian appreciation for “luck” and the respect of higher powers. 

Like how we now give ang pows at Hindu weddings or how we all know the smell of the frangipani flower means you ought to cross the road immediately. We are a hodgepodge of superstitions and beliefs – some of which make no sense to anyone other than us but it all comes together to create a unique identity.

Or am I lying to myself? 

This romanticised idea of all of us coming together and building one pan Asian identity that pulls together a little bit of every culture is clearly an idealistic exception that seems to be increasingly harder to make the norm.

The Singapore experience is hard to describe to an outsider; we are so much more than just a wealthy city in the South China Sea. —  Reuters pic
The Singapore experience is hard to describe to an outsider; we are so much more than just a wealthy city in the South China Sea. — Reuters pic

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My older relatives often blame this on the absence of a kampung – that we no longer live in each other’s lives but instead sit cloistered in our flats. 

I think the answer isn’t so straightforward – to begin with I am sceptical it was complete racial harmony in the “good old days” to begin with and secondly, I think the divisions among us exist because we are constantly told we are different from each other.

That we are not given the space by the state and society to simply be Singaporean – that we have to constantly be reduced to one of the four categories. So, now everything I do is a “Singaporean Indian” custom completely different from that of my “Singaporean Chinese” contemporaries.

And so instead of becoming increasingly integrated, we retreat more and more into our boxes. One cannot respect the rituals from another category, you cannot date someone from another category – we have to stick to our box.

This is why I was especially upset to read the story of the neighbour who decided to harass her neighbour as he prayed by loudly clanging her gong. It captures the idea of boundaries over brotherhood – that she couldn’t simply look over and see her neighbour praying. I believe she saw her “Indian” neighbour doing something different from her “Chinese” culture.

This also means that our ability to accept foreigners – an integral part of our country – also becomes harder. 

If we are allowed to become more and more insular, if we are allowed to say things like “no Indians allowed” when putting up a place for rent or “not racist but no Malays” when creating a dating profile – then we are giving up on the potential of Singapore as a global city with a robust south-east Asian cultural identity that is strong enough to expand and accommodate newer arrivals. 

Instead, we are pandering to our worst tendencies.

We need our leaders to do better, we need to do better – if we want to continue to succeed, we need to recognise that our nation building is not done, clearly it has barely even begun.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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