Today is 9th August. What day is it?
If you ask this question to any Singaporean, you would most likely be thrown a dumbfounded look, “Why do you ask? It’s National Day, isn’t it obvious?” Yes indeed, it is the birthday, or more accurately the anniversary of the day Singapore became independent. One of the most significant days in the country’s calendar, and one of the more special days Singapore experiences given its constrained lands, nature and recreation.
It is one of the few days the country sees its sky doodled with lighted sparks and coloured with gunpowder, its contingents of ever-inconspicuous yet omnipresent 20-year-old men defending the country, its second-hand squads of planes, tanks and armed vehicles, and last but not least, it is one of the few days the country gets to see our president and the governing party.
Incidentally, 9th August also marks the anniversary of the day of atomic bombing of Nagasaki that consequently led to the end of World War II in. In retrospect, this day 67 years ago actually indirectly paved out the path that led to Singapore’s independence 20 years later.
On this special day, of which I have increasingly, and remorsefully, neglected in the past few years as I have lived away from the country, I wish to make it all up by ruminating about what impact this country had had on me, and the cultural gaps I have felt in Japan as a result.
What is your native language?, was a question I was asked several times in Japan and it was one of the hardest to give a firm answer. If you asked which language am I best at, I would say it is English. If you asked what my mother tongue was, it would be Mandarin. But my native language… Singlish? And then, when I first hear of foreigners speaking their “national language”, I could not conjure out what it actually meant for me. I was almost jealous when my foreigner friends could all speak their “national” language; Japanese spoke Japanese, Koreans spoke korean, Indonesians spoke Bahasa Indonesia and Thais spoke Thai. I frowned upon myself as I realize Singapore’s official national language is Malay, and my grasp of Malay is at best minimal.
In which country do the people not speak its national language? I had cracked my brain several times about this question, but it dawned upon me one day a few years ago that we used to actually mouthed words of our national language every single day. We sang our national anthem (which is in Malay) every day in primary, secondary schools and junior colleges. When we were enlisted into the army, our commands were all given in Malay. I never really fathomed the reason behind all these rituals, but it all came to me when I stepped out of the country and my friends asked me, why is your country’s national anthem a language you cannot speak?
Secondly, Singapore gave me an multi-cultural, competitive and “restrained” environment to grow up in. I never thought it was weird going into the train hearing conversations that I could not comprehend because people around me spoke in English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Mandarin dialects and many other languages. Its somewhat restrained environment in terms of geography and entertainment made me appreciate Japan’s rich nature and explosion of creativity and madness.
Thirdly, because I grew up writing “my favourite colour is red”, “you have to practise more because practice makes perfect” and “I learnt from my learned neighbour“, I felt a pang of uneasiness when people around me told me to “take the elevator up and you will see the washroom“.
All these differences made me realize my own identity when I stepped out of the country, and perhaps today is a day for me to recollect my past memoirs and look back at where I came from. I have found a job here in Japan and would not be returning to Singapore for extended periods of time, but this is the new world order, whilst I have my route to determine who I am, there is always a root to identify where I come from.