Amid the torrential rains that fell across the entire island of Singapore today, emotional cries and cheers for the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew echoed from the crowds lining along the streets in the central business district of Singapore. The casket carried on a ceremonial Artillery Gun Carriage maneuvered through the roads surrounded by some of the most significant buildings and structures that epitomizes Singapore’s tremendous growth over the past 50 years since her independence.
Unfortunately, I was not at the scene to witness this historic event. I was not in Singapore, well in fact, I have not been living in Singapore for the past seven years, except for annual trips back to visit my family and friends. I was sitting in my little room in Tokyo, watching the live broadcast of the State Funeral Procession on my computer. I felt my heartstrings tugged when the familiar scenes of my home country appeared on the screen, and as the commentator explained the history and significance of each landmark, I am filled with a mixture of nostalgia and remorse. Nostalgia, because of the familiarity of the sights; remorse, because I realized there is still so much I don’t know about my country. Every time the commentator describes the history of a certain building, I am astounded and embarrassed when it dawned upon me that I never knew about it.
Well, perhaps it is the same for many Singaporeans. How much do we actually know about our own country? For me, I must admit that I learnt a great deal about Singapore, only after coming to Japan seven years ago. Prior to coming to Japan, I was not quite a patriotic citizen. I loved my country for sure, but I am neither the type who derive pleasure from memorizing the details of Singapore history, nor the type who would happily die for the country.
When I first came to Japan, my Japanese and non-Japanese friends would relentlessly ask me about my country. About our political system, our food culture, our history, our tradition, or even simple questions about tourist spots to visit. Having not quite familiarized myself with my own country, I struggled to answer these questions. Furthermore, thanks to my ability to speak Japanese, I was extremely honoured to be go onto Japanese variety shows, representing Singapore, to talk about a wide range of topics. The TV producers would carry out simple questionnaires before the recording to gather basic information and perhaps see how much I could provide. Being bombarded with questions about Singapore for several years, I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge about various aspects of Singapore. Of course, I am still not a guru about Singapore, not even close to it. I still cannot grasp properly the political parties and names of the MPs, nor can I recite to you the history of Singapore, but I have to say, I have ironically learnt a great deal about my own country ever since coming to Japan. But I can now tell you the meanings and histories of Singapore food, the backgrounds of our multi-cultural society, the little hints of our multiculturalism hidden in the daily life and on the streets in Singapore, how Singapore has changed from 10 years ago, and so on.
During my first few years in Japan, I had an identity crisis. Naturally or not I don’t know, but my English accent changed and my way of thinking evolved. Without having a strong sense of identity then, I had to juggle between patriotism for Singapore and my adore for Japan. I was afraid I would be called a quitter, having left the country for so long. Will Singaporeans despise me, or disregard me as a Singaporean? What should I do to make it up? Is it wrong of me to leave the country? How can I contribute to the country from outside?
These questions flooded my mind for some time, but slowly the clouds faded and the answer was clear: I don’t have to worry too much about it. I just need to do what I love, what I think is right and good for the society. If I manage to accomplish something great some day, I know that I have done my country proud. My identity as a Singaporean will not change, as long as I don’t change it. I am proud to have been able to represent Singapore on Japanese variety shows, though it was but a few lines. I am proud to have been able to talk about Singapore at various seminars for Japanese to learn more about the country, its history and culture. I am proud to be working part time in a Singapore restaurant (and have been doing so for close to 3 years), explaining to customers about the sophistication and beauty of my country’s cuisines, watch them devour plates of chicken rice, bowls of laksa and many pieces of roti prata, and reveal a smile of satisfaction after the meal, telling me how great it was.
I know I’m still Singaporean, no matter what my background is, because I could feel tears welling up in my eyes when I watched the State Funeral Procession this afternoon, when I recited the pledge and sang the national anthem.