PM Lee Hsien Loong made many good points in his speech. Not brilliant, but timely points that we need to keep in mind. One of these is that Singapore is an aging society. It’s easy to forget this, and to overlook the grey-haired amidst us. But it is obvious, and the possibility that there will be double the number of elderly to working population in future is a worrying thought. I am studying now at the University of Toronto, where I see more black hair on the college campus than blond or brown hair. Toronto itself has a lot of immigrants, in addition to students who come from other parts of Canada, or who have immigrated from China or India or elsewhere. I am mentioning this for two reasons: first, the visual spectacle of seeing more Asian students than Caucasian students makes a huge difference. You feel immediately more at home, because of the sheer diversity of people. Accents matter less, and people don’t even question if you are an exchange student – because everyone sounds marginally different from each other anyway. Now imagine a Singapore in which we see more elderly than working adults. Elderly homes would dot every street corner; exercise parks and walkways would have elderly mingling together—and this is really the optimistic view. There is always the possibility that lowerincome elderly remain shut up at home, because we are unable, or unwilling, to provide for them, whereas those with families or who had good jobs are able to access facilities through their own resources. The second reason I bring this up, is the effect of immigration on Toronto itself. Before arriving in Toronto, I stayed in America for
a bit, where the presence of the white majority is overwhelmingly felt. Coming into Toronto was a whole different experience—it is a much more multicultural space, not just because of its multiple culture districts, but because the racial imbalance is much lower here. People come to accept diversity; there is space to be culturally different – in both senses of the word. Toronto receives about 100,000 new immigrants every year, they come as students and working adults from both within and without Canada. The sense of vibrancy and life in Toronto, in its subdistricts and refurbished old buildings, would not be the same without this diverse population of mindsets and talents. A city in which different cultures can come together, overcome their differences and settle into something new and different creates unpredictable and exciting results. But these results are guided by much thought and action. Singapore now is predicting the sort of population imbalance that Japan is struggling with. An aging population means fewer active young minds to power innovation, ideas and change. Innovation and change are vital to Singapore; without our technology, our human capital and fresh ideas, we have no resources to fall back on. This is one of the PAP mantras that I unabashedly believe to be true—that our minds are the only resource that we own. Economic success and world-class city status are not resources on which we can depend; they are the fruits of our labour, and are completely dependent on how well we negotiate the regional and global playing field. In order to cope with our rising senior population, we need to maintain our human capital any way we can.
A L I E N S A N D NAT IONA L I DE N T I T Y Still, the real problem is not about immigrants entering but about short-term immigrants entering Singapore, knowing they are there on a temporary basis. How do we ensure these new shortterm residents will assimilate themselves into our culture? They do have an incentive to do so if they intend to find more job opportunities here, but the inherent uncertainty of having a temporary pass makes it less valuable for them to invest time in doing so. Another problem this new focus on immigrants and population is uncovering is the same issue that has remained a thorn in the side of Singaporeans for ages – our national identity. What is Singapore, and what is a Singaporean? Is Singlish a language and something to be proud of; do we have a national costume; what do we tell people we love about Singapore besides the food and shopping? It’s almost as if, as one friend says, “We don’t have an identity yet, so let’s just talk about food in the meantime.” We can’t stick to the same ol’ same ol’ placeholders and safe topics forever. At some point, we need to confront the problems that are associated with race but not spoken about. Why do ‘poor Malays’ appear in the news more often when there are poor Chinese and Indians around too? Why do we associate the poor Chinese population with elderly Chinese living alone? Is under-education linked to culture, or to other factors? Building a Singaporean identity means building up social relations within the community. There seems to be
a deeply entrenched belief – perhaps not acknowledged, but there nevertheless – that the government will find a solution to the problem. But why do we want the government to decide on new social policies for us? In my opinion, Singapore has been annexed and dissected thoroughly enough to strip away almost all claims to Chinese communism, Indian nationalism or Malay indigenous ambitions. HDB racial quotas, cultural enclaves and our racial identity on our ICs have made us numbers where we are people. We need to come back into our own, not necessarily by challenging authority outright (that isn’t my point) but by putting ourselves out there, in the community. Communities create history together, and history generates shared identity. There is no straight line to national identity, much less by defining ourselves against immigrants. But together, we can make sense of what being Singaporean means. As Singaporeans, we should ask ourselves: do we want a culture that remains static, with a strongly Singaporean core (do we even know what that is?) and strongly defends against foreign influence, or do we want to absorb other ideas and cultures in a way that helps us innovate, change and grow? We do not need growth just to compete with other nations, but more importantly, to keep our people’s dreams vibrant, in a city which offers the best opportunities to its citizens. Singapore is at the top now, and it’s all too easy to fall. But we have got to the stage where sheer economic growth is not going to sustain our social needs.
March 2013 issue of THE RIDGE - the largest student-run magazine in the National University of Singapore