My high school best friend turned college roommate for 3 years visited the West Coast recently. As we were ambling around Sausalito, she suddenly asked me which country, of all places that I’d been to, I would want to retire in if I could choose. I gave it some thought and I was actually surprised by my own answer. Of all the beautiful and remarkable places that I’ve seen all over the world, I still end up choosing Singapore as the place to retire. Not Indonesia, not Bali, not New Zealand, and not even France. It’s really strange considering how quickly I moved out at the first chance of living abroad, and it’s even stranger considering how frequently I’ve visited France and professed my love for all things Francophone.
The title of this blog post is already cliché enough, so I’m not going to add to it by saying that I have a love-hate relationship with Singapore. Nothing is perfect, let’s leave it at that. On one hand, everything seems to work in Singapore. There are always a set of clear, written rules in all circumstances and they are almost always followed. It’s actually better than any textbook I’ve ever read. The roads are clean, grounds pristine, neighbourhoods safe, even the trees are lined up on a fixed distance from one another as if they were planted by people with OCD. On the other hand, the society thrives on subservience, uniformity, and conformity; it lacks diversity and creativity. I find Singaporeans so conforming that I once joked with a friend that they reminded me of the citizens in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There is a reason why Glee is the only show that never fails make me cry, and that it remains my favorite after all these years despite the ridiculous plot holes, the lip sync-y singing, and voices too thin attempting to tackle Broadway songs. Glee actually teaches us that it’s okay to be different, that you have the right to define yourself regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, that arts is as important as (if not more than) science. These are values that neither Game of Thrones nor House of Cards could ever teach.
I have always simplistically and naively believed that conformity is the price to pay for orderliness. Various people have told me that it’s not true. But for argument’s sake, let’s indulge me here for once. If in order to create a “perfect” nation like Singapore, the citizens must always conform and behave in such an obedient manner, then I would choose conformity any day. It is still more palatable than living among people who litter and spit on the streets, not being able to walk home at night without looking over your shoulder all the time, and having to deal with inefficient bureaucracy, government policies, and procedures.
Labelling someone “a great man” is always a subjective matter. As I read the pouring tributes for the late Lee Kuan Yew on my Twitter feed, one thing that kept being mentioned by everyone from nation leaders to commoners was what a great man he was. I can’t say if he was a great man or not as I don’t know him personally. But one thing I know, Singapore wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for him. Many have pointed out that we would still have Singapore today even if he were not around, just a different one. You see, that’s precisely the problem. Because the kind of Singapore that it is today, the one that he built, is the one that I’ve actually come to love.
I’m a bit of a psychopath and therefore empathy is not my strongest point. I’ve always struggled to sympathise with people, I’m bad at consoling or comforting others, and don’t even talk about me feeling guilt or remorse. So I didn’t feel sad at all at the news of his passing. I thought it was the natural thing to happen given his age. But one thing that I can still feel is gratitude. Gratitude for him choosing to dedicate his life to building Singapore regardless of his personal motivations, for turning the nation into a place that I, along with millions of other people, are proud to call home, and for making me see that at the end of the day, I still love Singapore despite all its flaws. This is the place where I’ve felt like I could dream and achieve it, it’s where I spent my cherished adolescent years (I was a late-bloomer), where I discovered my identity, and where I learnt to feel sure of myself.
I was scrolling through my Facebook looking for a suitable picture that represents the country to accompany this post when it dawned on me that Singapore was never about the Marina Bay Sands or the Gardens by the Bay. The chorus from Tanya Chua’s 2001 NDP song suddenly rang in my ears. She sang, “where I belong, where I keep my heart and soul, where we are one big family”. It’s the people, the people that are dear to me. That’s what Singapore has always been about.