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Sunday, August 17, 2008

3 Singaporeans and a country

3 Singaporeans and a country

All three are Singaporeans, holding the red passport but living their lives out differently. In their respective ways, they represent the diversity among Singaporeans today.They share their thoughts with Insight on what National Day - and by extension, Singapore - means to them.

1. Story One

In an increasingly globalised world where more Singaporeans are living overseas, Mr Tan Chade Meng, 37, writes about how being Singaporean helped him to succeed. He works for Google in the United States.

I HAVE been living in California for the past 10 years. Years of living away from Singapore has given me a much deeper appreciation of my own heritage.

Like every good Singaporean boy, I was Made in Singapore (just check the label on my back, I often quipped).

I grew up watching SBC and, like every kid in my class, knew what the letters stood for in Hokkien (something about a lack of fragrance in the air). I went to school and college in Singapore (Catholic High School, Hwa Chong JC, and Nanyang Technological University). I spoke fluent Singlish.

And when I grew up, I had a nice Singaporean job, married a nice Singaporean girl, settled in a nicely expensive government apartment, and moved ourselves from point A to point B in a small overpriced car. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Except I didn't entirely live happily ever after.

See, I wasn't entirely a good Singaporean boy. I was a bit of an iconoclast (still am, but don't tell my daughter).

I appreciated humour in a way slightly different from that of people in authority. When I was a kid, I would often make a funny remark in response to something a teacher said, except that unlike the kids, the teacher seldom found it very funny. ('Are you trying to be funny, boy?' 'Yes, Sir.')

I delighted in creativity and idealism, and I often felt tied down. I didn't fit entirely into this society, and I didn't feel I had the right opportunities to fulfil my full potential.

I made the final decision to go abroad on the morning of Jan 3, 1997, right after the General Election.

I figured it was time I lived and studied outside of Singapore for a few years to expand my intellectual and experiential horizons, before I became too old and collected too much inertia.

So I began the painful process of applying to graduate school and, in August 1998, found myself on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, attending graduate school in the Club Med-like campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the weather is perfect, and my engineering lab was right across the street from the beach.

One thing led to another and, soon, I was beginning what would become a very successful career in this small Silicon Valley company with a funny name, Google. (That company didn't stay small for very long, by the way.) Sometimes, I think my life is very funny.

Many things about Americans fascinated me, especially when seen close-up.

I was struck most by their entrepreneurial energy and optimism. I kept running into serial entrepreneurs here. Two recent ones I've met are an audio/visual guy starting a solar business, and a bus driver starting an information business. I see entrepreneurial people, they're everywhere, they walk among us, they don't know they're amazing.

As a society, Americans are very open to experimentation. They are willing to fail and accept the failure. They like to have fun. They have a very healthy disregard for authority.

In my opinion, these cultural strengths are major ingredients of America's success in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

To create a scientific breakthrough, for example, one often has to demonstrate that something everybody else believed in was wrong in some major way.

To bring something innovative to market, one must be willing to fail miserably. And to sustain a start-up through its initial struggles, founders and initial employees often need to have fun with each other. Americans as a society do these so well because of their cultural strengths.

These are some important things we can learn from our American friends.

I didn't have trouble adjusting to American culture. I was already creative, iconoclastic and funny, and I already drank Coke and watched Friends. I fit right in, like an old cliche involving duck and water.

Over time, however, my experience studying and working in America gave me a deepening appreciation of my own Singaporean heritage. I realised that being 'Made in Singapore' prepared me for success in many important ways.

Singaporeans are blessed with many advantages.

The most obvious is the quality and rigour of our education, especially in maths and science. Our maths syllabus for primary school, for example, is widely reputed to be the best in the world. In addition, we all studied hard as kids, because we did not want to end up cleaning longkangs (drains) when we grew up. That's why we grew up with very solid academic foundations.

I realised that many cultural values I picked up as a Singaporean also prepared me for success.

The obvious ones are thrift, diligence and the willingness to make sacrifices for the future.

In addition to all those, I grew up observing how careful my elders were with nuances involving words and subtle social gestures when interacting with each other.

It used to annoy me a little, but once I started living in a foreign land, I realised that underlying all that was a very healthy respect for inter-personal relationships, and that respect has unconsciously been passed on to me.

One reason I'm successful is my ability to build solid relationships, and my heritage provided the foundation.

Finally, being fluent in an Asian language is a boon, not just because it gave me access to Asian markets that monolingual Americans find less accessible, but also because it gave me familiarity with powerful ways of thinking, such as the philosophies of Lao Zi and Sun Zi, that are different from but complementary to Western systems of thought.

As I spend more time outside Singapore, I increasingly appreciate how much it had nurtured me in my youth.

In a way, Singapore is like Mum. No matter what you have achieved in life, a lot of it goes back to what Mum gave you and taught you. At the end of the day, wherever in the world I am, I will always be Made in Singapore.

Story Two

Mr Adrian Tan is a director at law firm Drew and Napier. One of his most recent cases involved representing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in a hearing to assess damages, after winning a defamation suit against the Singapore Democratic Party and its leaders. Mr Tan, 42, is also the author of coming-of-age humour novels The Teenage Textbook (1988) and The Teenage Workbook (1989).

SINGAPORE became a sovereign state exactly 43 years ago. It wasn't through a war of independence, or a campaign of widespread civil disobedience. Singapore was discarded. Singapore is an accidental country.

Singaporeans, on the other hand, are no accident. We are a direct product of the Singapore system.

For one thing, Singapore made us gregarious.

I was born just a few months after Singapore. I was delivered by the very competent staff of KK Hospital. That year, KK Hospital won a place in the Guinness Book Of Records for having the most births in a single maternity facility - a record it held for 10 years. I can't claim full credit for that record. There were 39,835 of us delivered that year in KKH. It was very cosy.

Singapore also made us obsessed with size.

I was raised in a newfangled home called an HDB three-room flat in Commonwealth Close. Confusingly, a 'three-room' flat is a Singaporean way of describing a flat with two bedrooms. I never found the third room. I don't think it was an accident.

Later, when we moved to a five-room flat in Telok Blangah Crescent, I couldn't locate the fourth and fifth bedrooms. At last count, the HDB still owes me a total of three bedrooms.

As my homes became bigger, so did Singapore. My country's land area increased from 580 sq km when I was born to 700 sq km today. Again, that was a feat of Singaporean organisation.

Singapore made us tongue-tied.

I was lucky enough to be educated at the Anglo-Chinese School. ACS is more Anglo than Chinese. I did very badly in Chinese as a Second Language subject, scoring the worst possible grade in my preliminary O-level examination.

The Government then changed the term 'Second Language' to 'Mother Tongue'. I realised I ought to speak Mandarin well, because it was apparently my mother's tongue. My mother, however, had the impression that her tongue was Hokkien, since she, her mother and all their mothers before them had spoken that tongue. I had to correct her erroneous belief. My Mandarin improved, and I was admitted to Hwa Chong Junior College. I spent time conversing in that tongue for two years. Hence, I was full of confidence when I enlisted for national service. Sadly, my fellow soldiers spoke mostly Hokkien, with some Malay. They didn't realise what their mother tongue was. This time, I didn't correct them. Unlike my mother, they were armed.

Because I was taught my mother tongue, I couldn't speak to my grandmothers. They and me would stare awkwardly at each other during Chinese New Year, related by blood but separated by language. Singapore made us look out for ourselves.

NS enriched me in many ways, except financially. As an 'other rank', I was paid an allowance which didn't allow me to do anything. I realised I had to forgo luxuries such as food unless I found some other income. So I taught music, gave English tuition and wrote magazine articles under a pseudonym.

Singapore made us lawyers.

After 30 months, I traded my green uniform for a different uniform: that of the undergrad. I enrolled in the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore. In between video games, playing football and movie watching, I occasionally attended lectures and tutorials in order to get to grips with this concept of 'the law'.

My teachers were very good, and I soon realised one thing. All Singaporeans are born lawyers. We understand rules. We respect order. We value precedent. We acknowledge authority. And, like true lawyers, we complain about each and every aspect of the law all the time.

We do it with vigour and meticulousness. It is obvious in everyday life. We take the trouble to learn regulations so that we can circumvent them. We are unhappy at queue-jumping and other forms of disorder and unfairness. And when we are unhappy, we do not take matters into our own hands. Instead, we appeal to authority. We complain, and we demand change - but in an orderly, non-disruptive fashion. We are a republic of lawyers.

Singapore made us writers.

I had to support my university education. So, I carried on writing. I was fortunate that another Singaporean, my publisher, suggested that I write a novel. I agreed, because I wanted to record my Singapore experience. And I wanted Singaporeans to read Singapore authors writing about Singaporeans.

As a Singaporean, I am naturally subversive. I wrote about young people, and framed well-meaning advice as a textbook. But the real message was that the answers given by textbooks are often completely unreliable and sometimes downright harmful. The book proved surprisingly popular. I wrote another. The royalties enabled me to pay my fees for four years.

During that time, a whole host of other Singaporeans published novels, articles and poems recording the Singapore experience. Today, that great tradition is continued by our bloggers who document the great issues of the day. Because we are so tongue-tied, we find solace in the written word. We abhor public speaking, but adore public writing.

Singapore made us owners.

Despite my extra-curricular activities, I scraped through the exams and found a job in an established law firm. I married my first love, bought a weekend car and saved up some money for a matrimonial home in Jurong East. For the first time in my life, I made commitments. I owned things.

Many others of my generation did the same. We are all owners. We are slowly realising that with ownership comes responsibility. We hire people to run this country of ours (we call them the civil servants and the public servants), but we are beginning to see that we have a duty to ourselves, as owners, to ensure that things are run the way we want it to be. I'm a Singaporean. This country made me. But I own it now. What fun.

15 Aug 2008

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