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Friday, June 5, 2009

50 years & after

50 years & after
S'pore has come a long way as a nation-in-formation, while its identity is still shaping itself
By Edwin Thumboo

That Singapore has changed and evolved much is visible all around us, says Professor Thumboo, who finds the view from marina barrage with the right sunset quietly stirring and memorable. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

FOR most of my generation, the sense of Singapore as a nation had crystallised by the mid-1950s. Our journeys and expectations varied - and continue to, in some instances widely - across the generations, political spectrum and our ethnicities, our histories.
But the passion, the impatience and the commitment to be free of British rule, were widely shared. That was our tryst with destiny.

Such feelings have a starting point. For me it was listening to my father and his friends, talking about the war during the latter part of the Japanese Occupation, and the shape of the future.

An uncle from Swatow in China, who had arrived in 1939 and stayed till 1951, was a leftist. I learnt much about nation and nationalism, particularly what I saw as 'red' nationalism, the greatness of China and the abuses of European colonialism. 'Never trust the red-haired devils. They steal.'

The lessons and perspectives broadened further when I went to the University of Malaya, then in Singapore, in 1953. Those and the following five to six years were turbulent. The communists were active. There were strikes and riots.

It was only at the end of the period that there was a party with the vision, integrity, determination and the wherewithal to take up the reins of government. The PAP government was sworn in on June 5, 1959 with Mr Lee Kuan Yew as our first prime minister. A long run, but there are more journeys ahead.

The world is Darwinian: survival of the fittest. And the fittest are those most adaptable in how they simultaneously respond to internal, neighbouring, regional and global changes and challenges.

In response to that inevitable question of how you would sum up Singapore in a sentence, I have said that we generate wealth through capitalist means, and distribute it through semi-socialist means. The same spirit underpins much of our success.

The travelling we did as a nation-in-formation is visible all around us. An obvious statement, but whose obviousness hides a series of narratives, of starts, of continuities, of revisions, of re-inventions, of uncertainties overcome.

Our physical environment is attractive, even beautiful. The view from Marina Barrage with the right sunset is quietly stirring; ever memorable. Almost every visitor is impressed by and appreciates our clean streets, air-conditioned buildings. We have come a long way.

We hope for more beautiful Singaporeans, beautiful inside, gracious in spirit and in action, for the world needs kindness and more kindness, and that should start at home.

Nearly 25 years ago, in 1985, a few of us gathered in the Arts and Social Sciences Senior Lounge to take stock of the first five years of the National University of Singapore. The conversation moved to Singapore. We felt that it had gone through a hundred years of growth.

Given this speed, we have not had the time to evolve and consolidate certain aspects of that deeper unity and solidarity underpinning older societies. We have become global, international, before we are national. There is a Singaporean identity, one still shaping itself. It will come, in time, hopefully during the next 50 years. In the meantime, let us admire the moonlight over Marina Bay.

Cultural Medallion poet Edwin Thumboo is Emeritus Professor of the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore.

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