Why Singaporeans Don’t Feel That They Belong [2011]

IN THE midst of all the talk about creativity and vibrancy and buzz, his question came like a cry in the wilderness.

Final-year aerospace engineering student Lim Zi Rui, 23, stood up during the Nanyang Technological University Ministerial Forum last night and asked: Did Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong know many young people no longer felt a sense of ownership in Singapore?

His question was one of several posed during the dialogue with Mr Goh, which ranged far and wide over ageing issues, art, even student accommodation.

‘When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,’ Mr Lim said. ‘But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.’

He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. ‘I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.’

Mr Goh’s reply was one of deep concern. ‘This is one early sign of danger… If this is happening, it is very serious.’

He asked Mr Lim why he felt disconnected.

Mr Lim assured SM Goh that he was still keen to fight for Singapore: ‘I’m still serving as an officer and I definitely would love to defend Singapore.’

However, he compared his attitude to that of the foreign friends he had. ‘I tell them, this is my country. I can’t just leave here whenever I want to. You can come and play and work here, but I have to stay here.’

SM Goh responded with a defence of the Government’s open-door policy. ‘You want to have a home. Who’s going to build your HDB flat?’

‘My brother got engaged, but lost his engagement because he could not afford an HDB flat,’ Mr Lim countered.

‘Without foreign workers in Singapore, would your hall of residence be built?’ SM Goh asked. ‘If we totally reject foreigners, we’re going to shrink in size… I don’t think Singaporeans want that. What they want is to moderate the inflow of foreigners.’

He also said Singapore had to find ways to integrate foreigners. ‘There are many of them who would like to be Singaporeans, and those of them who can be integrated, make them Singaporeans, make them part of us, make them help to defend the country,’ he said.

Mr Lim said that his concerns were somewhat different. ‘My question was, how are we going to help the younger generation feel a sense of belonging to Singapore? I don’t think it’s about integrating foreigners.’

‘This is your country,’ SM Goh replied. ‘What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?’

‘For my part, don’t worry about me,’ Mr Lim said. ‘I will definitely do something, if I can, for Singapore. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.’

‘If that is prevalent among young people over here, we’ve got a real problem,’ SM Goh said. ‘If the majority feel they don’t belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don’t feel they belong over here?’

I feel very strongly about the  coffeeshop down the road from my place.

I’ve spent many days there over the years, and over time I’d grown very fond of the place. I’d go there to read, to eat dinner, to be alone, to meet friends and to have really good coffee. The staff grew to recognize me, of course, and we’d exchange smiles and pleasantries. I felt a strong sense of affinity for the people and the place.

Recently the coffeeshop staff changed, and I felt a very real sense of loss- the relationships I had built with the coffeeshop staff and the regulars, all gone. It actually hurt, emotionally. If there was anything I could’ve done to intervene, I would have gladly done it- because I feel a vested sense of self-interest in its preservation. In a way it was a part of me as much as I was a part of it.

In a way we feel the same about our friends, families and our communities.

I would give up many years of my life to protect and nurture Victoria School, for example, because it was a wonderful environment for me. It shaped me deeply as a young man and I still carry the lessons I learnt there- about brotherhood, camaraderie, dignity, honour and other things- close to my heart. I always felt lots of love for the place and to this day I feel tremendously guilty for all that I gleaned from it without giving back much in return, apart from screaming my lungs out in support of our school sports teams.

In contrast, I would gladly allow my beloved Junior College to be razed to the ground. I never felt like anybody really cared about me over there, apart from a few wonderful teachers. I felt like I was there to get my A level certificates, nothing more. It was means to an end, nothing more. As an institution, as a cultural beacon, it was dead.

I feel powerful emotions when I think about the local music scene.

The local music scene is small and fledgling and some would even describe it as non-existent, but it played a substantial role in my teenage years. It gave me something to fight for, something to aspire towards, something to contribute to, to help to build and nurture, to be a part of. I contributed- I played and organized gigs, invited people to shows, argued fervently on the internet (Keyboard Warriors, unite!). I belong to the local music scene and it belongs to me. I think the same thing should apply to our local sports teams, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about them because I know so little.

Where do we belong? Where does anybody belong? Is it possible for anybody to truly belong anywhere? I thought about this long and hard and came to he following conclusion:

You belong anywhere that you add value to.

That is where the dangerous disconnect is. It’s not about conformity- New Yorkers are proudly non-conformist and the denizens of Beijing are proud to be a part of the Motherland. But in both cases, in both opposite ends of the world, individuals feel like they are part of a greater whole, that they somehow contribute to the identity of their community, and the result is beautiful.

I imagine that MM Lee Kuan Yew and SM Goh Chok Tong feel very strongly about Singapore- because they contributed to it, and they added value to it.

But when SM Goh says, “This is your country”, I have to wonder, how many Singaporeans still truly feel this way? How many Singaporeans feel like we matter? Like our vote counts, like our voices are heard, like what we say or do has any influence?

I remember my experiences in VS where we’d gladly stay back hours after school to pack away tables and chairs, and how we cleaned up after ourselves at the National Stadium after the National Track & Field Meet, and how we all felt a glowing sense of pride every time anybody from our school accomplished anything great. Every individual felt like he was a part of a greater whole that meant something, that stood for something. People came to VS even though they had PSLE scores that would allow them to go to more prestigious institutions. Examinations were important but nowhere near as important as the development of the students’ character, and when the time came for the school to ask the boys to buckle up and do us proud by studying hard, they delivered, year after year.

When I was told, “This is your school,” at Victoria School, it meant something. When I was told the same thing at my JC, it felt fake- like a grotesque charade.

Worker’s Party member and Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim said something that resonated deeply with me:

“Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew previously justified why it was not feasible to have foreign talent in the political leadership. He said that the political leadership should “have passion, the commitment and share the same dreams as the people”. (ST 4 Nov 2006). I agree. The question is: how will 2/3M48 affect empathy, the ability of Ministers to share the same dreams as the people?

Ministers are currently drawing $1.2m a year which divided by 12 is about $100,000 per month. How does it compare with the average person?

According to the Report on the Labour Force in Singapore 2006, the median gross monthly income of workers in full-time employment is $2,170. In other words, a worker takes a month to earn what a Minister earns in half a day! For university graduates, the median gross monthly income is $4,450. This would take the Minister one day to earn.

As you move the salaries up to 88% of the benchmark, we will find that the average worker’s monthly pay will be earned by a Minister in 2-3 hours. Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort drawing taxpayers’ money at such rate? At such rates, can Ministers and Singaporeans share the same dreams?

Another reality is that our leaders may face problems in marshalling the people to make sacrifices for the country.

About 4 years ago, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told the House that his son had asked whether one should be prepared to die for Singapore. This sparked off a heated public debate. The cynics invariably linked this question to Ministerial salaries. To quote a member of the public, and I paraphrase: “Who are we trying to kid? Before we start talking about dying for Singapore, let us look at our leaders. We are told that we cannot get good leaders unless we pay top dollar, so why expect more from the rest of us”?

Citizens should be able to look to leaders for moral leadership and inspiration. If what they perceive are mercenaries at the helm, then asking them to make sacrifices will be met with cynicism and indifference. This will not bode well for Singapore’s future. What will happen when crunch time comes? Is this a time bomb planted for the future of Singapore?

If we are seriously unable to interest good people into public office, we must ask why other countries can do it and we cannot. Is it just money, or the fact that we have not invested in creating a culture of high public-spiritedness?

In some countries, there are young people aspire to hold public office. SM Goh had previously said that we could not expect to behave like people in other countries because we are a young nation and people still see things in material terms. How sad. After 41 years of nationhood, national service and national day parades, what do we teach our children? Do we judge a person’s worth by his salary? If so, we have wasted millions of tax dollars on these nation-building efforts, which have truly been in vain!

Public service must remain a noble undertaking for which people are prepared to make sacrifices in exchange for the benevolent power to improve the lives of others. If we corrupt this by money, we can be efficient but never a country of high ideals. As such, I cannot agree with the Members who see political office as yet another career choice. It must be more than a job, and the holder must be able to think of others besides himself.

And it does not matter what transparency the government has claimed in this attempt to justify the pay hike.”


Singaporeans perhaps don’t feel like they’re contributing very much at all, apart from economically, under “mercenaries at the helm”. It’s all very “transactional”. Most Singaporean NSFs and NSmen, I imagine, feel more affinity towards one another than towards the SAF at large- I have no real evidence to prove this, but it does usually feel that way. Those relationships are still real and they still do count towards building a sense of belonging.

What was Singapore like before we had a mercenary culture? Before we had a mercenary culture, my grandparents tell me, we had kampung spirit. I hope we are able to bring some of that back, because it would make living in Singapore a lot more bearable.

Personally, I would like to explore the concept that a sense of belonging is derived from a sense of contribution. (As JFK  famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”) When I say country, I don’t mean to say government. I mean to say, what can we do for each other, independent of the government, to make Singapore a better place to live in, for one another? I still intuitively feel that we have to encourage and support the arts, sports- there is something about that that reminds me of Broken Windows Theory.

Essentially it seems that the best thing that we can do to re-create a sense of belonging for Singaporeans is to create conditions where we feel that we are somehow involved, that we’re contributing to something greater than ourselves. I instinctively want to talk about encouraging the arts.

“weak local arts scene. You had anti-bush artists during bush’s reign, who weren’t afraid of speaking out. Here artists of any kind have a kind of castrated aura about them. And with a weak local arts scene you can’t build a locally flavored pop culture that is the catalyst (not the main ingredient, though) to the construction of a strong sense of identity.”

“An arts scene (and a sports scene, too!) gives people something to be a part of, something to contribute to, to witness and to be engaged by- it’s kind of like a larger family, a larger coffeeshop, a larger entity/organism.”

What can we do? That’s the most important question, now.  Complaining doesn’t help. What are your suggestions? Let’s get cracking!