We live in exciting times. The most exciting times in human history so far. The industrial revolution was a big deal, but what we’re going through now is even bigger- and a lot of us on the ground don’t really appreciate it.
Consider this- take your favourite historical figure or hero, and ask yourself what they’d give to be alive right now, witnessing and experiencing what we do, having access to the information we do.
This applies on a global scale, and on a national scale, as well. We’re looking at a dramatic shift from top-down (monarchies, communism, militaries, big business, big government, big religion) to bottom-up (enlightened capitalism, evolution, trial-and-error, small collectives and niches, kickstarters). A relatively, marginally more perfect world (in my humble opinion.)
User-created content, YouTube artists, Tumblr, Twitter- never before have people had so much power to determine and define their own destiny. (Whether they’re actually using that power is another issue altogether, of course.) Social barriers to progress are continuing to erode- as a species, we overcame slavery and we got through women’s suffrage- and now we’re making progress with LGBT rights and the like. It’s good to see. We’re having a more perfect union. The role of the Church is diminishing. Increasingly, centralized authority is losing its grip and relevance to humanity, displaced by the Internet model- decentralized networks.
What does all this mean for Singapore? Pause- history time. We were a fishing village, then an entrepot trading hub. Colonial poewrs came in. Seemed like a good thing- they build roads, improved healthcare and education. But they were also at times racist and exploitative. Not all, of course. Then war came, and we were ill-prepared by an over-stretched empire that was being eroded away.
We learnt- our forefathers learnt- Lee Kuan Yew and gang learnt that we had to develop our own identity. The more intelligent and enlightened (and ironically, western-educated!) led the way, fighting for self-government, the freedom to determine our own fate. The West would ultimately be responsible for the diminishing of its own super-dominance. (This is some foreshadowing, here.) The Western principles of freedom and independence were universal- freedom is not freedom if it is given to some and not others. And so eventually, we would all be free.
The PAP’s principles of pragmatism is universal, too. Pragmatism is not pragmatism if it is applied in some circumstances and not others. And so, eventually, when the dismantling the PAP’s superdominance (the superdominance, not the PAP!) becomes the pragmatic thing to do, it must happen. I wonder how Lee Kuan Yew feels about this, and I wonder if he’ll be proud to be a part of it.
We weren’t fighting for freedom of expression yet- we were fighting for more fundamental rights- to security, to peace, to housing, etc. And we should always look at the post-war years with pride and admiration. Therein lies the crush of the original Singaporean narrative- the orthodox narrative- the struggle of our forefathers against a harsh reality that seemed insurmountable.
(I like to talk about how these forefathers were fundamentally entrepreneurial- they had vision, and they acted without a blueprint, without any authorities telling them what they should or should not do. The greatest Singaporeans inadvertently created circumstances that would stifle their own development.)
There was a time when people said that Singapore won’t make it, but we did. Is that narrative still relevant, does it still resonate with Singaporeans? I’m not so sure. I think the answer is both yes and no. The abstract principles seem universal- a nation strong and free, peace and harmony. We have to acknowledge our past- but we also have to transcend it.
Singapore today is more complex than ever before. The question “What is a nation?” has become harder to answer than ever before. (I was looking through my JC history notes a while ago, and I saw that a Benedict Anderson described nations as “Imagined Communities”. That still applies.)
Is our nation truly strong and free in today’s context? In the past, I believe this meant economic strength and economic freedom- something we measured by comparing ourselves against our neighbours. Somewhere along the line, things began to change.
Our history with Malaysia no longer feels like such a sore spot, as our younger leaders shake off the shadows and baggage of their predecessors’ rivalries. That’s surely why (in part, at least) we have been able to make such good bilateral progress.
Singaporean youth today have little to fear from communism, which has now been generally accepted as a failure and lost cause- at least, in the militant sense. (A refined, enlightened socialist, in my opinion, would be remarkably similar to a refined, enlightened capitalist- they fundamentally want the same thing, and would do well to turn to each other when confronting their own flaws.)
Singaporeans today, I believe, are educated and intelligent enough not to swayed by garden-variety anti-establishment, and we have to have some degree of faith in one another.
I’m turned off by opposition parties that appeal to xenophobia and senseless rebellion for its own sake. I’m bothered when the ruling party condescends to the populace with thinly veiled threats. Neither approach is the way to a more perfect union- and already I believe we have lost our best talent by the droves, leaving for greener pastures elsewhere.
I look forward to the new age- which is complex and uncertain. Intead of accepting the narrative handed down from high, we’re going to be creating one ourselves, together, with everybody’s voices combined. Bottom-up, rather than top-down.