Do it like Duric... See what makes us Singaporean

Do it like Duric... See what makes us Singaporean

The transition to a new year is traditionally a season for celebration and reflection. It is also a time to look forward to a fresh start: a time for making, whether seriously or frivolously, resolutions for the new year.

For Singaporeans, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of our young nation, a rather significant occasion, given our short history and impressive progress. Our Little Red Dot has consistently punched above its weight in education, in economics, in diplomacy and, lately, even in spectacular skylines and bayfronts.

This has got me thinking about what it means to be Singaporean. All these accomplishments and trophies certainly fill me with pride. They say something about Singapore the country, but do they define me as a Singaporean?

What makes us Singaporean isn't a simple question. Is it simply a matter of being born and raised on this equatorial island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula? Is it enough to be in possession of a pink plastic identification card and a red passport?

That, I fear, might be oversimplifying it without getting to the heart of the matter.

A mere 50 years ago, Singapore didn't even exist as an independent state. We were Malaysian then and, before that, subjects of the British Crown. Before the more recent waves of immigrants, fewer than half of us could claim that our parents were born here.

Fact is, almost all our forefathers were immigrants who arrived here by the boatload - from Malaya and Indonesia, from China or India or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), or from even farther away than that, beyond the boundaries of the Asian subcontinent.

Food, glorious food

Perhaps what defines us as Singaporean is our "uniquely Singaporean" Singlish, our commonly held obsessions with hard work and kiasuism, or our shared pleasures in food and a good sale?

There are very few things that can reliably get a Singaporean more worked up than propositions that chilli crab, bak kut teh or chicken rice aren't Singaporean.

Just a few years back, some quarters in Malaysia laid claim to these culinary inventions, and it sparked a mini-crisis and possibly nearly threatened relations, if not diplomatically, then at least among family relations and friends across the Causeway.

But, regardless of who "owns" the original idea behind these dishes, our food history has been one of continual innovation and assimilation.

If we stop to think about it, no dish is truly Singapore-Singaporean. Even our favourite chicken rice recalls the Hainanese immigrants who brought the method of cooking with them from across the South China Sea.

Perhaps the Orchard Road Christmas light-up enjoyed by many Singaporeans contributes to our national identity. But that Singaporean tradition was conceived in 1984 by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.

The Singaporean identity is all of these things and none of them.

We are a veritable rojak of diverse immigrants, with imported ideas and borrowed culture.

The question is, have we morphed into a singular Singaporean identity? I'm not sure if we have, yet.

One of my colleagues, a first-generation Singaporean who has lived here for more than 30 years now, regularly goes on trips overseas.

On these engagements, some cultural sharing or event usually happens. When he and the other Singaporeans are called upon to prepare and serve some of our local food, they confidently get down to business.

But if asked to make a cultural presentation, they are often stumped and ask themselves: "What actually is our culture?"

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