Three stories to strengthen the Singapore spirit

Three stories to strengthen the Singapore spirit

My Big Idea No. 3 for Singapore is a simple one: strengthen the Singapore spirit.

Why? If our young men ever go to war to defend Singapore, they will not lay down their lives to defend the physical infrastructure of Singapore. They will do so to save the lives of people who are the strangers they meet in MRT trains or buses. Clearly they feel some kind of spiritual bond with these strangers only because they believe that they are fellow Singaporeans. This is what the Singapore spirit is all about.

Since Independence in 1965, Singapore has spent a lot of time and effort in "nation-building". And, by any standards, we have been very successful in building a strong, peaceful and prosperous nation. We have done an exceptional job in "building" our physical infrastructure. This is why we can boast of having the world's best airport, port, public housing, water supply, just to name a few areas in which other nations envy our success in nation-building.

However, I do not know of any nation that envies our Singapore spirit as much as they admire our physical infrastructure.

Yet it is this invisible Singapore spirit that holds us together as a nation, not the physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, no one has written a textbook on how to bind a nation together with invisible spiritual bonds. Most of the time the process takes place slowly and organically.

Hence, when Europeans arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they saw themselves first as English or Irish, Polish or Swedish, German or Greek. Yet within a generation or two, they were able to shed their national identities and forge a new one as "American".

This strong sense of American national identity is an amazing success story as these immigrants had to shed deep, not shallow, national identities. This is why Americans can recognise each other easily when they hear fellow Americans talk in foreign lands. And they have no hesitation to die for each other.

Singaporeans have a long way to go before we can reach the same level of national identity that Americans feel about themselves. But we can expedite the process instead of allowing it to develop slowly and organically over time.

And how do we do this?

The simple answer is that nations are built through story-telling. Yes, story-telling! What binds Americans together is a common set of stories rooted in a common value system. More accurately, they should be called "myths" but people sometimes mistakenly assume "myths" to be fictional.

Most national myths are a mixture of fact and fiction. This is why Americans revere their founding fathers even though they were mere mortals. Hence, in the same way, we have to create sets of stories that will bind our hearts together as fellow Singaporeans. Let me suggest three national narratives we can build on to strengthen the invisible Singapore spirit.

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