Of everyday heroes and a nation that can embrace all

Of everyday heroes and a nation that can embrace all
From left: Mr Md Shariff Abdullah, known as Singapore’s "Blade Runner"; Mr Sarbir Singh is an ex-convict who aspires to be a lawyer; and Navy serviceman Jason Chee, who lost three of his limbs in an accident in 2012.

Near the end of this year's National Day Parade, a former convict, a navy serviceman with only one limb, a champion wakeboarder, a man born without a left foot and a dancer once detained under the Internal Security Act were among those who shared the stage with Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - not physically but in videos that drew the nation's 49th birthday celebration to an emotional close.

Each spoke in turn about being Singaporean.

Mr Sarbir Singh, 25, who was jailed twice for fighting but has since turned his life around and completed a law and management course at Temasek Polytechnic, said he believes everyone in this country matters and each is talented in his own way.

Mr Jason Chee, 31, who lost three limbs in a work accident, said that as a navy serviceman, he was taught determination and fighting sprit and it is his duty to help protect the country.

Wakeboarder Sasha Christian, 21, wants to make Singapore proud by winning as many medals as she can.

Mr Shariff Abdullah, 45, now a "blade runner" of marathons, said Singaporeans are like brothers and sisters, regardless of race or religion.

Dancer Goh Lay Kuan, 75, said something similar in Mandarin: "As long as we are united, cohesive and help each other, I believe peace and happiness will be with us always."

She spoke just before an old black and white clip of a youthful Mr Lee came on screen, showing him rallying Singaporeans to work together for the nation's future: "Every year, on this ninth of August, we will dedicate ourselves anew, to consolidate ourselves to survive, and most important of all, to find an enduring future for what we have built."

The video was a moving tribute to Singapore's "everyday heroes", the stars of this year's parade, and gave people who do not ordinarily weigh in on matters of national importance a chance to have their say.

But why zoom in on everyday heroes?

Why shine the spotlight on individuals who have not achieved success the conventional way, who in times past would have been the subject of pity rather than praise?

And what does it say about Singapore as a nation that its citizens now choose to celebrate those in their midst who are imperfect and vulnerable?

I think it speaks of a Singapore that though still small in size, is big enough to embrace each and every one of her sons and daughters, regardless not only of race, language and religion but also of status, income, education and politics.

It broadens the definition of heroism to include those whose lives have been transfigured by setback, loss and struggle.

And this process of enlargement is key to building the ties that bind Singaporeans to one another and to this island nation.

For nations are what their citizens imagine them to be; they are, as political scientist Benedict Anderson observed, "imagined political communities".

A nation is imagined because "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them", he wrote, "yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion".

A nation is a community because "regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship". And ultimately, it is this fraternity, he said, that makes it possible for people "not so much to kill, as willingly die" for the nations they feel they belong to.

Another insight of Professor Anderson is that nationalism is not an ideology as are other "isms" such as Marxism, capitalism or liberalism.

Rather, he said, nationalism belongs to the category of words that includes terms such as kinship and religion.

Ideologies are systems of ideas and ideals; they are matters of the head. But nationalism is a matter of the heart.

Why is nationalism like religion? Because it is about a people's shared faith in something larger than themselves - the nation, and in Singapore's case, the little red dot that people are willing to fight for and give their lives to.

As for kinship, the link becomes clear when one reflects on how the ordinary tastes, sounds and habits of everyday life, and the closeness of family, friends and neighbours are the substance of people's love for their nation.

This year's National Day Parade tapped those sentiments and, as a result, resonated with those who watched it, some of whom later described it as the best parade in years.

The people behind it understood that beyond planning, development and growth, nation building is also about feeding a people's imagination, through speech, story, song and symbol.

So right at the very end, when the television cameras had stopped broadcasting and the guests were making their way home, the organisers thanked the hundreds of nameless participants who had spent thousands of hours preparing for the big show.

And then they arranged for a second round of fireworks to fill the night sky at Marina Bay, so the performers who always missed the first round as they had to face the crowd while singing and dancing, could also enjoy one of the evening's highlights.

It was a small gesture but one that was big in meaning.

In her 49th year, Singapore is on the way to becoming, in the words of Dick Lee's song, a "big island - bigger, bigger than it can be".


This article was first published on August 17, 2014.
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