Groundswell of patriotism at a time of soul-searching

Groundswell of patriotism at a time of soul-searching
Ilo Ilo director Anthony Chen remembers the country’s 44th birthday in 2009, when everyone on the parade grounds, in the heartland and in Singaporean communities overseas came together at 8.22pm to recite the Pledge

There was a time when people said that Singapore won't make it. But we did.

So goes the evergreen National Day song, and its success certainly entitles the nation to a splendid birthday bash to mark half a century of independence next year.

So a colleague and I spent last week asking celebrities and men in the street their plans for commemorating Singapore's marquee year. We teased out myriad ideas from them. And I discovered that Singaporeans, long criticised as apathetic, indifferent and lacking in creativity, are anything but - a sign to me of this country's coming of age.

The story ("50 ways to celebrate 50 years of Singapore"; yesterday) encapsulated ideas both serious and irreverent.

They included durian parties and a hipster cafe-run, that is, visit 50 cafes in one day, which works out to one per half-hour!

We heard calls for freebies in the form of a $500 hongbao for each citizen, free entry to public attractions and even 50 more public holidays ("It's once every 50 years. I think we can afford it," said the lawyer who suggested it). We discovered that when prompted, Singaporeans could be surprisingly funny and spontaneous in coming up with off-kilter ideas.

True, Singaporean traits persisted, whether in their kiasu-ism in wanting more freebies, or even seizing the opportunity of a long weekend - National Day is on a Sunday next year - to scoot overseas for a short getaway.

Others displayed nostalgia, from hopes to play childhood games such as five stones "that do not involve a screen", or to gather stories from people above age 50. Ilo Ilo director Anthony Chen remembers the country's 44th birthday in 2009, when everyone on the parade grounds, in the heartland and in Singaporean communities overseas came together at 8.22pm to recite the Pledge.

He hopes that for the golden jubilee, everyone will come together and hold hands in unity - even for just a minute.

Paddler Jason Chee, the navy serviceman who lost both legs and his left arm in an accident, hopes "former and present local athletes will be part of the National Day celebration" next year.

The ideas we gathered are but a small sampling of the 11,000 suggestions that the SG50 committee received within two months earlier this year, ranging from potluck dinners to giving free hugs.

Such a groundswell of patriotism - even as naysayers do exist in certain quarters - is heartening.

Local hawkers can take heart that when asked what they love about their country, many Singaporeans talk about the food. One told me: "Nothing beats cai fan - mixed vegetable rice - from a coffee shop."

The civil servants and workers who plant and maintain the trees and shrubs that are everywhere on this island can take pride in the kudos from many people who said they love the city's greenery.

Some praised the Home Team for keeping the country safe. Yet others loved how Singaporeans are genuinely nice despite "complaining about everything".

The celebrations "won't be all rah-rah", lawyer and writer Philip Jeyaretnam has said. He co-chairs the SG50 committee driving the culture and community events.

"It will also look at what it means to be Singaporean, whether we're headed in the right direction or not."

My hope is that as the country goes through this period of soul-searching, it emerges a stronger force to be reckoned with, and steers clear of a mid-life crisis.

This article was first published on August 10, 2014.
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