More to Singapore Day than its million-dollar price tag

More to Singapore Day than its million-dollar price tag

SINGAPORE - In the spirit of full disclosure, I was one of the 12,000 people who went for Singapore Day in London in 2009.

Then a first-year undergraduate prone to chronic bouts of homesickness, I embarrassingly felt a little weepy at sight of the fake ERP gantry thoughtfully set up by some Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) person at the park's entrance.

The fake gantry was fairly corny but, as far as I was concerned, it felt about as evocative as the "Welcome Home" banners at Changi Airport's arrival halls.

I had a great time eating Hokkien mee, meeting friends and, yes, even queueing for the food (I think).

In short, Singapore Day was pretty great. But I also felt a little guilty about being so privileged - more so later when I learnt that the bash cost $6 million, at a time when Singapore was undergoing a recession.

Similar mixed sentiments surfaced online after Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a written parliamentary answer on Monday that this year's edition - also in London - cost $4.4 million.

Critics questioned whether it was worth going through all the expense to throw a party for Singaporeans overseas.

Most criticism generally went along two lines: First, that it cost a lot of money.

Singapore Day, usually held once a year in a major city with a big concentration of overseas Singaporeans, has never been cheap.

About $3 million was budgeted for the Melbourne edition (2008), $2 million for Shanghai (2011) and $4 million for New York (2012).

A large chunk of the bill is attributed to the higher cost of living in these cities - the carnival's physical set-up in London in 2009 already cost $3 million, for instance.

Obviously, this is a lot in absolute terms.

The bill for this year's Singapore Day is about a third of that of the 2012 National Day Parade - $17.2 million.

That nationwide bash was broadcast to the whole of Singapore and watched live by about 125,000 people.

Put that way, the amount spent seems disproportionate to the people it reaches.

This ties into the second line of online criticism of Singapore Day, based on the perception that overseas Singaporeans are more well-off: These are not people who need a $4.4 million feel-good fest.

Some also said the money could be better spent on the poor.

But not spending the $4.4 million on Singapore Day is no guarantee that it would go towards social assistance programmes instead.

The money was not necessarily taken away from being spent on the poor, either.

What this uneasy undercurrent of resentment obscures is the bigger question of the purpose of Singapore Day, which a few netizens did raise.

If it is simply a mega get-together which gives overseas Singaporeans a slice of home, as the OSU webpage says, then the tab may be a tad too much.

But if it is also a long-term investment that contributes to wooing overseas Singaporeans home, then that is easier to justify. The presence of Contact Singapore and different ministries' recruitment booths in the lead-up to Singapore Day and during the festivities hinted at this second, deeper purpose.

Singapore Day is something meant to benefit not only its attendees, but also Singapore at large.

Furthermore, there is more to Singapore Day than calculations can show, and it is unfair to write it off as a waste of money.

Many people I know who have been there talk about the event's positive vibes, as well as bring up quintessentially but affectionately Singaporean complaints about its long queues. The event also helps overseas Singaporeans bond with fellow countrymen and makes for a stronger diaspora.

It also has a valuable element of cross-cultural exchange. Attendees can take along their pre-registered non-Singaporean friends, which anecdotally demystifies Singapore or, at the very least, familiarises more people with it. This decreases the instances of Singapore being thought of as "somewhere in China".

Instead, it's "that country with a strangely inexhaustible supply of patriotic songs to which people can sing along".

Or the country in which queueing together is taboo because it lowers the chances of getting more types of food.

Or where picnic mats are small because they're for people's bags, not the people themselves.

With Singapore Day, Singapore becomes a warmly quirky country with its own set of contradictions like any other.

While weighing the event's worth, it's worthwhile to keep in mind the intangible value of reaching out to those overseas. In the end, whether Singapore Day gives bang for the buck is an argument that goes beyond dollars and cents.

This article was published on April 20 in Singapolitics.

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