Time to change the narrative about nation building in Singapore

The tale of how modern, independent Singapore was built is one familiar to most Singaporeans.

It starts with the country being thrust into statehood in 1965, after a brief flirtation with the Federation of Malaysia ended in a painful split. And it continues with the young Republic's transformation from rags to riches.

At the centre of the story is the first generation of leaders, including founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his key lieutenants like Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam and others.

They are lauded as the architects of modern Singapore who shaped strategies in areas ranging from economy to foreign policy, housing and culture.

When one speaks of nation building, it is the story of their struggles that is often told.

But when the Government announced last Sunday a new health-care package to honour Singapore's pioneer generation, it turned the attention to a different group - the builders who helped put the leaders in the spotlight.

They were the ordinary Singaporeans who worked together to build the country when there was no guarantee that it would even survive.

At a party thrown in their honour last Sunday at the Istana, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to these pioneers for their sacrifices. They "started Singapore on a path of development, which has transformed the lives of a whole population", he said.

With that, a new narrative has begun to be written and just at the right time.

What is the difference between a story that tells of a nation built by a few, as compared to one forged together by the masses?

It reminds us that Singapore got to where it is today through the efforts of an entire generation - and they included Samsui women, teachers, the first batches of military folk, nurses, and thousands more.

It reminds us that we too, can do our part to improve this country instead of looking to a few men - perhaps an unintended side-effect of the prevailing narrative.

Indeed, there are fears that people today care just about themselves and their families and friends, with little regard for the wider society and the nation's future.

Learning about people who put community before family, and family before self, will give us pause in an individualistic world.

Knowing that the country was built on the sacrifices made by their own loved ones will also hopefully help to foster a greater sense of desire to secure the country's future.

Recognising the work of Singapore's pioneers can also help to improve our understanding of how Singapore got to where it is today.

The previous "nation building" narrative focused on the work of the People's Action Party leaders in steering Singapore through a turbulent era of merger, split, and independence, and after that the journey from Third World to First.

It is invoked often to remind Singaporeans of how survival and success were hard fought, and has worked well in the past.

However, for the younger generations born into a stable, sparkling metropolis, it is merely a chapter from the history books or an anecdote from political speeches.

This is where the new narrative helps to bring it to life.

In framing the country's story through their grandparents and neighbours, for example, younger Singaporeans may find it easier to identify with a past they did not live through.

And most importantly, the new story reminds us to give credit where it is due - to the pioneers, all of whom will be 65 or older by this year.

It was through their sacrifice for a wider national cause, and their belief in contributing to the country's future, that stability and progress had come about.

yuenc@sph.com.sg


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