By Sarah Chen (19S03C)
Without fail, every 9th of August brings with it a sudden burst of patriotism in Singaporeans, me included. It’s both heartwarming and odd — something that can only be witnessed on this one day. As suddenly as this pride arrives, it leaves, and I am left questioning how genuine all this patriotism really is.
A while back, I watched a film called Ladybird. The protagonist of the film in question was a girl in high school, on the cusp of young adulthood, dreaming of leaving her hometown for greater places. As she spent the majority of the film cursing every single aspect of her hometown, I saw in her not just myself, but many other Singaporean teenagers.
Boring! Too small! Stressful! Expensive! So hot! Complaints about Singapore slip out with such ease it’s reached a point where we almost accept them as facts. Dreams of travelling to more ‘exciting’ countries are increasingly becoming a reality, as more and more young Singaporeans are emigrating permanently to countries such as Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. With an average of 1,200 Singaporeans forgoing Singaporean citizenship every year, Singapore’s ‘brain drain’ issue is pretty obvious. And just to double-confirm that sentiment, I asked some schoolmates if they’d prefer to stay in Singapore or emigrate when they were older. Similar to what I’d learnt from the statistics, a large majority of them told me they’d rather leave.
I chose not to ask them why because while it’s obviously impossible for me to already know each of their reasons, I must say I can already come up with dozens of possible answers on my own. With media often highlighting and romanticising the so-called “overseas experience”, many end up comparing Singapore to foreign countries. Singapore, with its small size and unfortunate lack of a distinct Singaporean culture, generally seems to fall short. I often find myself whining about Singapore. And when I say ‘often’, I mean ‘often’. From our (horribly unjust) lack of chewing gum to the education system, complaining about and even poking fun at my home country is second nature to me. So it’s really no surprise that I’m mostly apathetic towards any initiatives promoting national pride and identity.
Starting from primary school, Singaporean youths sit through civics, social studies and history lessons about Singapore. Time and time again, our teachers tell us that our multiracialism makes us special, our history and rise from a third-world country to a first-world one makes us successful, our strong economy and education makes us significant. These lessons have always felt rather awkward and forced, but arguably the most exaggerated messages are pushed towards us during National Day. The tradition of annual National Day songs gives us dozens of verses preaching about Singapore’s beauty and our all-consuming love for her. Though my skepticism may come across as me disliking the whole occasion, it’s generally more doubt than disdain. I find it hard to believe that Singaporeans truly love this place that much — how can they if they’re constantly complaining about it?
Remember the movie I mentioned at the start of the article? Let’s bring it back for a moment. At one point, the protagonist finally leaves her hometown for a school and city of her dreams. Though she’d been waiting to move away for ages, something strange happens: she finds herself overwhelmingly homesick. This is the moment of the film I see myself reflected most clearly in her.
I spend an unreasonable amount of time criticising every little thing about Singapore, and maybe that’s why the moment I leave, I find myself unable to stop talking about it. In a recent holiday that lasted two weeks (nothing compared to the protagonist moving away for seemingly endless school terms!), not a single day passed where I didn’t make some remark about Singapore. Even when it reached a point where I spent an hour-long car drive rattling on about what I liked and disliked about the food back home, it didn’t occur to me that I was in the slightest bit homesick. It took several more days of randomly bringing Singapore into conversations, one night spent getting very, very lost in a foreign city, and a few pictures sent to me by friends back home before it finally dawned on me that in the back of my mind, I genuinely missed Singapore.
As you can imagine, it was a rather strange feeling for me to comprehend. Somewhere beneath my griping was some muted attachment and belonging, something that was only made known to me when I left. I’ve now realised that this weirdness all boils down to one thing: my perception of a ‘home’. With all the idealised versions of ‘home’ being shoved down my throat from a young age, I’ve grown up associating home with a place one has great love and passion for, and since I’ve never really felt that strongly, at some point I stopped believing this to be a ‘home’, but merely a place I resided in.
What I’ve come to realise from this is that one’s relationship with their home does not need to be as grand and overblown as it’s frequently portrayed to us. After all, that relationship’s a highly personal one; everybody has their own likes, dislikes, and ideas. Home isn’t just a country’s history and achievements, nor is it always what’s pushed to us in the media. Yes, those do play a part, but more importantly, home’s about embracing both what you like about it and what you hate about it. And now, this idea of “hate” is back, tying it all back to all the complaining we hear around Singapore.
To some, the fact that we as a society complain so much about our home country might be kind of iffy or sad, even. Personally, I’ve found that despite all my complaining, I really do hold affection for this place in my heart. And perhaps this constant complaining is a cultural thing. By complaining about Singapore with other Singaporeans, we share and exchange opinions on common experiences we have. When we hear others grumble about something you find annoying too, we laugh, go, “eh, same!” and add on too. Yet the moment a foreigner expresses a negative opinion about Singapore, everyone’s suddenly intensely patriotic. While we do acknowledge the faults (very well), we recognise that Singapore is, if not quite the home all of us wish for, still where we come from.
At the end of Ladybird, there’s a scene where the protagonist drives around her hometown for the first time, and she’s suddenly struck by the subtle beauty of it all. Unfortunately, I have yet to be as awed and wonderstruck by Singapore as she is by her town. But what I have been doing is observing the city around me, looking around a little more than I’m used to, and I’ve found some small things that make Singapore special (in good ways and bad) to me. And if you’d like to, maybe you could do the same.