death by paper cut

{August 9, 2006}   my imagined community – singapore

my “i am singaporean” meme post for the nation’s 41st birthday.

i am singaporen because the most natural thing i ask a fellow singaporean of the same generation is, “which schools did you attend?” and then start mentally making connections friendster-style, and chances are we do have a few mutual friends. it can be too close for comfort when you have a marred reputation. the stages of the lives of my friends and i is often determined by the major examinations we sit for, PSLE, GCE’O’s, GCE’A’s/Poly Diploma/ITE Certificate.

as an arts inclined person, i feel relegated by the education system. persuing an arts degree at the university of melbourne at the moment, i conspicuously stand out as the few singaporeans who go there angels fear to thread. although my subject content seems “useless” to other practical singaporeans, they sigh in envy that i am pursuing my interests.

i have a friend who was asked by her fiance to ballot for an HDB flat by way of proposal. the actual proposal came later but it didn’t come as a surprise by then. hardly anyone moves out on their own without first getting married so that half of the down payment can be shared by the other half. after finally being able to move away from the parents, we try to live within 2km radius from them to get a government subsidy and use our parents as baby sitters when they become grandparents.

soon, i will also need to ballot for one and pay with CPF for the rest of my life, even so, i do not really own it because after 99 years the lease ends. besides being in debt for my apartment, i will spend my earnings on installments for insurance, bank loans, car, overseas education.

anyone older and usually stall vendors, cabbies and friends of parents are collectively referred to as “aunties” and “uncles”. “aunty” is also often used an adjective, e.g. “that dress is so aunty”. my malay friends curse in hokkien because they say it carries more gusto than their vernacular allows them. my indian friends are better versed in mandarin than i am. my chinese friends and i do not converse in chinese. speaking in hokkien gets you further than speaking in mandarin anyway, and for that i am thankful that i’ve learnt some dialect from my grandmother.

most grandparents of my generation were not born in singapore. the nation is that young, but its also ages rapidly. making up for lost time as a young nation also means losing its childhood and transiting into retirement.

general elections are exciting not because i am uncertain of the outcome, but because the ruling party always finds creative ways and means to maim the opposition, often resulting in a court case of which verdict is equally not uncertain.

english is my native language and considered the first language of the nation although malay is preserved as the national language. even so i am not as equipped as foreign talent to teach the english language. i have come to accept that being asked if i can speak english by an “ang moh” in “ang moh countries” is not an insult, they really know no other asian country that adopts the english language as their own.

when studying overseas, i initially found it strange that all the cashiers ask how my day went. *you want to know for what?* fellow singaporeans, when overseas switch with ease from singlish to standard english and back again in the conversation that includes an “ang moh”.

although fellow singaporeans constantly complain among themselves about how dissatisfied they are about singapore, they proudly band together whenever asked which country they’re from, and they absolutely do not like to be mistaken as malaysian. malaysia is our “Other”, a large part of our self-definition stems how how much we are not like malaysia, yet we frequently visit the northern neighbour to enjoy cheaper and better food and reminisce how we long for a slower pace of life and the “kampong spirit”.

i cringed deep into my seat at the lecture theatre when chicken rice wars and a clip about SDU in the 1980s were screened. for that module, my tutor made me recite the national pledge and the 5-Cs since i was the only singaporean in that class. for some reason, she has a penchant for singapore – her phd thesis was about the PAP.

everything is abbreviated. abbreviations are further abbreviated. too bad if you don’t understand.

i have to book an appointment with my primary school students when i was teaching just to speak to them because although barely a decade old, they are as busy as singaporean adults with piano/swimming/violin/remedial/supplementary classes, project meetings as well as private tuition. these kids also have more expensive handphones than i do to make their appointments with, and this was a poor neighbourhood school.

although my country is only one marathon race wide, my friends find travelling (in a car) for more than 40 minutes too tiring. perhaps it seems so because by then you would have reached the other coast of the island.

its not good enough to be good, must be better, best, constantly upgrading, so much that many people i know externally validate themselves and lose their personal bearings of who they are and what they are genuinely interested in.

i gave my cousins from LA a very curious look when they asked me where they can find good food in singapore, “everywhere” i told them.

i am singaporean because i am hard pressed to pinpoint what is “uniquely singaporean”, but collectively, i realise there is none like us.

happy birthday singapore.


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