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Seek out the past, with an eye on the future July 21, 2006

Posted by kentneo in General.
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Text by Laurel Teo

THERE is a popular beer advertisement making the rounds on the Internet, telling the world what is so unique about being  citizen of the country with the second largest land mass.

The ‘I am Canadian’ video takes digs at stereotypes of Canadians and highlights what separates them from their arguably more visible and better-known American neighbours.

If you haven’t seen the clever clip by Canadian brewery Molson, go search on www.youtube.com – it’s well worth the effort.

While that video first hit air waves in April 2000, it has since spun several popular parodies and parallel versions around the world, most recently in Singapore.

Netizens here have composed their own podcasts of ‘I am Singaporean’, led by blogger mr brown, who posted his version last week, just days before the Today freesheet suspended his regular column.

This being the start of a 12-day festival to celebrate Singapore’s heritage, it seems timely to explore the subject. Perhaps I should begin with a look at the word ‘heritage’. Dictionaries tend to define it as an inheritance from preceding generations, most often concerning, though not limited to, culture and history. A social birthright of sorts.

So, for people of my generation, what is the heritage we can draw on? How have the actions of preceding generations shaped our identity?

Let’s begin with a quick summary of the official repertoire. For the past 41 years, the Government has laid out its vision of a society conscious of, even vigilant about, racial harmony. It has made efficiency a hallmark strength of Singapore, and pragmatism another trademark.

It is well aware of the vulnerability that comes with a tiny island with scant resources. Thus, it is averse to complacency and has ingrained in its people a need to stay on top of almost any game.

It is eager to learn the best from the West, yet remain rooted in an Asian cultural core. Hence the decision of a bilingual language policy that has bred a younger generation able to toggle between tongues, albeit with varying degrees of fluency.

It also upholds cleanliness in environment and in governance, and has managed to mould Singaporeans into a law-abiding society – and some feel, a people more comfortable with taking instructions than initiative.

But these are just the well-documented broad strokes.

What of the unofficial ‘people’s version’ of heritage?

Singlish must surely count as one of the most popular native assets Singaporeans hold dearly, even brandish gleefully, especially in the face of official dismay.

And how to miss out food – a cliche yet an indispensable category?

Many Singaporeans also count national service and life in HDB estates as defining experiences.

Then there’s the fact that most of us hail from immigrant stock, even among the Malay community, many of whom can claim some Arab or Indonesian extraction.

With that arises a tension between borrowing from ancestral origins, and creating something original altogether in terms of identity.

This is especially so for most of us younger folk who have never had to sing a British, Chinese (nationalist) or Japanese anthem, and find ‘ancestral origins’ an abstract concept rather than a living reality.

Precisely because of this, heritage, for our generation, should be not only a passive acceptance of what came before, but also an active discovery process.

Consider the three young Singaporeans profiled on the facing page. Each seeks a piece of Singapore’s unrecorded past, dusting off a birthright that has fallen into obscurity.

Architect Kent Neo, 34, spends his Saturdays visiting local temples to dig up their history, before adding them to his online archive.

Historian Lim Cheng Tju, also 34, interviews political cartoonists and woodcut artists of the 1950s and 1960s, for another perspective of history, which could otherwise be dominated by ‘big men’.

To me, what they and other like-minded young people are doing adds to the richness of our heritage.

Because if we don’t take a more active interest, we risk being subsumed under a generic national narrative that is, in truth, incomplete, whether through purposeful editing or genuine oversight.

It has been argued before that Singapore should seek out other versions of the Singapore story to challenge or add to the dominant version, which many feel to be the story of the People’s Action Party.

Here’s another thought: What we do, we should do with an eye on the future. Think about what we want future generations to inherit, because our legacy will be their heritage.