In search of our voices from Scotland to Singapore
By Kirsten Han
It’s Singapore’s 50th year of independence (known as SG50 for short), and no one is allowed to forget it. There are posters at bus stops welcoming the nation’s “SG50 babies”. There are SG50 logos on cans of sardines. There is going to be a Sing50 concert, and an epic SG50 celebration film about Singapore’s first year of independence, and the annual National Day Parade is going to be accordingly massive and over-the-top.
There is, in short, no escape from the propaganda love-bomb of a state determined to celebrate its own success.
Singapore, a tiny island at the tip of the Malayan Peninsula, was not expected to be able to survive on its own when we left the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 after two short years of merger. We had fairly good infrastructure, thanks to our history as a colonial shipping hub, but no real natural resources, and a significant segment of the population still lived in villages.
We’ve come a long way since: most of the rural areas are gone now, replaced with well-kept public housing blocks, expensive condominiums or ludicrously repetitive yet popular malls. Singapore demonstrates, on many levels, what a small country can do, and proves that small countries leaving larger ones need not fail.
Yet Singapore still finds itself more like a teenager, grappling with issues of power, control and structural inequality – much like Scotland did during the Indy Ref, and continues to do.
I moved to Scotland with my Scottish fiancé a little less than a year before the referendum. We got caught up in it together, following the arguments bandied back and forth. We married in July 2014, and it was with a sense of envy that I dropped him off at the airport in Singapore for his journey home to vote.
As we followed the discussions and debates around Scottish independence, what resonated most with me, as a Singaporean, was not arguments over the economy, or nitty-gritty details about what jobs go where. What spoke to me was the sense of wanting – no, demanding – a voice. That sentiment, bubbling up and spilling over into every nook and cranny of the pro-independence movement, was ultimately what drew me into the Indy Ref, and why I am writing for Bella Caledonia today.
Singaporeans too, want a voice. You’d think we’d have it already, so many years after becoming a sovereign nation. And perhaps we did have it, once. But this voice is something that we are only now beginning to rediscover.
I am told that we once had a strong leftist movement in Singapore, and that civil society was loud and vibrant and unapologetic. I saw this in action last year, at the 60th anniversary of the May 13 Student Movement, when white-haired men and women belted their old songs of solidarity with a gusto that made the years fall away, taking us all back to the time of the protests that sparked the anti-colonialist movement.
But I, born in 1988 a year after a spate of arrests and detentions stunted the natural growth of Singaporean grassroots activism, could only observe the May 13 veterans with awe and admiration, with little recognition of the Singapore in which they marched and shouted and sang.
Singapore is by no means a police state, but citizen engagement has long been kept in its shallowest form: straw polls, public consultations (after which policymakers will do what they want anyway) and feel-good volunteerism that almost never strays into advocacy. The older generations still remember those arrests, and it’s common to hear them warn others against becoming too vocal. They warn you to be careful, and you can’t be more careful than silent.
My generation lacks the memory of that fear (although it’s certainly still present in our psyche), nor have we experienced the deprivations of war and grinding poverty. With roofs over our heads, food in our bellies and more-or-less assured access to education, young Singaporeans have begun to set our sights higher. It’s not just bread we want, but roses too.
Like in Scotland during Indy Ref, there is now talk of political change in Singapore. Westminster may have been dominated by the same type of folk for years, but Singapore has seen the same party – the People’s Action Party (PAP) – in government for over five decades now. They have always been a majority government, able to push through their policies without much debate. For better or worse, almost everything that Singapore is today has something to do with a PAP policy.
But things have not been smooth sailing in recent years. Their vote-share of about 60% in the last general election would have Ed Milliband (or any other politician in the UK, really) crying with relief and gratitude, but it was the lowest the PAP had ever seen. The possibility that there might one day be a Singapore without a PAP-majority government is starting to seem less like a pipe-dream.
Unlike Scotland (and other parts of Europe), there is little call for a strong left in Singapore; a long period of one-party domination has meant that we don’t talk in terms of ideology anymore. But if one looks at the issues that get brought up again and again, one begins to see parallels with the values of a left-led Indy Ref: we want a fairer, more equal society. We want to start talking about human rights and political freedoms, and how power should not just be in the hands of the same elite over and over again. And we have a growing group of young people who aren’t content to stay silent and defer to the “grown-ups”.
There’s a limit to how far one can draw comparisons between Scotland and Singapore. Singaporeans have massively benefited from a stable economy, and the unemployment rate is very low here. Young Singaporeans generally don’t have to struggle for work or battle zero-hour contracts. Many, young and old alike, continue to be grateful to the PAP for what we have. The impetus for urgent change and reform is not as strong here as it was, and is, in Scotland.
Yet we share in the struggle to be heard: to be represented and included in deciding on the future of our homes, our countries.