Early May this year, I arrived back in Singapore for a visit. Yesterday, I celebrated my 28th birthday with friends and family (separately) in Singapore.
My dear friend Willie texted me happy birthday, and in true-to-Willie style, asked me, “how does it feel to be 28 in one word/phrase?” I love these Willie-questions – they are designed to give one no choice but to stop partying and actually seriously reflect.
Finally I replied with one word: “Refreshed”, and explained briefly that I actually feel more confident and optimistic about life lately.
The past 2 over weeks in Singapore have been nothing short of exciting. My return coincided with the General Elections and the appointment of the new Cabinet. A lot of conversations with friends and family (especially family, seeing as my sister is a reporter at the national newspaper’s political desk and my father an avid current affairs follower for decades) have centred around the happenings during the election campaign period and the period immediately following the ‘watershed elections’, whereby a team from the opposition took a GRC (defeating two cabinet ministers) for the first time in history, and 9 candidates from the opposition have found themselves a seat in Parliament.
I had never taken a very keen interest in the political scene in Singapore; perhaps because I fell in the more fortunate class of citizens who had options (i.e., to leave) and did not need to worry about survival issues (and perhaps because there was no “political scene” to be interested in anyway…). Furthermore, I had been living overseas for the past 2 years and developments at home did not concern or affect me very much. But this recent return to Singapore changed that. Everywhere I went and with whomever I met (friends, friends-of-friends, beautician to taxi-driver), there would be an inevitable discussion relating to the developments in the local political scene. It brought to light (to me) a lot of the difficulties faced by many Singaporeans, and also made me realise that many Singaporeans were unhappy (and NOT for the reasons that I was – these were real survival concerns, not just about pests or lift upgrading). And through those conversations, I felt a strong sense of community and belonging welling up inside of me. Here in Singapore I was an insider, I could relate to and had a personal opinion on the issues discussed by my peers as well as any man on the street. It was a strange refreshing feeling of being “connected”, a first-class citizen – a feeling I had almost forgotten, having been an outsider in another man’s land for awhile now.
In the 2 weeks following the elections, the papers in Singapore were full of dramatic news; the retirement of 5 Cabinet ministers (1 of them the founding father of Singapore), the formation of a Cabinet consisting of many new and younger faces, culminating in a speech by the PM at the Cabinet swearing-in that Ministers’ salaries will be reviewed (an issue of unhappiness amongst citizens for a long time – our ministers are the most highly paid in the world). Reading the papers yesterday (where in the Cabinet swearing-in speech the PM announced that Ministers’ salaries would be reviewed) I suddenly felt very moved. No, not by the fact that Ministers will get a pay-cut, but from all the events in the past few weeks, culminating in this. I was surprised, and yes, moved, that for the first time, the government was listening to the people. And it did not take a revolution, a coup, an underground/rebel movement or some form of protest or violence to make that happen. The issue of ministers’ salaries have been a sore point for the people for many years, but that was all it was, a sore point. No one had fought, protested or even remotely threatened national security over this issue. And I simply could not believe it. In my mind I always felt that Singapore would always stay the same because true blue pragmatic Singaporeans would never do anything ‘radical’ enough to change the system. But without a doubt, it was a fair and democratic election, the opposition seats were won fair and square (and went to deserving and qualified candidates), the campaign was conducted entirely legally, the coverage by the national press and a lot of the commentary (at least a lot of the more widely circulated posts which I read) even in the social media was well thought-through, mature and objective, and there was peace in the country throughout the period (save for a couple of bad traffic jams on rally nights). People spoke through their votes, and the government listened. Most people may not think this is a big deal, and in fact this is exactly what democracy should be, but to me, living in a part of the world where democracy is but a term thrown around in diplomatic relations with the US, where 80% live in poverty and where the governments are shooting anyone trying to revolt, it is huge.
I had actually thought that I might never be able to go back to Singapore to live again; pace of life too fast, too crowded, too expensive, too much regulations and bureaucracy… but Singapore is suddenly looking attractive again. Apart from it being where my family and friends are, I suddenly also see it as a place where I am…relevant. The gains made by our democracy in the recent elections have showed me how Singapore (and its people) have evolved and has won my respect; it has showed me that as a born and bred citizen, my vote, my voice and my participation will count.
I have learnt a lot about the world from my travels in the past few years; I am thankful for the opportunity and also believe without a doubt that I have contributed in a small way and have been shaped profoundly by those precious experiences. But I also know that I will always be an outsider looking in, whether with amazement, rage, inspiration or heartbreak, always with limited participation or knowledge, with a desire to do more but yet with a sense of helplessness and sometimes even fear.
It surprised me that whilst I was back in Singapore I did not feel claustrophobic, but connected. I did not feel stressed, but challenged. Not burnt out by the pace, but refreshed. No fear, but a renewed sense of freedom. Perhaps I am just being sentimental after being away for so long and will start lamenting these very things in no time. But I think I say it objectively when I say that in Singapore, where I am an insider, I actually have a real part to play in society, in shaping the future of this nation. And I will always belong here more than I would in any other part of the world.
On my 28th birthday I realised that I am full of hope again. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel panicky about my future (as I have been feeling throughout the past 2 years – since I left). I felt strangely refreshed, realising that no, I am not old at all. I have so much to give, perhaps even more now than 2 years ago. And I’m excited to see what the future holds.