By Wong Wing Lum
BEFORE I left for my exchange programme in Germany, my mother said to me: “I hope you find it in your heart to return home.”
Intended as a joke, she hinted that I would love it so much in Europe that I wouldn’t want to come back home.
There might have been some truth to her words.
Back then, to me, Europe had everything that Singapore lacked. In particular, it had a less stressful learning environment and a slower pace of life.
I rarely express any discontent with living in Singapore. Like most Singaporeans, I know how far this country has come — from a sleepy fishing village to a global city in just under 50 years.
But as I watch Singapore reach greater heights, I have felt this home slowly growing distant. While pursuing progress and pragmatism, we seem to have created a competitive society focused on results and bottom lines. Other passions and dreams, especially those that might not reward economically, are often put aside.
Growing up here, I often wonder if my worth to society is determined solely by a few grades on a certificate. Home should not feel like this, I thought.
Not alone in my thoughts
I’m not the only one who feels this way. It seems like Singaporeans are becoming less rooted, physically and emotionally, to our country.
According to population statistics, the number of Singaporeans living overseas has increased by more than 30 per cent in the past decade. The 2017 World Economic Forum survey also found that seven in ten Singaporean millennials were willing to leave Singapore for job opportunities overseas.
An example is 25-year-old Gladys Seah. What started out as a journey to complete her undergraduate degree with RMIT University led to an extended stay and decision to work in Melbourne.
“Many Singaporeans work for most of their lives just to pay off debt,” she said. It has been two years since Ms Seah relocated, and she has no intention of returning home.
The associate private client advisor also said that a good work-life balance is difficult to achieve because of the city’s fast-paced lifestyle. Furthermore, the high costs of owning a car and housing contributed to her worries.
Over in Munich, my Singaporean friends always responded with criticism when foreigners asked about Singapore. According to them, Singapore was boring because there were no places worthy of exploring; expensive because of the high cost of living; stressful because of the demanding education standards; and was experiencing a case of quiet racism despite the country’s reputation of having a multicultural image.
While I did not always completely agree with them, I never said anything to stand up for my country. I hesitated to respond because I have never identified myself as being patriotic. Yet, I felt a lump in my throat hearing their condemnation aloud.
Most of my peers think that safety and good food are the only aspects worth bragging about to foreigners. Apart from that, they say, there is little reason to praise home.
Patriotism is power
During a module on nationalism at my host university in Munich, I learnt that being patriotic is more than a prideful display of affection every National Day. Patriotism is about being proud of a country’s traditions and cultures, as well as having the desire to propel the country forward.
To me, patriotism is about being proud of a country’s traditions and cultures, as well as having a desire to act in the interest of your country.
In good times, it creates a sense of solidarity. In bad times, it is what helps people stick together to overcome obstacles.
While exploring the Baltic states earlier this year, I was moved by the sacrifices made by the partisans who were fighting for their countries’ independence from the Soviet Union since 1944.
They gained independence only five decades later, and almost half of the resistance movement died in their quest for freedom. To them, their country was worth them fighting and dying for.
Maybe this power can only be tested in times of adversity, which Singaporeans have had the fortune of avoiding in the past few decades. Despite this, continued peace is not guaranteed. If war ever breaks out in Singapore, I wonder how many of us would be willing to do the same for our country.
Shared practices and education
Patriotism must start from somewhere. Social studies, a mandatory subject taught in our primary and secondary schools, teaches students about our national heritage and multicultural society, and helps them better understand local policies.
While education is a great place to nurture this appreciation, more can be done at a national level to cultivate national pride in Singapore. A good example is this year’s National Day celebration, which, compared to previous years, adopted a more genuine approach in re-telling Singapore’s narrative.
The performance featured stories of everyday Singaporeans and their struggles with high societal standards and expectations. Despite the hardships, they chose to embrace the imperfections of the Singapore identity. This honesty spoke to the hearts of citizens, including myself, igniting a sense of rapport that I had not felt in a long time.
I came to the realisation that ultimately, change must begin with me.
For a start, I can make a conscious effort to look at my country more positively. For example, instead of harping on the fact that the education system is too stressful, I can focus on how it better prepares me for the pressures that I will inevitably face in the workplace.
I can also be a good ambassador of my homeland the next time I am abroad, ready to highlight the many things about my country that I am proud of and grateful for.
These include the peaceful co- existence of people from different races and religions, a strong educa- tion system, and Singlish, our own brand of the English Language.
We need to learn to embrace our nation as it is. After all, this is the place that our forefathers built.
One day, if I have the privilege of meeting those friends in Munich again, I will proudly tell them how wrong our descriptions of Singapore were those years ago.