Thursday • July 28, 2005
AS SINGAPORE prepares to celebrate 40 years of nationhood, there's a certain level of disquiet about our national identity.
This is evident in the debates about Singlish, the despair over our lack of social graces and, most recently, the controversy over the sale of Raffles Hotel to non-Singaporeans.
Part of the angst appears to stem from the lack of a visible Singapore icon. New York has its Statue of Liberty, Paris its Eiffel tower, and at Agra, not far away from New Delhi, is the Taj Mahal.
Some are ready to discount Singapore's prime candidate — the Merlion — for most would rather have a beautiful lady with the torch to gaze upon, as they do on Staten Island, than a half-fish, half-lion.
We're not sure if the Durians — sorry, the Esplanade theatres — would be as popular as Sydney's Opera House, either. So, perhaps we need to construct a new icon, we say. Some think the answer is the yet-to-be-built integrated resorts.
We are an impatient people who believe in quick fixes. Encouraged by our successes in constructing the world's No 1 airport and other architectural feats, some think we can dream up and construct, just like that, an icon that will radiate the spirit of Singapore.
But think about it: Why has the Merlion failed to impress?
For most Singaporeans, the Merlion doesn't evoke the sense of endearment associated with a treasured myth or a historical moment. There's little one can tell a visitor about it.
It hasn't earned the pride of a nation. Indeed, "to merlion" has become the local slang for "to vomit" – in reference to its ceaseless water-spouting.
Visitors to Singapore may be more interested in seeing the spot in Raffles Hotel where the last tiger to be killed in Singapore was shot, under a billiards table.
The sale of the hotel to a foreigner has been lamented by some citizens, who have deemed the move a betrayal, akin to selling off a national treasure.
It is an icon that represents part of our island's colonial history; it is the birthplace of the Singapore Sling. It has the nostalgic distinction of having hosted famous writers including W Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway.
The Merlion, on the other hand, is little more than a commercial symbol. And it is laughable to think that a playground incorporating roller-coaster rides and a casino could inspire the same kind of awe as a structural icon, say the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Even Changi Airport cannot be held up in the same light. I once asked a much-travelled Frenchman what he thought of the terminal. He said it was modern, functional, very well-organised and efficient ... but it lacked character.
The Singapore Tourism Board makes much of Singapore as "a city that thrives on modernity". There's no denying visitors enjoy convenience and comfort here. But Bangkok, with its slums and smells, has more character than Singapore, with its towering skyscrapers.
Yet do we truly need a physical icon to forge an identity? At 40, Singapore is a young nation. Neither history nor culture can be wrought off a blueprint.
Remember, some years ago, the attempt to design a wearable national costume featuring a Chinese collar, an Indian sash and a Malay sarong? That didn't take off.
Likewise, entertaining friends from abroad with songs about our homeland shouldn't have to mean blurting out songs about nation-building, or about how proud we are to be Singaporeans — songs penned specially for the official national birthday celebrations.
Perhaps we try too hard to develop icons, structural or otherwise. Such artificial results just don't do the trick because they are not about us as a people.
It's quite different when something is constructed purely for the tourist dollar. After all, as far as forgettable icons go, who really remembers that the world's highest man-made waterfall is at Jurong Bird Park?