Forget race, language and religion

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Merlion, credit: youtube screengrab
 

As I was saying before I was interrupted by the war… this was roughly what Cassandra, a British newspaper columnist, wrote when he resumed his column as peace came after World War 2. I don’t presume to be the legendary Cassandra. Neither was I interrupted by anything so devastating and historic as a global conflict.

But I was laid off by a rather lengthy stay at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Here I am, glad to be back. Before I talk about anything else, I want to say just two things. Please take care of your health. It’s your temple. The only one that you have. Respect it.

Talking about respect, I have only good things to say about the ICU staff of Tan Tock Seng. This is not the first time I’ve been to this hospital. I was there for a month in 2014. I did not have a good experience. At that time, the hospital seemed to be rather messy. Somewhat disorganised. So I had some trepidation when I was admitted there again.

But this time, I see a vast improvement. I use the present tense  because I’m still at the hospital. There has been a noticeable improvement.  The doctors and nurses are largely professional, patient, caring and organised. And I say thank you. And well done.

By the way, I’m writing this on National Day. Once again, the National Pledge was made at the big parade. The Pledge. Engraved in every school child’s psyche. Resurrected on special occasions but finding a certain resonance at the NDP.

It’s interesting that Law Minister K Shanmugam wrote in his Facebook about the Pledge. About the story behind it. As was reported in The Straits Times, the pledge went through several drafts before the final version was approved. Shanmugam”s comment was a kind of extract of what Jenadas Devan wrote in 2016 when he was discussing national identity. I recommend you to read that if you have missed it. Jenadas is Director of the Institute of Policy Studies.

Anyway, Shanmugam wrote about the “race” part of the pledge. He quoted the late Deputy PM S Rajaratnam who drafted the pledge. The founding father colleague of Lee Kuan Yew said in his version to “Forget differences in race, language and religion”. The final version had it as “Regardless of race, language and religion”.

To me, Rajaratnam was not being naive or overly idealistic. In fact, he had pooh-poohed the idea that we are going to have a national identity: “A national identity for Singapore is not possible. And the very idea is ludicrous.”.

Never mind what was really behind the change to “regardless race, language and religion”.

Regardless sounds so bureaucratic, like the sort of compromise language which comes out of a company annual report or a UN resolution.

I like Rajaratnam’s version.

Forget race etc means stop looking at one another as being all that different. As I lay on my hospital and look at all the patients, I don’t see them and they don’t see one another as other than people and Singaporeans. And the staff are of so many races in a common task of looking after patients – local Chinese, mainland Chinese, Malays, Indians, Filipinos, Britons.

National identity, maybe not.  But being a country, even a city state, yes.

We can say like Malaysian Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, in the context of being Malaysian:  I’m a Malaysian. I don’t see myself as Chinese.” We can and should see one another as Singaporeans above all.

With that I wish all Singaporeans a Happy National Day. Or as one strange signboard at a HDB carpark said, Happy 53st National Day.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.