Before We Became Singaporeans | The Birth of an Island Nation

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new — when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

Tryst with Destiny by Jawaharlal Nehru

Before we became Singaporeans, we were Indians, Malays, Chinese and Eurasians. Our ancestors departed the lands of their ancestors and arrived on this very shore with nothing but hope. The hope of a better life. Have their wishes been fulfilled? Did they find what they came to Singapore seeking?

When you are born-and-raised in a country, the way I am, it is easy to forget the places that our forebears’ forebears came from. We embrace our new identities as we let go of the old. Even when we do return to our ‘homelands’, we feel that we are different; perhaps not in our appearance, but certainly in our habits, our thinking and most definitely, our accents.

It has been five generations since my ancestors arrived on the shores of the sunny island of Singapore. This is our home, now. This year, my family celebrated 120 years in this country. A country that has witnessed immeasurable changes since ‘we’ first arrived.

The India of today is not the India my forebears knew. India, as we know it today, was born at the stroke of midnight. It was a momentous moment in the history of mankind. But the Land herself had already existed long before Her leaders signed contracts and drew out borders that would change the course of history forever.

The same could be said about Singapore.

Singapore and Malaysia had only been married for less than two years before we separated. It’s common when it comes to couples, but what if the same were to be said for two countries? That’s what I thought to myself as I read and re-read the Proclamation of Singapore at the National Gallery on St Andrew’s Road.

We live in a world where when relationships don’t work, we walk away from them, thinking that the predicament and the problems will simply disappear. But they don’t. We are often left with new problems to deal with in their wake.

The same could be said for the way that countries are born and the trajectory on which they develop through the passage of time. Post WWII, a struggle for independence swept through the former European colonies.

The Indian independence movement, in particular, not only inspired the political movements of my grandfather’s generation, but also set in motion a gigantic oceanic wave whose ripple effects travelled far beyond the borders where it was first born. The Gandhian non-violent approach to protest inspired leaders across the globe to fight for various causes–from the civil rights movement to independence.

While each country embarked on its own individual path towards independence, the world as my grandparents had known it had come to an end. A new world was waiting. The world that their descendants would one day inhabit. A world they created and left behind for us.

At the Foundation Stone of the Supreme Court Building, National Gallery, Singapore

While independence was a hard-won and hard-earned victory, it was only the beginning of an era that would see both new and old nations across the globe striving to redefine their identities once the colonial era disbanded. How would we come to define ourselves once we had no one to tell us who we are? We were no longer who we were before colonisation; and we could not go back there, no matter how hard we tried. We were different peoples now. People who had to forge a new identity for themselves.

The land that my ancestors came to as merchants at the turn of the 20th century was an entirely different country to the one that I inhabit. The annual birth of Singapore which is celebrated on 9 August is not independence day, but national day, because it commemorates not independence; but our separation from Malaysia.

When it comes to politics and economics, both Malaysia and Singapore embarked on different strategies, which in turn led to different results. At the point when these two nations separated, it seemed unlikely that Singapore would actually ‘make it’. The colonial era was, in many aspects, an era where countries with vast natural resources attracted those looking to exploit what Mother Nature Herself had created on those lands.

But, Singapore, at the time, was not a resource-rich nation. British interest in the island nation was primarily due to its strategic location. The British were a naval power and Singapore was in a prime and pristine location, as far as the real estate of the sea was concerned.

But beyond that, there wasn’t really all that much, was there? Or so I’ve been told. We’re small, therefore, limited in what we can do and achieve. Who would have thought, or could have even foreseen, that 56 years later, Singapore would be what it is now?

Not a fishing village. Not a port where people just come and go. But a sprawling metropolis that’s even more bustling that ever before.

When these irreversible world events occurred, I was neither born nor there to witness the events that transpired. Yet, these events are interwoven into the fabric of my being, informing a part of the story that defines ‘me’.

I have been an expat. I spent 12 years–more than a third of my existence–living abroad, separated from the land where I was born and where I grew up. Do I regret leaving for that long? No. I would not be who I am today if I had never left home.

When it comes to identity, one thing I do know, without a shred of doubt, is that the world is and always has been an interconnected entity. This is despite the border closures, lockdowns and social distancing measures that we’ve put in place to keep ourselves ‘safe’. The same stifling atmosphere of fear and mistrust that characterises wartime is in the air. We’re still struggling with the maladies of racism, sexism and bigotry that create deep inequities in society. Technological ‘progress’ has not solved that.

Instead of striving for justice, the administration tends to suppress the ones who dare to raise their voice against any corrupt practice. Moreover, government officials continuously bend over backwards to satiate the interests of the capitalists and industrialists.

However, as literacy continues to grow and people continue to educate themselves, slowly and surely India will begin to outgrow the shackles of its past and emerge into a new future. The path ahead may not be an easy one–but India is a rich civilisation with a long history and the nation will continue to reinvent itself.

Netaji’s Path to Freedom

The place and family into which an individual is born is the hand that they are dealt with at the moment of birth. The same could be said of nations. They are born with a deck of cards and they have to play their hand right.

The strange thing is, every country is born with a different hand, a different deck of cards. A deck of cards that are gifted to us at midnight–in the twilight hours when it is neither day nor night. In this moment, everything is possible. In this moment, our ideals are all we have. In this moment, we are dreamers. In this moment, we believe in the future of freedom because we have, at long last, finally tasted it. As to what the history books will say of what we achieved as a people, we will have to ask the historians, academics and perhaps even the soothsayers, if we are so inclined.

Singapore is 56 years old on August 9th. In human years, it is an adult in middle age. Compared to the ancient civilisations I love reading about in dusty old books, Singapore is a young country, one that is still on its ascent. And it is one that still has a long long way to go.

Happy Birthday, Singapore. I look forward to the big 60, four years from now. And… I love you.

By Dipa Sanatani

CEO at Sanatanco | The Leading Global Publication and Communications Consultancy for Writers, Readers and Thinkers

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