SINGAPURA: A personal finding of meaning in a name

Year: 2020

Covid-19 is an existential test for Singapore. It is not only a public health crisis but an economic and a financial one. It is not a local crisis, but a global one. The government has introduced an unprecedented 3 consecutive Budgets over the course of just 7 weeks. It has committed to the largest draw-down of past reserves in our history — totalling SGD21 billion and incurred the largest deficit over any financial year in our 55 years of independence.

The Covid-19 crisis is expected to cut deeper than the Asian Financial Crisis or the Global Financial Crisis, last far longer and result in a much shallower recovery. We are living in a changed world and a moving goalpost in terms of what it will take to respond to a challenge fast-evolving on multiple fronts.

Amidst all these changes and transitions, it is important to remember who we are and ensure that certain qualities stay fixed to give us our North, our South, our East and our West. In other words, our compass to take our bearings in high and choppy seas. Much emphasis has been placed on what Singapore has got right in terms of our policies and the large sums we are committing to support our economy and society, but Covid-19 is bigger than either or both combined. We need to invest, ensure and embody the identity and spirit that defines us as a people and as a nation.

While the rest of the world — and perhaps even most Singaporeans — know us only as Singapore, we are in fact more correctly named Singapura. This is a name that roots us into our history and reflects that, Constitutionally, Malay is our national language, subject to limits and safeguards to ensure that we have both the flexibility to be pragmatic — such as our choice of English as the primary language of education, administration and commerce — and that we treat and respect the right to access and use any other language.

Official languages and national language

153A.— (1)  Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English shall be the 4 official languages in Singapore.

(2)  The national language shall be the Malay language and shall be in the Roman script:

Provided that

(a)

no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using or from teaching or learning any other language; and

(b)

nothing in this Article shall prejudice the right of the Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in Singapore.

 

The framers of our Constitution — most notably, Mr Edward Barker — demonstrated wisdom, a sense of history and a philosophical perspective, held in balance with a tangible sense of reality, of what it would take to build a successful nation with a complex society, complicated history and an uncertain future.

The focus on the minds of both people and the government today is correctly and understandably on the immediate demands of coping and mitigating Covid-19 impacts. But, as both an optimist and a patriot, I choose to turn my mind to both what ‘Singapura’ — which is worn on the shoulder flash of every serviceman and woman, is in the title of our National Anthem and enshrined in both our State and Presidential Crests — means to me personally and, by extension, what emotional and inspirational potency it holds to not only get us through the crisis but go far beyond it.

The narrative that follows is admittedly personal and not doctrinal but I share it in the hope that it can give meaning, purpose and inspiration to others.

 

S — Sovereignty. We are a sovereign nation with the rights, obligations and requirements that come with that status. History is not a source of reassurance for us, as it is littered with tales of the rise and inevitable fall of small States. Thus, Singapore, for its very continuity, must always be an exception by being exceptional. Unless we are all in cognizance of this imperative and are committed towards its realization, we are finished; if not now, then surely in a future crisis. Let each Singaporean be clear-minded and deliberate in the knowledge that our future is here on this island and that our future is us — despite our differences in race, language and religion, and our future is in our own hands, not in any one divinity or strategic ally making easy promises of support.

I — Integrity. From the onset, the Founders were insistent on integrity being both the foundation of the new nation and the pillar upon which we would hold up our brand to the world. That we face the gravest of crisis now, is not a lesser but a greater reason for us to hold on to this principle. Corruption, complacency, cronyism — these are infections worse than any pandemic. Each Singaporean, no matter how desperate things get with their business or family, should withstand the convenience of evil and commit to staying on the harder road of doing what is right. This should apply from top to the bottom, and across of our society, every business, the public administration and even our politicians.

N — Nationhood. Each year for the past 55 years, we have spent vast sums on National Day Parades. But more so, we have asked our young men to give up formative years of their lives to serve the nation in uniform. All of this was not for nothing. Nor is nationhood only these signature events and episodes. A sense of nationhood must be the very marrow of our daily lives, our living consciousness and our instinctive and sentient bond with each other. We either prove that we have it by now or we should give the game up. The time of ‘nation-building’ is over and the time of ‘nation being’ is upon us.

G — Generosity – We are known for our rules, regulations and expectations of high standards of compliance. But we must too be a compassionate people. We have one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world — albeit after factoring special transfers and benefits that are significantly moderated. Even so, there are many parallel Singapore experiences slipping past each other daily — with the ultra-rich in enclaves in Bukit Timah and Sentosa Cove, the middle class in their gated condominiums and newer public housing estates, and the poor in mature estates and in rental units. We must breach this corrosive parallelism and reach across to help through philanthropy and volunteerism. But, more structurally, we should be prepared for a more progressive taxation regime that creates more scope for contribution and redistribution. Our generosity should also extend to our regional neighbours. They are larger and more populous, and often view us with a sceptical eye, but in a time of dire need, we should always be prepared to help, as we have before and should be prepared to do so again in the spirit of amity.

A — Accountability. We are a nation noted for our performance — economical and financial. But we are also noted for our high standard of public administration and service. Our workforce is skilled, industrious and disciplined, and our regulators informed, professional and impartial. For these achievements, we receive high praise globally. But I say, these soothing compliments are the equivalent of the Sirens heard by Homer’s Ulysses, that draws us on rocks and the false land of complacency and fantasy. We must hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards and be transparent in reporting our performance, be courageous in admitting our failings and be uncompromising in holding to account those responsible for errors and omissions.

P — People. When Singapore comes to mind, it is always the economic and financial numbers that casually define us. But we are a people first and an economy second. If we forget this, then our sovereignty is for sale. To claim to be a people, we must remain so in good times and bad times, when rich or when poor, in peace and in war. And a people need leaders who can embody, express and enlist us together in common cause as a community. But this body of leaders can no longer be a ‘few good men’; it must be a wide, large and distributed ecosystem of men and women in the community, in the economy, in the academia, in the arts and in the more traditional arenas of public administration, defence and of course, in politics. If we remain an oligarchy of a few leading the many, we run the grave risk of creating a self-perpetuating aristocracy, however much a meritocracy. We must instead be inclusive, broad-tented and spread the burden of leading across the broad body of both population and industry.

U — Understanding. Singapore is not a country of 55 years, nor it is a simple construct of economic numbers. We have a long history, complicated geography and are a heterogeneous society still in the making. To ensure social cohesion but also to be better assimilated within our geographic neighbourhood, we need to invest in better understanding. This means investing in history, culture, languages, politics and the arts. Whereas in the past we may have considered these disciplines as indulgences and wasteful, in the present and the future they are the very disciplines that will underpin our ability to be not only a nation, but a nation among nations in this region and globally, that is respected for conducting itself with the mutual respect, tolerance, and friendship that can only come from a genuine interest in the histories, cultures and languages of others.

R — Responsibility. It is a commonplace observation, that Singaporeans cannot begin or end any sentence on a public issue without the mention of the ‘government’. Responsibility cannot and should not be concentrated so intensely in either the political government or the public administration. Yes, both must be responsible and accountable. But each Singaporean has the responsibility to put nation before self. And for that premise to have meaning, it means doing more than being ‘champion grumblers’ but being champions of causes. Be interested, be informed and be involved and dare to care about what matters to you. And then do something about it. The government is an answer, but not the only answer to every issue, especially civic and community ones. We, the people, are the special variable in the equation of P (People) + L (Leaders) + A (Administration) = E (Exceptionalism).

A — Ambition. The Covid-19 crisis’s most insidious and least visible damage will not be to the economy or to the public purse; it will be psychological and emotional. A generation of SME leaders will fail and lose their savings, many their relationships and some their very sanity. But we cannot allow this crisis nor any other future crisis, to turn us into mice running from adversity, becoming adverse to risk, and seeking the safety of ‘iron rice bowls’. No and Never. We must be Lions charging out of the storm to devour opportunities, defend ourselves against competitors, live up to our reputation, fight for our ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ and — should it ever become necessary — fight fiercely against any odds, for our air, sea, land and our way of life. We are not the ‘Lion City’ only for the purposes of tourism. We are the Lion City because we are truly Lion-Hearted.

These represent the meaning I have personally found in the name that I wore on my sleeve and over my heart in the form of the official crest of the President of Singapore. I challenge each Singaporean to pause and take the time to find your personal meaning and purpose and, in doing so, also your purpose beyond yourself.

 

Devadas Krishnadas served two and a half years in the Singapore Infantry and ten years as a Senior Police Officer, including as a Commanding Officer and a Head of Operations. He served for three years as Honourary Aide-de-Camp to the President of Singapore (the then President S.R. Nathan). He also served five years in public policy in multiple Ministries including the Ministry of Finance. In 2012, he founded and has since led, a boutique consultancy, focused on public policy and corporate strategy.