I was recently asked to write a piece for a magazine on what makes us Singaporean. I had my own ideas but I needed inspiration. So, I put up a post on Facebook. “Any ideas?” I asked.
I received 10 responses within the minute.
“The fact that you’re from Singapore!” said Ernst, all the way from Seattle.
“Tissue paper table reservations!” Dawn suggested from the depths of Chomp Chomp hawker centre.
“How you don’t need to be Chinese to know a few choice Hokkien swear words!” said David, helpfully giving a few very ripe examples.
Who said Singaporeans don’t have a sense of humour? Isn’t that one of our finest and most defining features? We’ll laugh at anything. It’s how we got to where we are today, from a Third World dump to First World metropolis in two generations: we laughed in the face of adversity. And we still do today.
Even when Orchard Road is flooded, or we’re in the middle of a very serious mud-slinging general election, some joker somewhere will find something funny about the situation and make a YouTube clip out of it.
And when we finish laughing at ourselves, we’ll start laughing at other people. “What did Mahatir say to Lee Kwan Yew when…” Oh, you’ve heard that one before, is it?
And we really don’t care who we offend. When someone stands up on the bus, we immediately thump the recently vacated seat several times with the flat of our hand before we sit down as if to exorcise any bad spirits left behind by the previous occupant. Do that anywhere else in the world and you’d probably end up with a black eye. In Singapore, your seat patting won’t even make the woman seated by the window to look up, she’s so busy clipping her finger nails.
We’ll make dinner plans on our hand-phone in the middle of a movie, make movie plans via text messaging in the middle of dinner, and set up a hot date on Blackberry Messenger while sitting on the toilet.
On the road, we’ll change lanes in random patterns without indicating and when we’re honked at, we’ll roll down the window, stick our head out and curse. I once saw a Malay driver unleash a string of fluent Hokkien swear words at a BMW that had cut into his lane. Several drivers tooted by and gave him the thumbs up. One shouted out with a cheery wave, “Wah lau, where you learn your Hokkien? Damn kuat!”
These days, it’s hard to find that kind of cultural solidarity anywhere else in the world. Just turn on your evening news, if you don’t believe me.
We dig deep when it counts most. Especially when other people need our help. Is it a coincidence that at the first sign of a natural disaster, Singaporean relief teams are among the first to arrive? Or that, earlier this year, an entire community in Tiong Bahru posted online vigils when Bob, the neighbourhood cat that belonged to nobody and everybody, underwent surgery? Or that every year, without fail, we sit in front of the TV and sob during the Community Chest or President’s Challenge telecast while raising millions for charities most of us have never heard of and for people we’ve never met?
This coming from a people who will cross the road for a $2 discount and cry foul when the price of our teh-o goes up 15 cents.
What else makes us Singaporean? If you asked a dozen people that, you’ll probably get a dozen opinions. I think, in addition to our sense of humour, it’s our mass of contradictions. If it takes more than five minutes to get somewhere, it’s really ulu and we’re not going; but we’ll drive for hours to Ipoh for a bowl of hor-fun. And then turn right around and drive back to Singapore. On the way, we’ll stop by Carrefour in JB to pick up toilet paper and washing powder because it’s so much cheaper there.
We don’t have a clue what our GDP is, but we can tell you down to the last dollar how much our local MP takes home each month, the per square footage value of our apartment (and our neighbour’s), and the going rate for a wedding dinner at the Ritz-Carlton.
Meanwhile, we ridicule foreigners for being cheem, but think nothing of giving our shopping centres names like Knightsbridge and the Ion.
It’s really this ability to mix and match as we please that marks us out as uniquely Singaporeans. Just listen to our accents. One minute, we’re Barbarella (anyone for bitch volleyball?) on speed and the next, we’re riffing in Singlish and American-English. It’s no wonder out-of-towners have such a hard time making sense of our conversations, let alone try to figure us out as a nation and as a people.
Do we care? Not really. But you can bet we’re all laughing about it.