The Birthday BookEthos Books (2016); 252pp.; $23.36
Early in 2016, fifty-one community leaders, civil servants, and private-sector innovators (one for every year of Singapore’s independence) were asked to respond to the question “What is Singapore’s Next Big Thing?”, as a collective effort to extend the “momentum of reflection” from Singapore’s jubilee anniversary in 2015. Their essays, presented by Malminderjit Singh in this volume, address topics ranging from Singapore’s international law obligations to the “Maker Movement”. Together, they affirm a wide — if by no means exhaustive — variety of perspectives, experiences, and personal concerns, through fifty-one self-contained, illuminating visions of Singapore’s future.
While the editor has categorised the essays in this book around four broad foci — conceptualised as quadrants along the axes “Looking inwards / Looking outwards” and “Revisiting the old / Uncharted waters” — several cross-cutting themes transcend these divisions. Some reflect wider debates in Singaporean civil society; others hint at similar frames of thinking among the young, Anglophone “influencers” who have been invited to contribute.
An intriguing number of essays present the argument that “Singapore’s next big thing is small”, to quote the title of Vaughn Tan’s call for more flexible, diverse personal skills. Kia Jie Hui, for one, locates the next big thing not in any “big, orchestrated affair” under the state’s direction, but in “personal, intimate networks” of citizen concern. Likewise, Adrian Kuah begins his essay with “a pitch for ‘going small’”, arguing that Singaporeans should learn to be “comfortable even when no big thing seems to be happening”. While shying away from the more sensational implications of the prompt, these essays still discuss ideas for changing Singapore in a “big” way, in terms of the scale and depth of their application, or, in some cases, their moral significance. But their calls to reclaim the personal, immediate or familiar echo the sentiments behind recent civil society-led campaigns in heritage preservation (such as “My Kampong Gelam” and the “Tiong Bahru Flea Market”, organised by the Singapore Heritage Society and the Seng Poh Residents’ Committee respectively), as well as state-led moves (such as the HDB’s recent Good Neighbours Project1) to kindle a supposedly lost kampung spirit.
Another emergent theme is trust: the importance of the state placing trust in its citizens, and vice versa. Describing it as the “oxygen of a thriving society”, Jeremy Au holds that we need to restore trust especially in “low-income and blue-collar communities”. Other authors frame trust in different terms: while Grace Sai describes the value in question as “courage” on the government’s part in allowing citizens to take greater ownership of their causes, Farah Cheah sees it as “resilience in the face of intolerance”, built on an “embracing spirit of gotong royong”. These reflections on the value of trust are, however, reined in by the same authors’ arguments that a level of caution is nonetheless necessary for Singapore’s developmental momentum. Sai, for example, acknowledges that “healthy paranoia … is the fuel for preparation and resilience”, suggesting that the country should, on balance, still tread carefully. For many of the contributors, perhaps, societal trust remains primarily a state-led, top-down quality.
Further ideas that recur throughout the book include scientific innovation, community activism, and national identity: natural themes for a technologically literate, socially engaged and cosmopolitan corps of young civic leaders. One almost wishes for a more diverse or daring range of causes (despite the public reverberations of the past year, no-one has written about the death penalty, LGBT rights, or political succession, for instance), but perhaps it is the broad similarities running through the book that render some of the contributors’ more out-of-the-box suggestions, such as on space travel, night markets and the possibility of a regional dialect (“SEAnglish”, anyone?) doubly refreshing.
STRIKING A BALANCE
The essays collected in The Birthday Book vary in terms of persuasion and persuasiveness. Less convincing pieces speak generally of “making new” as a virtue in its own right, at best skimming over specific or practical applications. For example, Philbert Gomez’s call for Singapore to “extend [its] tried-and-tested model of innovation” not only advocates a general “constellation of different new things”, but explicitly presents innovation as something Singapore already does, leaving the reader to wonder what exactly is new here. Elsewhere in the collection, Kwok Jia Chuan’s call for “A Singapore in Permanent Beta” falters on a similar note: the author’s insistence on maintaining a spirit of constant adaptation, without focusing on an area where this is not already the case, falls flat between essays which apply this argument to Singaporeans’ social networks and public uses of technology respectively.
Another virtue of the collection’s more persuasive essays is their willingness to balance opposed ideals.
However, its more successful essays are not only able to envision specific (and hence relatable) futures, but do so in sectors which escape the public eye, such as high-tech agriculture and impact investing. Two in this vein are Sheryl Foo’s proposal for using Augmented Reality to address shifting national identities, and Natalya Twohill’s advocacy for locally-grown produce as a nexus of cultural pride and economic opportunity; both sketch convincing solutions without making their newness a distracting point of interest. More ambitious pieces, such as Aaron Maniam’s argument for reconceptualising resources as “generative” rather than “scarce”, seek to reinvent specific concepts rather than issues, but are equally able to flesh out what this means for the future, both positively and negatively. “Generative” resources such as “data, networks, and relationships” — all of which appreciate rather than deteriorate with use — will encourage more public participation because we all have something to add to them, but also tend to leave an interpretation gap as our analytical capacities struggle to keep pace with the potential represented by our networks (see Aaron Maniam's fresh insights on governing generative resources here.).
Another virtue of the collection’s more persuasive essays is their willingness to balance opposed ideals. Grace Chua’s perceptive essay advocating a more flexible approach towards immigration weighs well-trodden ideals of economic growth and regional security against the demographic potential and engagement value of hyphenated citizenship. The volume often reaches for editorial balance by pairing complementary essays: for instance, Fang Eu-Lin’s call for a stronger sense of corporate responsibility in the private sector comes after, and responds to, Daniel Lim Yew Mao’s call for entrepreneurship in the public service — with both seeking a compromise between market practices and communitarian ideals. This dialogue is an important part of catalysing connections among the book’s contributors, in line with the project’s goal of laying the foundations for a broad “movement” that “thinks critically about Singapore’s next chapters”.
Contributors drawing on more conventional accounts of Singapore’s success tend to envision state-led, or at least state-guided, futures. A significant number, however, are more willing to re-think aspects of the Singapore Story, yielding more inclusive, ground-up visions.
BEYOND THE SINGAPORE STORY
Since it is the future of a national community (replete with established symbols and narratives) that is under consideration, many essays pay homage to practised tropes of Singapore’s nation-building narrative: the “pioneer generation”, for example, is lauded as “a communal mix of migrants” (Farah Cheah) that “inherited limited resources” (Daniel Lim), and triumphed “despite the odds” (Fang Eu-Lin). Contributors drawing on more conventional accounts of Singapore’s success tend to envision state-led, or at least state-guided, futures. Cassandra Pee, who begins by quoting Lee Kuan Yew’s dream of a “great metropolis”, calls for a ‘resilient government in partnership with resilient people’, while Roger Liew, citing our past use of technology to address “perennial concerns over national sovereignty … and economic sustainability”, argues that the state should step forward to support scientific innovation.
A significant number, however, are more willing to re-think aspects of the Singapore Story, consequently yielding more inclusive, ground-up visions of the future. Some, like Ervin Yeo, present a candid assessment of specific decisions made by the “pioneer generation”, pointing out for example that the choice to prioritise home ownership may have led to undue inflexibility for today’s young Singaporeans. Changing realities demand changing responses, he argues, and Singapore cannot remain closed to “inflows of people and ideas from elsewhere”. Others, like Eugene K B Tan, question the continuing relevance of an increasingly dated narrative — the Singapore Story, he states, “has little resonance for many Singaporeans, especially millennials”. A third, and perhaps most articulate group, revisit some core assertions of national history. “No one doubts the validity of the Singapore proposition”, Tong Yee writes, but:
“The suggestion that David must continue to beat Goliath, every other day of his life, is a narrative that quickly moves beyond the joy of a miracle, into either a sure act of faith or the creeping doubt that we may be living an exhausting delusion.”
Instead, he goes on to argue, Singaporeans should expand their individual capacities to give, but also invest in self-care and emotional health so as to avoid fatigue.
The facet of the Singapore Story which attracts greatest criticism in this volume is that of race. Authors such as Mohamad Saiful Md Anuar challenge the ways in which “multiculturalism in Singapore has always been paired with nationalistic pride”, arguing that this has birthed a “subtle xenophobia against foreign nationalities”. On a similar note, Saleemah Ismail highlights the insufficiency of approaches like “integration” and “tolerance” in dealing with divides of class and religion, and advocates more activist efforts at inclusion. Others point out that race has always been a problematic part of the question of a Singaporean identity. In a particularly powerful piece, Vernie Oliveiro shows how the term “Singaporean” has expanded beyond a label attached to class and whiteness — and must once again embrace various “liminal sources” of identity. These authors join the emerging ranks of public thinkers for whom discussions of race are no longer taboo. Space is being claimed to examine, in sober and informed terms, what have conventionally been seen as “out-of-bounds” issues.
The onus is on the public sector to take a leaf from those in the community who are already imagining beyond the next press conference or by-election, and develop flexible futures that will withstand and encompass short-term change.
Reconsidering a received narrative about the past, as these authors have done, can only help with reimagining a future that has thus far been largely the province of planners and politicians. As Thia Shan Zhi muses in his essay, maybe Singapore’s next big thing lies “in showing all the different versions of our story and how … they remain inextricably linked to who we are as a people”. But what do the discussions in this book mean for those among us who are planners and public leaders? The Birthday Book presents policymakers with two challenges. First, to take the sentiments and suggestions offered in good faith, as the pulse of an emerging generation of community leaders who (if they are not already) will soon be the key interlocutors for state policy directed at Singapore’s creative, manufacturing, technological, and social sectors. Even if the dreams here are not turned directly into policy, they must be seen as opportunities for engagement on the issues raised by the author to begin. Secondly, and more broadly, as accelerating news cycles and the pressures of social media increasingly define political engagement in Singapore, the onus is on the public sector to take a leaf from those in the community who are already imagining beyond the next press conference or by-election, and develop flexible futures that will withstand and encompass short-term change.
One of the most life-changing aspects of growing up must be learning the truth about oneself: self-reflexivity and circumspection are crucial marks of maturity for individuals and communities alike. Amidst the fireworks and speeches, any birthday marked by the gift of an ambitious, truth-telling book like this one is certainly worth celebrating.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theophilus Kwek is currently reading for a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. He has served as Co-Editor of the Journal of Politics and Constitutional Studies, Publications Director of OxPolicy, Vice-President of the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group, and helped to organize the Southeast Asian Studies Symposium 2016 as well as the Oxford Forum for International Development 2015.