I had the privilege today to be invited to deliver the Opening Remarks at the National Museum of Singapore’s international Symposium, ENCOUNTERS & CONNECTED HISTORIES: PRELUDE TO 1819, which the museum has organised in support of its new special exhibition, AN OLD NEW WORLD: FROM THE EAST INDIES TO THE FOUNDING OF SINGAPORE, 1600s – 1919.
The exhibition is excellent, and so was the symposium today. I took the opportunity to very playfully describe Singapore as the “navel of the world”, using this analogy as a way to explain how we push far beyond our weight in terms of our relevance to the world today – a world torn apart by “US vs THEM” ideologies.
I also gently warned of the dangers of too much essentialist navel-gazing, and expressed my support for the Bicentennial values of Open-ness, Multi-culturalism and Self-Determinism, which I whole-heartedly agree with, as the values that have kept us the neutral, safe, stable, thoroughly unique place that we are in the world today.
Anyways, here is my speech in full:
“Good morning everyone, welcome to the National Museum of Singapore.
It is such a privilege to be here with the greatest minds in the space of Singapore, regional and maritime history. It’s also a pleasure to see so many familiar faces, particular my fellow museum colleagues!
In fact, I’d like to start off by asking all of you to join me in congratulating National Museum of Singapore for the successful launch of the An Old New World – From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600s – 1819. Very hard work on the part of my colleagues at the National Museum!!
I’ve always been fascinated by the sea. As a child, my parents would take me to Changi Beach. And there on the sand I would stare out into the distance, at the many container ships bringing goods here from all over the world, and I’d think – “Take me far away from here! I want to see the world! Singapore is so small and so boring!”
I have since seen a lot of the world, and the further I’ve gone the more I’ve felt that Singapore is not small or boring at all.
In fact, the more I travel the more I’ve become obsessed with the question of WHO I AM. What does it mean to be Singaporean? What does it mean to be Singapore?
Because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we’re very very strange. Here I am, ethnically Chinese, dressed in batik, speaking to you in a European tongue – English. And the one thing I can’t do without in my life is… sambal.
What’s wrong with me? Why am I so strange? What’s the deal?
In the last few years I’ve been very privileged to have the chance of exploring this question of Singaporean identity, through my own personal writing, as well as at the museum; and from both an “inside-out”, as well as an “outside-in” perspective.
By “inside-out” I mean a deep-dive, somewhat more essentialist exploration of the history and heritage of Singapore as circumscribed by the physical boundaries of our island.
By “outside-in”, I mean exploring Singaporean history and heritage in the context of the region and the world, and acknowledging that Singapore comes from a long line of cosmopolitan, east-west port cities going back to Canton in the 9th century, Venice in the 14th century, and more recently in the 18th and 19th centuries, Batavia, Manila, Calcutta, Hong Kong.
We regard ourselves fondly as a “little red dot.”
I like to think of Singapore as a navel, as in the belly button.
This is because it sits literally at the centre of the region geographically and at the centre of the globe, logistically, in terms of it being a crossroads of goods, peoples, cultures and ideas.
The navel is also one of those things for which you question the USE: I mean, what is the use of the navel?
In the same way, Singapore is always pragmatically questioning its own relevance, or USE to itself, to the region, to the world.
ALSO, if you think of the navel as being a harmless, neutral little dot in the midst of the chaos of the body, then you see that Singapore is similarly also this neutral, safe, stable place in the midst of the US vs THEM chaos that is imploding in the rest of the world right now.
In the last couple of years we’ve been engaging in some serious navel-gazing here in Singapore.
2015, also known as SG50, allowed us to reflect on ourselves, gaze inwards and deep dive, in an essentialist manner, into the history and heritage of the island, often in isolation of anything else.
I participated in this navel-gazing too through a book I wrote on heritage.
But too much essentialist navel-gazing, especially when we are gazing at the navel of a navel, is risky because we could become the proverbial frog in the well – we could forget that we have always been and continue to be connected to the larger region and to the world.
Too much essentialist navel-gazing could also be risky because this form of navel-gazing fuels a sort of US vs THEM attitude, where, because we are fundamentally a cosmopolitan, global, open, port city, it should never be about “us versus them” here. Here, it should always only be about “us”.
And so I am thankful for the Bicentennial, because it has allowed us to make an adjustment to this navel-gazing. It had allowed us not only to navel-gaze, but to also gaze from the navel out.
The bicentennial has allowed for a multiplicity of histories — the regional history of Singapore, global history of Singapore, maritime history, natural history, art history. This is great!
And I must say that I firmly believe in the three values espoused by the Bicentennial – Openness, multicultural, self-determination, meaning the fact that we are our own independent nation able to make decisions for ourselves. This is because I truly believe these values have made us who we are today — a neutral, navel-like point of stability and safety in a world that seems to have gone haywire.
But back to the question of Singapore Identity…
The upshot of the last few years of searching for an answer to the question of Singapore Identity, is that I realised there is no answer to the question.
Identity is not something that is set in stone. It shifts with the times and it shifts as the fabric of society itself shifts.
Identity is a process, a journey, a conversation – just like the conversation we will have today. It is dynamic and inclusive – and at least for us it is global, it is maritime, it is multi-cultural.
The last thing it is, is small and boring.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you have a wonderful discussion today and tomorrow.
Thank you so very much.”