School textbooks pin 1819 as the pivotal year of Singapore’s founding. Yet, archaeological excavations conducted around the island uncovered artefacts dating as far back as the 13th century (Paulo, 2019). This indicates that Singapore possessed a history which runs contrary to the dominant narrative of Stamford Raffles establishing the island as a British trading post and his recognition as the founder of modern Singapore.
However, history was shaped again in 1965 when Singapore gained sudden independence. The narrative shifted to one of survival and struggle, away from the colonialism of the British empire. Against the backdrop of nations and states with rich heritage and histories, Singapore was unlike any other; It was not a nation of people with common history, language, ancestry and culture but one consisting of migrants that came from faraway lands instead (Tan, 2019). Singapore was also not a sovereign state with a government that already controlled a clearly defined geographic area; It separated from Malaysia and declared independence on land that its citizens already stood on.
Thus, Singapore was a secondary nation-state. Its circumstances necessitated the actions from a dynamic government led by an astute leader in the form of Lee Kuan Yew.
The Unnatural Birth of a Nation-State
Recognising the dire situation, Prime Minister Lee and the government sought to galvanise its people to turn a newly minted country into a home worth living and fighting for (Ortmann, 2009). At the same time, the government had to develop a nation from scratch just as it also worked to build a functioning state through the formation of institutions to govern the people. Hence, nation and state building had to progress in parallel. While textbooks hawk a narrative of Raffles as the founder of Singapore, many Singaporeans recognise Lee Kuan Yew as the instrumental figure in Singapore’s modernisation instead. Across forums, journals and various platforms, debates rage over timelines, dates, historical documentation, facts and importantly, myths.
The Singapore government strategically wields myths as national narratives to drive nation and state building efforts. One such myth paints Singapore as being surrounded by non-Chinese states in a predominantly Chinese Singapore (Ortmann, 2019). With potential threats everywhere and the lives of citizens at stake, the Singapore government seized the opportunity to impress upon the citizens that the government was key to the nation’s survival. Survival necessitated the formation of National Service which served to deter threats and build up a sizeable defence force in Singapore while bonding its male citizens through common, shared experiences.
Another myth touts Singapore as lacking natural resources while only having people as its main economic drivers on a mere island. These factors combined and presented unique challenges to its inhabitants. Thus, the government had to push national myths to get Singaporeans to rise above these challenges, all to assert itself on the regional and global stage. Its citizens recognised the legitimacy of the government, worked together and readily turned the island into a flourishing metropolis. In effect, it also allowed the government to anchor itself firmly into social institutions while uniting its citizens against common threats.
These myths steered Singaporeans and its development from 1965 to modern times. Yet, citizens must recognise that the island is but a secondary nation-state still in search of an identity. Without a rich buttress of culture and history filled with shared stories and struggles, Singapore had to carve its identity from nothing. As it turns out, this city-state embodied traits that secured its relevance even till today.
Diversity as Key Trait
Professor Tan (2019) asserts that diversity is now “a key characteristic and strength”. While a pre-1965 Singapore saw the clear demarcation between different races, ethnicities and languages leading to potential social conflicts, a post-independence Singapore government continually reconstructs a fluid Singaporean identity while trumpeting the strengths of a nation that boasted rich diversity in its people, culture and history of a migrant society of past generations.
The government had to balance a recognition for diverse perspectives with nation building efforts that called for the construction of a common identity that Singaporeans could latch on to. A key nation building strategy was the establishment of English as a common language (Lee, 2014). That cut down communication barriers between the different races and ethnicities, while angling Singapore as a friendly society to the western superpowers.
The government also had to factor a majority Chinese population into its nation and state building efforts (Tan, 2003). Despite the Chinese as a majority ethnic group, the government had to balance a drive for the dominant race to weave itself into the national discourse while preventing a single racial narrative from taking hold. This, it did by recognising a multiracial and multicultural society along with the establishment of institutions caring for each ethnic group.
A Flexible Nation-State
Through decades of nation and state building, Singapore can claim the legitimate title of nation-state while boasting of a fluid identity. Furthermore, the Singapore of today can also morph from a nation-state to a “brand state”, breaking free of traditional notions of nation and state (Tan, 2003).
Though Professor Tan (2019) attributes Singapore’s diversity as a key trait, the nation-state must stand ever ready to change its perception and go with the times. Singapore can tap onto the diversity, culture and history offered by the dominant Chinese ethnic group and transform itself into a hub for China in recognition of the “ascendancy of China”. Though Singapore’s historical roots go way back, it must nonetheless carry on sinking new roots with the goal of staying nimble and relevant on the world stage.
The modern nation-state building thus necessitates that Singaporeans accept that their identities go hand in hand with that of a cosmopolitan and a heartlander, a nation of diverse races and ethnicities, yet united as one Singaporean with a shared diversity owing to their migrant forefathers. Hence, a Singaporean identity is one that adapts to ever changing environments with ties to a rich past.
Lee, K. Y. (2014). The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions
Ortmann, S. (2009), Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 28(4), 23-46. Retrieved from https://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/giga/jsaa/article/view/169/169.html
Paulo, D. A. (2019, February 3). In search of the real Singapore stories, beyond Raffles. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/search-real-singapore-story-beyond-stamford-raffles-bicentennial-11199116
Tan, E. K. B. (2003, September). Re-Engaging Chineseness: Political, Economic and Cultural Imperatives of Nation-Building in Singapore. China Quarterly, 175, 751-774. Retrieved from https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1864&context=sol_research
Tan, T. Y. (2019, March 8). ‘Cosmolanders’ and Singapore’s dual personality. Institute of Policy Studies. Retrieved from https://www.ipscommons.sg/cosmolanders-and-singapores-dual-personality/