To love a country, know her story

a contribution to The Birthday Book 2017

I came back from San Francisco at 35, having left at 31 thinking it would be a permanent move. The youthful idealism had gone from my face. Sometimes we do not notice the power of something until it is missing. I did not know the concept of having roots until I moved away.

It took me years of travelling and living in a foreign place to understand what Singapore had given me. I had only seen its limits, without understanding that these limits were in place so that I can live freely. I took my privilege as a Singaporean for granted: from the red passport to having English as my first language — things I assumed were my entitlement until I witnessed the harsh reality of other people’s lives without these. My privilege as a Singaporean was what allowed me to leave her in the first place.

Coming home, I developed this inarticulable love for all things Singaporean — speaking in ‘Singlish’, our colourful hawker centres, bak chor mee, even the grouped morning exercises people do in the basketball courts of their HDB estate. I teared each time I landed at Changi. The younger me had a distaste for the shiny, air-conditioned, manufactured experiences of Singapore. The older, cynical and yet softer me now, is only beginning to understand what it took for us to have these so-called manufactured experiences. To criticise something, I have learned we need to know it first. To know something, we need to know the story behind it. Once we can truly open our hearts to a story, perhaps it is impossible not to love it or, at least, appreciate it.

“…it is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know” — source
group exercises around HDB estates

I wanted to know my country. I didn’t feel like I knew her even though I had lived here most of my life. It is akin to living with a parent our entire lives without knowing who they truly are, what they did in their youth, what made them become who they are today.

I embarked on a journey to know Singapore — through discovering her stories. Not just the stories that were told to us in school or during National Day Parades, but stories that were arguably lesser known, that reflected the true complexity and multitudes of Singapore’s dimensions. I learned of business pioneers that were hardly mentioned in our history curriculum who donated generous amounts of money to build schools; the generosity of Lee Kong Chian who donated money on the condition that the library would be free and public for all; or how the community had rallied together to build Nanyang University. I was surprised to know that Georgette Chen could have her pick of Paris or New York but chose to settle down in Singapore. I wondered why the history I learned in school left out what to me were some of the more important elements in our nation building — the work and generosity of private individuals.

How many of us take our greenery for granted? I had never seen the true beauty of the lushness of our HDB estates and public urban spaces until I started travelling to other cities. I wished I knew about the deliberate intention behind our tree-planting, the desire of our late founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew: that our commons should be beautiful and enjoyable no matter one’s socio-economic class. Ever since I read about the legacy behind our green city, I have never looked at a tree in Singapore the same way again.

top two: pictures of trees around HDB estates • bottom: omg we have tree trails in the city!

I have never been naturally patriotic. I didn’t believe I owe my loyalty by virtue of my birth — a thought that could only be borne out of political ignorance. But in exchange for this late gratitude, I have gotten a gift far more precious: falling in love with my country through truly knowing her. I wasn’t satisfied with the narrative I was told, I loved her enough to seek my own truth, to own that truth as a citizen.

Love, must be whole. It must be able to contain all the brightness and darkness that comes along with any complex living organism. It is having the courage to discover the whole truth, to truly understand the shadows, in order to fully appreciate the light.

A nation is made up of people. Her destiny is shaped by her people’s willingness to participate in it. Yet, how do we know what we are shaping and why should we be active citizens, if we do not know what is at stake? Without knowing her trials, tribulations, courage, determination — would we know what we stand to lose from our ambivalence and apathy? We have to resist temptation to simplify the narrative, to let her survival be misunderstood as a singular, linear line of progress. It is more of a complex web of interconnected lines, representative of the active participation of many individuals and organisations. We have to be able to see ourselves as part of it, to create the stories of our future.

To love a country, know her story–actively remembering the stories that had been forgotten. The question is, how? How can we go beyond the simple narrative of from a fishing village to an economic miracle? Do we put more intention into shaping the national education curriculum, or perhaps consider the more difficult, yet more rewarding, question: how do we raise a citizenry who will take it upon themselves to seek, remember, love, retell and live these stories?

How far have I come along this journey to know my country and by extension, love her? I guess the answer lies in the tearful wonder I had felt each time I uncover a story of hers, coupled with this deep-rooted desire to contemplate the difficult questions of her future.

This essay is contributed to a book containing essays by 52 authors writing on a common theme: “What should we never forget?” Read the other 51 essays by getting a copy, donate a copy to schools, or find out more @