Onwards, Singapore

Natalie TaiSeptember 12, 2022CitizenshipInterfaith Connections

Artwork by Andrea Huang, age 17

Bare feet digging into the earth, I could feel the dampness of the soil clawed between my toes as I gripped the last bit of solid ground.

Then there was a gentle quake, a rumble, then a merciless crack down the middle. I watched as my feet parted with the earth, the gushing Pacific waters roaring between my numbed legs, callously reaching for every last corner where only echoes of one remain.

Now I stood with one foot each on a separate island, my two feet still trembling as I steadied myself on the ground beneath. Raising a foot meant plunging into freezing waters. I could not pick a side, for both islands grounded me home.

I was one year old when I first moved to Taiwan. Gripping with fat fingers that bright red passport engraved in gold, a banner reading “Majulah Singapura” (“Onwards Singapore”), this was where my story started, my adventures as a Singaporean expat in Taiwan. But what did it mean to be Singaporean? The looming question of who I was, of where that fine line between my legal identity-tag and my true identity stood, continued to oscillate in the walls of my mind. It would be too bold to claim I was a Singaporean, yet even more bold would I be to beg Taiwan to take me as one of their own. I looked down at the waters between my feet, sensing the stinging soreness of my legs as they trembled as I tried not to lose my balance. I wanted to pick a side, to be a part of something greater, to become one of those around me, and so I shifted my center of gravity towards my Taiwan, slowly letting go of my blood-bound home.

At 10 years old, that bright red passport began collecting dust. In spite of my growing sense of indifference towards my given identity, it wasn’t something I tried to hide or pretend wasn’t mine. But as time went by, my citizenship slowly became nothing more than just a “return to” column on an ID card, a library stamp on a borrowed book, or a sharpeed phone number on the sweaty palms of a 4-year-old child. Saying I was Singaporean was like prefacing a conversion saying, “if found, please return to Singapore”. For the first time, I wasn’t lost. I was content with what life was in Taiwan. Roti Pratas at the local Kopitiam became Danbing Yotiao at the corner breakfast shop. Ice cream sandwich “Ahngkuhs” became daylight market “Ahyis” stuffing a freebie bouquet of cilantro into my shopping cart. From friends to food, I loved how it felt to be disguised among a crowd of Taiwanese locals, to feel like I belonged somewhere, to be accepted and held as “part of us”. But I began to forget who I really was. Perhaps being split down the middle, being a little bit of both, being unsure of who I was, is all a part of me.

At 15 years old, I finally dug through the attic, scavenging through red and white linen, crescent moons and the five-pointed stars of the Singaporean flag. As I reached the last pile of patriotic goodies, there lay the red booklet still, my Singaporean passport. Just as I thought I had found who I really was, I saw the little booklet in my hands, weathered gold leaving only a faint depression of a banner, reading what was left of a pledge, “Maj l h S ng pu a”. The letters, barely legible, sunk into the tainted cover curled up with time, speaking of a promise of progress now barely visible. Could this be what Singapore really is? A nation speaking of onwards, justice, and equality yet showing nothing true to those words in reality?

I looked back at the shores of the Lion City in search of an answer, in search of where that fight for onward progress stood. From the shores of Taipei, I searched across the Pacific waters for the signs of promises fulfilled, for actions that spoke the same Majulah Singapura as I had heard in pledges and anthems. But then I saw nothing, nothing of progress, nothing of justice or equality. Under the heavy shackles of political and social conservatism preventingSingaporeans from speaking freely against injustice, to protest for their rights, I saw the indignance of activists, the desperation of the marginalized, muted as the weight of government censorship and deterrence stood firmly above. I saw a Singapore afraid of its own people, a country unwilling to move forward with equal rights for its citizens as the world passes it by. Maybe this is what Singapore really is. Maybe this is who I am.

Yet just as I was about to draw a conclusion, that Majulah Singapura stood as empty as the fallen gilt on my little red booklet, I shifted my focus and found what truly mattered, something more than any injustice or inequality. I saw the Singaporean people, bound not by gender, race, or religion but by their shared vision of the Singaporean dream, their fight for faith, for love, for life. I watched Singaporeans from all walks of life raise their voices against the country’s capital punishments, against homophobia, against the epidemic of mental illness consuming Singapore’s youth. Standing face to face with political censorship and government oppression, Singaporeans were fighting for what they’ve been promised for so long, for what was written on their same red booklet, Majulah Singapura.

So what really is Singapore and what does it mean to be Singaporean? I brushed my fingers across the little red booklet, caressing the faint depression of where words once stood. Gold paint and great spirit, I layered on what was to stay forever, Majulah Singapura, Onwards Singapore. Onwards to a nation where its people defined who I was: bold and bright like the banner stood. To be courageous, to be indignant, to be a truth-seeker. At last, I found my place, my identity as a Singaporean.

Natalie is a young social issues blogger and an aspiring writer who works in and out of school to polish her craft. She is also an editor for her school's newspaper and a writer for her school magazine.