Study delves into defin­ing mo­ments for S’pore­ans

In first wave of re­search, IPS So­cial Lab looks at how 35 events shaped so­cial per­cep­tions

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Melody Zac­cheus Her­itage and Com­mu­nity Correspondent

It oc­curred more than 20 years ago and gen­er­ated an avalanche of me­dia cov­er­age – of­ten hos­tile – yet it is seen now as a his­tor­i­cally defin­ing mo­ment for Sin­ga­pore­ans.

In 1994, Amer­i­can Michael Fay, then 18 years old, was given a sen­tence for van­dal­ism which in­cluded can­ing.

Sin­ga­pore faced in­tense pres­sure but de­spite then US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s clemency ap­peal, Fay was still given four strokes.

A team from the In­sti­tute of Pol­icy Stud­ies’ (IPS) So­cial Lab found that the in­ci­dent was one of sev­eral his­tor­i­cal events which shaped Sin­ga­pore­ans’ shared mem­o­ries of how crises were over­come as a na­tion.

Th­ese find­ings are de­tailed in the re­port “Nar­ra­tives of our past: Tak­ing a jour­ney through his­tory for col­lec­tive well-be­ing”, which was pub­lished in the Asian Jour­nal of So­cial Psy­chol­ogy in July.

Speak­ing to The Straits Times about the Michael Fay in­ci­dent and the study, Dr Leong Chan-Hoong head of the So­cial Lab, said: “It was a case where a small coun­try stood up to say, I don’t care what you think. Van­dal­ism is a crime here and you have to com­ply with our laws.

“The in­ci­dent shaped our at­ti­tudes – that we would not bend back­wards to com­pro­mise our so­cial val­ues and norms, even for a su­per­power like Amer­ica.”

The study is the first wave of re-

search by the IPS So­cial Lab as it at­tempts to un­pack the var­i­ous el­e­ments that con­sti­tute the Sin­ga­porean iden­tity and the her­itage of a na­tion.

Us­ing a sam­ple of 1,516 Sin­ga­pore cit­i­zens, the study ex­am­ined the im­pact of 35 his­tor­i­cal events and how they shaped so­cial per­cep­tions.

Re­searchers found that other his­tor­i­cal events, such as the col­lapse of Ho­tel New World in 1986 and the Sen­tosa ca­ble car ac­ci­dent in 1983, were crit­i­cal in the dis­course of na­tional re­silience and iden­tity.

The team be­hind the study, which in­cludes re­searchers Elaine Ho Qiaoy­ing and Var­ian Lim, said th­ese in­ci­dents en­cap­su­late the col­lec­tive sen­ti­ments ex­pe­ri­enced at the na­tional level.

They also cap­ture the mo­ments where Sin­ga­pore­ans “closed ranks and mourned”, or stood firm and es­tab­lished a moral com­pass and at­ti­tudes as a na­tion.

Ms Ho said she be­lieves the study is im­por­tant – “to in­crease aware­ness of past events and add di­men­sions to the ex­ist­ing nar­ra­tive”.

Re­spon­dents in­di­cated that they were also proud of na­tion-build­ing events, such as when the Na­tional An­them was com­posed in 1958, the for­ma­tion of the Hous­ing and De­vel­op­ment Board in 1960 and the open­ing of Changi Air­port in 1981.

But they felt less op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture. This, the re­searchers said, may be be­cause Sin­ga­pore­ans feel the coun­try has “peaked”.

Dr Leong said: “The nar­ra­tive has al­ways been about Sin­ga­pore’s ex­cep­tion­al­ism as the way for­ward – pro­pel­ling the coun­try from Third World to First World be­cause of ex­cep­tional lead­er­ship and ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances.

“But that form of ex­cep­tion­al­ism is not sus­tain­able for the next 20 years. The re­sults sug­gest that hing­ing on the na­tion-build­ing narra- tive alone will not up­lift con­fi­dence for the fu­ture.

“We have to think be­yond that and un­der­stand what mat­ters to peo­ple to engender greater hope and op­ti­mism for the next stage of de­vel­op­ment.”

He said the find­ings, among other things, can help bet­ter in­form the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum by broad­en­ing the Sin­ga­pore story to go be­yond the coun­try’s na­tion­build­ing ef­forts, rosy milestones and for­ma­tive poli­cies of yes­ter­year.

Dr Leong said that through its work, the So­cial Lab hopes to spur a deeper con­ver­sa­tion on the sub­ject of iden­tity and her­itage as the coun­try stands at the cross­roads of glob­al­i­sa­tion, while fac­ing a slew of geopo­lit­i­cal pres­sures.

Apart from the study of his­tor­i­cal events, the So­cial Lab is also look­ing into three other as­pects of iden­tity – built her­itage, his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and Na­tional Day Rally speeches.

It is in the midst of study­ing the role of land­mark build­ings to un­der­stand or­di­nary cit­i­zens’ views to­wards Sin­ga­pore’s built land­scape.

The full re­sults, fea­tur­ing the re­sponses of 1,500 Sin­ga­pore­ans, will be pub­lished by the first half of next year.

In ad­di­tion, Dr Leong said he plans to con­duct a study on Sin­ga­pore­ans’ per­cep­tion of lo­cal his­tor­i­cal fig­ures by the sec­ond half of next year. He said that apart from Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the So­cial Lab hopes to glean in­sight into who else peo­ple are aware of. He said: “Are they fa­mil­iar with Tan Lark Sye, who con­trib­uted to the ed­u­ca­tion scene, war hero El­iz­a­beth Choy or the first pres­i­dent Yu­sof Ishak?

“Th­ese per­son­al­i­ties can help us un­der­stand who we are as a na­tion as their con­tri­bu­tions and val­ues per­son­ify our at­ti­tudes and be­liefs.”

Mean­while, the team is in the midst of study­ing 52 years worth of Na­tional Day Rally speeches, from 1965 to 2016.

This project aims to un­cover, among other things, var­i­ous is­sues the city-state has grap­pled with. The study, to be com­pleted by the year end, can po­ten­tially iden­tify blind spots in lo­cal poli­cies, said Dr Leong.

He said: “Like Amer­ica’s State of the Union ad­dress, the Na­tional Day Rally speeches cap­ture the na­tional fo­cus for the year. We want to trace the var­i­ous top­ics dis­cussed and how they have shaped Sin­ga­pore­ans’ sense of iden­tity.”

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