Finding God, and happiness, in this secular space


There was a moment about a month ago when I felt truly happy to have been born here, this tiny island crammed to the gills with people of all colours, high-rise buildings, construction sites, speeding supercars and creeping train carriages, status updates and tweets, angry Merlion-esque commuters, angrier Special Forces commandos in public libraries, floods, viral videos, online petitions and movements.

I’m sorry to have to add another essay into this complicated, crowded mess, but being a happy Singaporean doesn’t happen often for me, so I think it’s worth documenting. In fact a recent survey shows it doesn’t happen often for many Singaporeans. And we don’t know why.

Or maybe we do, but all the signs and studies show that being happy has little to do with being rich. In fact it appears that if you already have your basic needs met, striving hard to make more and more money won’t make you much happier. Sure, you’ll get to buy more fancy stuff, watch European football without having to resort to a pirated set-top box and go on more exotic holidays, but after the initial euphoria none of these possessions and experiences will make you feel any better.

Our Singaporean brains get a cognitive equivalent of a 404 error just trying to comprehend this phenomenon. Cognitive dissonance, if you’ve majored in Psychology (a pretty good thing I’d reckon for one’s career, judging from the number of loons living among us).

Watching Ilo Ilo

Anyway, this moment of bliss happened after I left the cinema at Tiong Bahru Plaza, having watched Ilo Ilo, that Singaporean film that won the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2013 . If you’ve not watched the film you should (although you probably have to wait for the DVD since it’s no longer screened).

The film tells the struggles faced by a middle-class Chinese Singaporean family amidst the 1997 financial crisis, and the bond each member of the family develops with their good-natured Filipino maid, who isn’t exactly having a rollicking time herself.

A scene from the movie Ilo Ilo.

A scene from the movie Ilo Ilo.

But back to this transitory ecstasy I was experiencing. I guess anybody who’s ever been to the movies knows that feel-good, carefree feeling you leave the cinema with. But as I walked out of GV Tiong Bahru Plaza I knew this wasn’t it. I was in a state of joy because for once I had watched a Singaporean film that was honest without being tacky. It pointed out the ludicrousness of the kiasi, win-at-all-costs mentality. That same mentality that besieges us into this state of unhappiness, and causes us to sometimes besiege others to do the same.

I was also feeling happy because the film managed to evoke all these memories I had growing up: bullying the maid while my mother worked, playing the capteh and cycling, and being a general nuisance around the house and neighbourhood (I’d elaborate but it would be embarrassing).

But most of all, I felt happy because I saw two things upon exiting the cinema. I saw three Primary School boys, a Malay, a Chinese and an Indian. They were having a bit of a banter, though I couldn’t make out what, and it seemed like they didn’t have a care in the world (were the exams over?). They could have so easily been mistaken as brothers, if only the colours of their skins weren’t so obvious.

I saw two girls from a madrasah, complete with the hijab that formed part of their uniform, window-shopping. They looked like they were about fifteen, milling around, wide smiles on their faces, perhaps not much different from other fifteen-year-old girls let loose in a shopping mall. I wondered if they were aware of the rising tide of discontent amongst many in the Muslim community with regards to the hijab issue, unresolved after many years of lobbying.

Singaporean & Muslim

Singaporean & Muslim

The film, the memories it evoked, the boys and girls I saw outside the cinema made me feel happy to be Singaporean. But what does being Singaporean mean, really? In this instance I suppose one could say being Singaporean means having been born here, and having spent much of one’s life here. To be specific this was the Singaporean identity manifesting itself, not citizenship. Citizenship can be ‘bought’, not so identity.

The Singaporean Identity, Secular Space

But while the word identity might bring about connotations of individuality, the Singaporean identity is a shared one. Whatever racial group you belong to or whatever religion you profess, there are clear elements of this Singaporean identity that we all (usually) agree upon. Some of them are a respect for law and order, a confidence in speaking English, a penchant for efficiency and an inclination to work hard for one’s goals. I think we are also compassionate people, judging from how quickly we open our wallets for donations, to how we all collectively grieve when tragedy strikes.

Being Singaporean also means being mindful of the religious practices and customs of other Singaporeans. While it is true that we are a secular state, the reality is that many people who live here believe in a higher power and subscribe to some form of religion. We have churches, mosques and temples all over the island. When army officers are commissioned, leaders from the various religious groups are present to ‘bless’ the parade and the graduating contingent. Our public education system allows for Catholic schools to educate boys and girls of all faiths.

So when fellow Singaporeans say that concessions to allow the hijab in schools and workplaces will trample upon our country’s secular space, I can’t help but feel puzzled. Perhaps there are differing views on what secular means. Secular is typically defined as being “not connected to spiritual or religious” matters. A secular space, or state, is one that is neutral in its stance towards all religions.

A secular space to me is one where I do not have to feel obligated to participate in a religious event or ritual. It’s one where I don’t have to live in constant fear of being preached to, or pressured to convert. Off the top of my head, the workplace would be an example of such a secular space, especially if it came under the ambit of the government.

Ironically, a secular space is also one that frees people from being discriminated upon because of their religion, given its neutrality towards all religions. Imagine if a Muslim teacher decided to be unnecessarily harsh in punishing a student, simply because he or she was non-Muslim. Surely we can think of many other examples where having this secular space benefits everybody.

But does being secular denote being anti-religion? Do we then remove all traces of belief in God from the secular space? Do I rip off my colleague’s cross hanging from her neck, or remove her Buddha statue from her desk, or ask her to wash away the bindi on her forehead, to restore the tainted secularity of this space? Let me ask again, does being secular denote being anti-religion?

I apologise if anybody is offended by the extreme examples that I employ, but I worry that the Singaporean identity is not what it once was. Where once we use to stand up for one another, regardless of race, language or religion, today we cower behind the walls we have erected around us. These walls were not erected from the strength of our faiths or from rising religiosity, but from the hatred that has poisoned our hearts. A hatred borne from ignorance. From not bothering to be mindful of other religious customs, of not wanting to know more about those who have different skin colours from us. From not knowing the difference between a ‘religious symbol’ and a ‘religious obligation’ (hint: the hijab is one but not the other).

That’s what I loved about Ilo Ilo. It allowed me to be a little less ignorant about the Chinese in Singapore. Sure, I suppose when they are the majority race here it’s difficult not to know what they are like: their social behaviour, cultural leanings, beliefs, attitudes etc. But to be frank, despite being a minority, I can also be guilty of insularity. And while I laughed at all the cheena idiosyncrasies the film pointed out, at the end I remember feeling a sense of connection with the Chinese family. I saw them as fellow members of this home we share, trudging through life, no different from me.

What Will You Defend?

I’ll end with the Total Defence theme from a few years ago. The question that unleashed irrepressible cynicism among NS men, and a host of sarcastic answers. “What will you defend?” Of course the correct answer is only one. We will defend Singapore. Nay, we ourselves must defend Singapore.

I think about this question every time I put on my army green and report in-camp for reservist. I try to imagine the kind of Singapore I would die defending. I imagine it’s a Singapore where my wife won’t be asked to remove her hijab, for fear of disrupting social harmony. I imagine it’s a Singapore where everybody is free to practice their religion without fear of discrimination. I imagine it’s a Singapore where the men and women will speak up to prevent any injustice. I imagine it’s a Singapore where I can feel connected and heard, where my views and aspirations matter.

I imagine it’s a Singapore where I can find God, and through Him, happiness.

Sure, not every soldier will imagine Singapore to be this. But their imaginations and mine are not mutually exclusive. And together, we will defend this tiny red dot, the shared product of our imaginations. Even, if it means sacrificing our lives.

A man who died defending Singapore.

A man who died defending Singapore.