Singapore is the world’s best country for children to grow up in - at least according to Save the Children, scoring a whopping 987 points out of a possible 1,000 on the report’s End of Childhood Index. But let’s face it, as a kid growing up in sunny Singapore, it can be tough to see that. After all, having the lowest child mortality rates, or the lowest child labour rates means nothing to a child who has it all.
Privileged as that might sound, the reality is that as much as Singapore has progressed in the past 50 years of history, it is still a tiny red dot among a sea of powers magnitudes greater than our own. For young children hoping to one day strike it out as the next Scarlett Johansson or the next Harry Styles, it can feel claustrophobic, suffocating even, to live in a country as clear-cut and cut-throat as Singapore.
To put it simply, we continue to look beyond, forgetting what we possess in favour of envying the West. The Hollywood movie glam, the newfound craze for Western Youtube creators, even the soccer scene at Anfield Stadium and the music and theatre scene on Broadway and West End - it seems a small country like our own can never hope to achieve that.
And this reality is reflected in the news, with more and more Singaporeans leaving home (nearly 60 percent between the ages of 19 and 30 believe emigration to be inevitable, according to a 2016 survey), apparently to seek out the so-called glories and grandeur of the world outside.
But April showers bring May flowers - or so they say.
In the past few years of Singapore history, things have begun to change. The memories of victories on the soccer field with local football legends like Fandi Ahmad have been elevated to the Olympics and Paralympics, the spirit of the Singapore Lions carried forward on the backs of our newfound sporting superstars Joseph Schooling, Cheyenne Goh and Yip Pin Xiu, among a multitude of others. They have taken their competition by storm, bringing home an Olympic gold medal for the first time in Singapore history and pride to every Singaporean.
The local music scene has also begun to blossom, with The Sam Willows and Gentle Bones becoming almost like household names. What was once relegated simply as niche and indie, too local for public consumption, is beginning to gain recognition, gripping the public conscience and creating a new market for young talents like Jasmine Sokko and Amateur Takes Control to flourish.
Nathan Hartono’s stint on Sing! China has also blew open the doors for Singaporean talent to move beyond, and Singapore has caught on. The recent SPOP! Mandarin Singing competition was a clear push to revive the old Xinyao, “Singapore Song” in Mandarin, movement of the late 1970s to 1980s, when Singaporean musicians and songwriters were pumping out hit after hit. Stars born from that era, like Eric Moo and JJ Lin went on to become illustrious musicians, while others like Wong Hong Mok and Liang Wern Fook have established themselves as accomplished songwriters, both overseas and Singapore.
On the movie end of things, Singapore isn’t lagging behind either, as the unique, nostalgia-generating stylings of Singaporean filmmakers are finally being noticed. Anthony Chen’s debut piece “Ilo Ilo” came out in 2013 and told the story of a mother’s jealousy over her son’s tight relationship with their domestic helper - and won the Caméra d'Or award at Cannes, marking the first time a Singaporean film ever received a Cannes award. A new Netflix special docu-movie has also entered the Singapore TV and movie lore, as filmmaker Sandi Tan got intimate with her childhood in Singapore, portraying a strange yet homely Singapore.
This recent advance isn’t limited to more broad-appeal niches like music and sports either, as other areas of life in Singapore are getting the same kind of treatment. The biggest one yet has been Masterchef Singapore which brought together dozens of home-grown cooks from a spectrum of backgrounds. To see trucker-cap-toting Aaron Wong create high class, tuile-filled wonders, runner-up Genevieve Lee and champion Zander Ng brew unique Western-Singaporean fusion masterpieces, even seeing Curry-master Diana create Singapore comfort food as we all know and love - our diversity and talent as a country was showcased in perhaps the best way possible - through our food.
But let’s face it.
For every mouth-watering course the Masterchef Singapore competitors created, came a painstakingly clear reminder. We are still nowhere near any of the American cast of Masterchef. Even the worst Masterchef Junior contestant could probably give our best a run for their money. This applies to everything, too - every success we make, from the Olympics to the Cannes, is followed by a full trough of devastating failure. It’s disheartening to see, that no matter our progress on the world stage, we continue to occupy a fantasy “Crazy Rich Asian” land, relegated to simple Asian stereotype and idealised cliche.
Regardless, the attitude that we take toward our own successes, is perhaps, the success itself, even if it does sound like an antiquated and kind of cheesy idea. When we look at our own triumphs with careful hope rather than critical despair, with driven ambition rather than hapless surrender, only then can we rid ourselves of this deep-set disquiet that hangs at the back of our head and banishes us to our respective office cubicle. So stop giving yourself that excuse - that “Singapore’s population is too small for that one in a million talent to be born here”, that we as Singaporeans “only know how to study”, or that Singaporeans just don’t care about these things. We have to start looking away from our favourite American heroes and European superstars. Because only then, can our eyes finally focus on what our grand lion city can offer, small as it may be.
So the next time you meet someone who has never been to Singapore, don’t tell them we are merely a “fine city”, or that we are a “clean and green country”, or even that our cars cost more than their bungalows. Tell them instead that we are a community of diverse individuals, each with our own story to tell, our own dreams to live, and our own legacies to leave. We are, contrary to belief, a people of passion, not bound by our symmetrical glass and concrete surroundings. We are, in a phrase, breaking free - from our labeled boxes and from the heavy expectations of a fiercely meritocratic society. We are taking our first steps, and we’ll get there - we’ll get there one day.