At a media briefing held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday 16 August, Minister Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam said, "We must affirm our Singaporean identity and must protect it. (But) at the same time, let's not turn this into a xenophobic attack on foreigners in general." Right there, he used the "x" word. Hold on, mister, don't confuse nationalism with xenophobia.
Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture, "What is a Nation?", defined the nation as a "daily referendum", dependent on the will of its people to continue living together. For 46 years, regardless of race, language and religion, Singaporeans have co-existed side by side in harmony. In the course of doing so, we seen the evolution of a unique language (Singlish), customs (rush for the exit before the last curtain call), foods (curry fishhead, curry chicken, curry prawn - there's even a "Singapore-Style Curry Powder" acclaimed by World Spice Merchants in Seattle, WA). That will to continue living together can only be vitiated by external elements.
In borrowing the "melting-pot" model of the United States, we are also adopting their civic nationalism, a non-xenophobic nationalism compatible with liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights. Our nation is not based on common ethnic ancestry, which we have none, but a political entity whose core identity is multi-ethnicity. And in that core identity, a fragile nationalism has quietly blossomed. Ironically the "polarisation" of the watershed May elections may have provided the catalyst for a spur in this development.
The foreigners that have been brought into the mix hail from different origins which historically subscribed to ethnocentric protectionism or ethnocentric supremacy. Like India and China. They boast of caste systems with social stratification and social restriction, and lineages traceable to the reign of kings and emperors. Unless they are made to recognize that multi-nationality in a single state is contingent upon the equal right to express and exercise of individual identity, even by minorities, the fissures will render our young nation asunder. Today it's about curry, tomorrow burnt offerings of the Seventh Month could be the new conflagration.
Nationalism can turn nasty and reactionary, calling for a return to a national past, however brief and ethereal, and snowball into a chorus for the expulsion of foreigners. Europe seems to have forgotten valuable lessons from the 1930s when a depressed German economy ignited xenophobia which morphed into racism, hatred and the annihilation of 6 million Jews. Just think what jobs, housing and education grievances can do to us.
Since gun ownership is illegal in Singapore, it is just as well the clarion call to arms is a rattling of pots and pans, not muskets and rifles. Instead of cordite, the smell of battle will be of cumin, cardamom, cayenne pepper, coriander and turmeric. Picture Robert Duvall: "I love the smell of curry in the morning. You know - that curry smell... Smelled like... victory." Food fight! Food fight!