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“Merdeka.” I’ve been rolling this word around in my head for some time now, ever since I walked into the theatre last Thursday evening to watch Wild Rice’s Merdeka, and especially as I walked out after the best, most emotional, history lesson I’ve ever had.
Watching the play, and following the vast expanse of history that it covers, made me think a lot about identity and what it means to be Singaporean. It also made me think of love, and what it means to love this land—not in a patriotic National-Day-Parade way, but in a subtler, more quiet way that one feels deep in one’s bones.
Merdeka—written by Alfian Sa’at and Neo Hai Bin, directed by Glen Goei and Jo Kukuthas, and performed so beautifully by a cast of six—tells a story of Singapore that isn’t enthralled by 1819. It reminds us that Singapore’s story stretches as far back as it needs to stretch, and looks forward as far as it wants to look; the arrival of a certain Sir Stamford Raffles in a certain year is just one development in a series of developments.
Leaning against the railing of the balcony with my head on my folded arms, I watched a recounting of the invasion of Java, then a tale of brotherly conflict in the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, all the way to the rush of the Chinese middle school students’ protests in the 1950s. Every single story struck me with a strong feeling of “this is us”. The force of recognition brought tears to my eyes.
But how is it “us”? How is it “me”? I don’t know when my ancestors first came to Singapore, but I’m pretty sure it comes after the invasion of Java, and probably also after the Dutch and British jockeying for control with their meddling in the succession crisis following the death of Sultan Mahmud Shah III. Strictly speaking, my people are not of this land and were (most likely) not here during those events. How is it, then, that when I hear that portion of history retold, I feel some connection anyway?
I’m not indigenous to this land, but there’s something about my life and my own history in Singapore that has somehow tied me to those stories, leading me to acknowledge them as something intimately related to who I am as a Singaporean today. Something that I can feel, even though the gaps in my historical knowledge gape as wide as the mouth of the Marina Channel. It’s something that transcends nationality (there were no nation-states in those days anyway), ethnicity, or language.
I’m not saying that it’s become some sort of “colour-blind” history, or that I’m taking it for my own, because this history isn’t something for me to claim or appropriate. (If I ever suggest I’m like some sort of Riau-Lingga princess, please slap me.) But these histories have seeped into the land—even into the hard granite that I’m told forms the core of Singapore island—and as someone who was born and raised on this land I guess it’s got in through my pores.
It’s rooted itself in me to the point that, when I made a trip back to my ancestral village in Hainan and stood in the old family home surrounded by direct and traceable family history, all I felt was even more Singaporean.
And, at the end of the day, that’s just it: I’m a Singaporean. When I say this, I don’t mean that I’m a Singaporean citizen/passport holder, although I am also those things. My Singaporeanness is more than pink ICs and little red booklets. My Merdeka is about more than a Proclamation of Independence and Lee Kuan Yew’s tears. My Merdeka is about sovereignty of self, not of state.
This is home, and “home” doesn’t care where the human-drawn borders lie. My Singaporeanness endures within and without borders, and, if push comes to shove, will outlast and outlive them all.
When people ask me why I do what I do, why I bother with all this in Singapore when it’s unwanted, unappreciated, unsafe, this is the part of the answer that I find most difficult to articulate. To say “because I love Singapore” seems trite, and I know it’ll be misunderstood to mean something like patriotism, which I feel flattens and cheapens what I actually mean.
What I actually mean is that I am of this land, and of the people who call it home. And if I don’t do what I believe in, on the land I feel connected to, with and for the people I live alongside… then why should anyone else?
Have you seen the play too? Do you have thoughts about identity, belonging, history? Add your thoughts in the comments below!
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