What does it mean to be Singaporean? How can the people of Singapore come together and stand united for their country? Is there a word, a belief that unites all Singaporeans?
A new 'social movement', We Are Majulah, believes there is.
Spearheaded by former radio deejay and television personality Divian Nair, the campaign references long-standing ideals – such as "liberté, égalité, fraternité" in France and "freedom" in the United States – that are recognisably associated with particular nations, Nair calls on all Singaporeans to rally to one word that all Singaporeans can live by: MAJULAH.
"I hope one day when I'm at a coffee shop, I can just say 'majulah' to a coffeeshop uncle while ordering a coffee, and he will reply in kind," he told the press.
It's a strange campaign. Apart from the grammatical disaster that is "We Are Majulah" – what the heck does "We Are Onward" mean? – the message is vague. The campaign wants people to "come together", but for what purpose?
It is not the first time that someone has called for Singaporeans to come forward and commit themselves to some 'national identity'. In his video, Nair references the shared beliefs of France and the US – he presumably feels that they are countries that, unlike Singapore, have national identities.
But what is a 'national identity'? How can we ever assume the existence of one thing, one set of ideals or beliefs, that everyone subscribes to, even if they come from the same country?
Does Nair really believe that citizens of a country like the US all subscribe to one unifying concept? At a time of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, of anti-racism rallies and protests held by black students across the country and of rants by presidential candidates about building walls on the Mexican border, can anyone really be naive enough to believe that Americans are as one in their belief in freedom?
There are things that many Americans might identify with. There are experiences that many Americans might share. But at the end of the day every American will have his or her own idea of what it means to be an American, based on his or her own experiences. There is nothing wrong with that, and Singapore is no different.
Singapore is stratified, unequal and diverse. We should not erase this fact. The call to end "cynicism" is often code for putting an end to critique, questioning and skepticism, even though these three things are important parts of active engagement with society and the state. In fact, such engagement in national affairs is far more likely to foster a sense of ownership over one's country and its issues than empty platitudes in a YouTube video.
Identities are fluid, nuanced and complex. Our range of identities – influenced by gender, race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, etc. – ebb and flow as we move through time and space, and can never be pinned down as one thing or another. The organic way in which identities develop and evolve defies definition.
A 'national identity' created by a campaign is not an identity. It is propaganda. When you try to foster an environment in which people say 'majulah' to each other over a cup of kopi you are not creating a shared ideal, but a political slogan.
The more I think about We Are Majulah the more uncomfortable I feel. It is not apolitical; its call for unity and oneness is political in the way it erases differences in thought and experience. It replaces the need to struggle against inequality, discrimination and injustice with some amorphous form of consensus. It is less solidarity, more indoctrination. And Singaporeans don't need any more of that.