The Little Red Dot and the Land of the Free: Singapore and the United States

Winning Essay, Trans-Pacific Student Contest 2014

May 21, 2014

CREDIT: Michael Schneider and Adam79 (CC)

This is the winning entry in Carnegie Council's 2014 Trans-Pacific Student Contest, where we challenged American and East Asian students to collaborate on the following topic:

"What are shared or different values between your and your contest partner’s home country? Please illustrate these values using current or historical developments from each country.

To read all the entries, go to our social media site

What defines your country? How do you perceive someone from a totally different background? With every new person you meet, it becomes a challenge to empathize and integrate his experiences into your repertoire of what you thought you already knew about the world. Who would have guessed that an exchange between a Singaporean and an American would offer insights on the subtle connections that make two vastly different countries so very comparable.

An Educational Endeavor

"You looked so dorky!" Nelson chuckled at a photo of me in the 6th grade. We were on the ferry to Staten Island, and Nelson had cajoled me into bringing my middle and high school yearbooks on the trip. As he continued to flip through the yearbooks that marked the grand years of my middle and high school life, I grimaced at my awkward braces and youthful pigtails. As he skimmed the photos, I surveyed the back covers scrawled with notes that my old friends wrote to me and a deep sense of nostalgia overcame me. Ah, yes, we joked about being runaway princesses...and there's the heart around my crush's signature...I wonder what that "BFF" is doing now?

Nelson interrupted my reminiscing and exclaimed, "Why is that girl's hair spiky and pink?" I glanced over and shrugged, "Why not? She was trying to be cool. Same reason kids chewed gum in school or wore letter jackets. You just tried to be cool and stand out." A curious look suddenly eclipsed Nelson's face, and he frowned. "At Raffles, we all wore white uniforms, but I guess some girls would fold up the ends of their shirt sleeves as a fashion statement," he said, referring to his middle and high school. I raised an eyebrow and thought, "Seriously? Is that the extent of their individual expression against the social expectations of proper teenage behavior?"

The public schools I attended in Lake Jackson, Texas, are characteristic of typical American public schools. The kids too, were largely typical of American teenagers, be they the goody-two-shoes, the rebel, the athlete, or the school pride-filled cheerleaders. I grew up loving America for her diversity and emphasis on individualism. America, the land of the free, was the bastion of individual freedom and rights. The teenagers at school showed their individual colors through various avenues of expression. Dress codes were moderate and negotiable, and students were generally free to adopt their personalized styles of dress. From dyed hair and piercings to designer outfits and brand name accessories to "camo" hunting gear, one was free to experiment with clothes and individual identity—something I understand to be of a life or death matter to teenagers. The extremes often yielded school detention, but, for many, that was worth the freedom to stand out and create a bubble of self-expression. In the education system I was familiar with, everyone strove for, and took pride in being different.

Yet in Singapore, where Nelson spent the first 21 years of his life, school uniforms are very much the norm. Students in Singapore wear school uniforms virtually every day from Monday to Friday from the first day in kindergarten to the last day of high school graduation. School regulations regarding uniforms are strict, and the threat of punishment serves as reminder for anyone tempted to step out of line. At Raffles Institution, where Nelson spent the last six years of his pre-university education, boys wore plain white uniforms and girls' skirts are required to be at least knee length. Shoes were also white or of the respective school's official colors. Boys had to have short hair, and girls are required to tie up their hair with plain accessories. The furthest extent of a Singaporean schoolboy's rebellion against dress code regulations was leaving a modest piece of shirt untucked or wearing ankle-length socks. Girls tested their teachers' patience by altering their skirts to be as short as possible, but seldom dared to don anything else beyond the uniform, for fear of expulsion. In order to ensure obedience to school regulations, a Prefect system is established in many schools, where select students of good character are nominated, interviewed and elected as school Prefects with the authority to maintain order and discipline among classmates.

Like most American public schools, the public schools I attended in Texas had very varied classes and covered broad subjects (even classes on Texas history, which, I later realize is not normal in other states). Academics balanced with athletics and the arts, and foreign languages were optional. School curriculum meant broadening your horizon as much as possible and discovering your talents, no matter what they were, and giving almost everything a try. Perhaps a telling example of that educational experience is the "Life Skills" class that always reached full enrollment. Standardized exams mainly meant that school-wide performance skimmed the minimum state requirements just enough to maintain government funding. Sports, on the other hand, often carried much more weight and interest. I remember how "pep rally schedule" disrupted Friday classes so that athletes and band members had special excused absences justified by their unfailing school spirit. The education I experienced stressed individuality and applauded the eccentric. Striking the appropriate balance of being different, yet not too different, were lessons of negotiating how to belong in this conglomerate of personalities and backgrounds, but also carving a niche of your own identity. Completing high school for me, sure, meant college, but it was also a journey to discover that everyone has struggles and successes in his own degree and respecting that aggregate is what makes a society strong.  

Yet the last two years of Nelson's pre-university education suggested that he lived in an almost entirely different academic reality from me. With a primary emphasis on stellar academic achievement, programs within Raffles are designed for students to specialize in very specific subjects by age 17, and are expected to focus and excel at those subjects. High school students such as those in Raffles take no more than four or five core courses, and spend a full two academic years studying those subjects in great depth. Compared to the American education system, the emphasis in Singapore appears to be much more on depth rather than breadth in education. Nelson himself has not taken a single course in history, philosophy, economics, literature, or computer science in the four years leading up to university. Singaporean universities are not that much different in their emphasis on early specialization, with professional degrees in law and medicine being offered at the undergraduate level. Since many requisite classes for universities are taken in high school, this means that most Singaporeans aspiring to be medical doctors would have to begin designing their course of study from the early age of 16.

Speaking to a Singaporean, an American could easily sense that, compared to America, their society is one that is largely built on conformism rather than individualism, on obedience rather than defiance. As Nelson closed my yearbook, I asked him, "Don't you wish you went to a high school much like mine?" I did not even have to listen to the words to know his answer. With his eyes beaming with pride, and a hint of a smile suggesting that mine was a redundant question, he stated firmly, "No, not at all." As always, Nelson never falters in his loyalty for his country or for his beloved high school.

Necessary Sacrifices

My conversation with Salina was suddenly interrupted by the voice of a middle-aged man standing by the deck railings. "Konnichiwa," he jeered at us. "What's that about?" I wondered silently, both slightly insulted and slightly baffled at the same time. It was difficult to tell if it was a polite attempt to reach out to a foreign tourist or a racist comment. Salina is Asian, but had grown up in Texas. I too, am Asian, but as Singaporean, English is my first language. I certainly did not need a stranger blatantly mocking Japanese, as an Asian language, to me.

Race: A sensitive issue in both America and in Singapore. Populations of different races and religions live in both countries and have been a major part of each country's demographics throughout their respective histories. In America, the historical population of European and African ancestry has yielded to influxes of Hispanics and a growing group of Asian immigrants as the country expanded. In Singapore, a native Malay population cohabit a tiny island with Chinese and Indians. I grew up acknowledging the many demographics present. Local languages are preserved in our four official languages—English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil—and numerous dialects are also heard on a daily basis. While racism in either country is not tolerated, the manner by which we deal with race issues could not be more different.

A young country built on the foundation of diverse cultures and languages, Singaporean leaders have publicly admitted that freedom of speech in the "classical, Western, liberal" sense does not exist in Singapore. Government tactics warn that this restriction on freedom of speech is a pragmatic measure and necessary sacrifice of personal freedom to preserve racial harmony in Singapore. Yet, to the Singaporean government, social stability goes further than just restricting free speech. Under the Ethnic Integration Policy, every residential apartment building built by the government in Singapore has quotas for the maximum number of households of each race. Chinese households, for example, are not allowed to exceed a certain "ethnic proportion" in a housing district. The policy aims to promote racial integration and prevent the formation of racial enclaves by ensuring a balanced mix among various ethnic communities. However, this also means that one could not always be allowed to live in a certain area because of his or her skin color. For an American, this type of government policy might appear to be a severe infringement on personal freedom.

In theory, I knew of civil liberties before my university experience in America. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press; the list of freedoms went on. I expected that such a free place would be full of even more joyous celebration of diversity that makes up a country 60 times larger than my home. Instead, I was shocked to discover the jarring discrepancies among races, from socioeconomic status to daily encounters to institutionalized decrees. Such episodes oppose my fascination with the grand land of freedom, liberty, and civil rights, which are branded as the crux of American ideals. My expectations for America came from the images of endless fields of farmland, expansive freeways, and the best universities.

As an American, Salina regards her minority status mildly; perhaps it's because she's always been the minority, as an Asian in America. Racial judgments are offensive, but she dismisses them as being inherent side effects of America's history and attitude toward immigrants. Change is slow to happen and even with legal rights on her side, discrimination within the population is hard to avoid. She's proud of being American and considers her racial position as a minority to be natural and inevitable. When America is such a huge mix of so many people, Salina talks of independent fighting over every demographic problem as a hopeless cause. The wealth of freedoms permitted in America gives everyone the right to his opinions and ideas, as well as expressing them, and each person should use such freedoms to find opportunities and contribute in a positive way. Racial remarks are useless acts of one's right to freedom of speech, and don't serve to benefit the speaker or the receiver. Those who don't use their rights to render positive impacts only waste their rights—rights they are lucky to have and that are so sought after in other countries.

From a young age, I was told that the restrictive environment in Singapore is necessary because it creates the stability and social control for such a diverse population sharing a small island. I truly believed that there is some truth to the argument that if not for the Singaporean government's dictation of people's rights, we would not be the successful and growing country we are in less than 50 years of existence. The historical struggles of a small nation-state have led to a siege mentality rooted in preserving the survival and prosperity of Singapore. Yet, I cannot help but wonder: How much sacrifice is too much?

Bridging the Gap

As the ferry neared Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty towered over our heads. The skyline of Manhattan's skyscrapers glinted in the sunshine. Nelson thoughtfully imagined this moment as if he were an immigrant, finally reaching his longed-for destination in America, the land of freedom and opportunity. Salina pondered her emotions and gratitude for having lived in a country grounded on protecting and offering sanctuary to all who sought it.

The constitutional and national ideals of America highlight individual rights, freedom, and a government representative of the people. It's all about a living Constitution, the Statue of Liberty, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. The democratic society of America favors contesting political parties and juggles the views of a huge and dynamic country as characteristic of its development as a global nation. Whether intentionally or not, the word "freedom" is never mentioned in the lyrics of the Singaporean national anthem or its national pledge. The dichotomy and differences between America and Singapore is an ongoing conversation that exists even within each country's domestic spheres. How much freedom is too much? When is it appropriate to sacrifice one's personal freedom for the security of the nation? When would a difficult truth be protected under the claim of free speech, and when would it be considered a racist comment? Singapore's national ideals speak of democracy, peace, progress, equality, and justice.

Growing up on opposite sides of the world, one can expect our early life experiences to be fairly different, from educational experiences to political realities. Despite the structural differences in education and social surroundings, human beings everywhere desire the same things. American or Singaporean, it's not the spiky, pink hair or the hemming of skirts that mattered per se, but the underlying need to live a life true to oneself. Americans or Singaporeans, young people seek paths of individuality, while matured adults seek political freedom.

A ray of sunlight reflected off the Freedom Torch and its touch of the American Dream warmed our faces. Staring up at the Statue of Liberty, Nelson couldn't help but feel a sense of awe. "There really isn't anything quite like it, is there?" he said softly. "Of course not, it's A-mur-ica!" Salina laughed and snapped a photo of this Singaporean in the middle of iconic America, "Aren't you feeling rather attached now and maybe just want to stay in this great country forever?!" Nelson rolled his eyes, "Aiya, already no lah. Singapore calls to me ah. Besides, if you visit one day, maybe you can appreciate the sentiments of an island-city." Shaking her head at the familiar words, Salina embraced the sight of the giant bastion of Liberty. It's not so much the particular location or societal upbringing that matters because, the truth is, my country is home to me and your country will always be home to you; and that should be enough to bridge our ideologies.

blog comments powered by Disqus