Each year on August 9, Singapore celebrates National Day, marking the day it achieved independence from Malaysia in 1965.
The patriotic day is marked with military parades and impressive fireworks displays. While this year’s events were scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country still managed to celebrate its 55th birthday on Sunday—albeit with some minor modifications.
“In good years, our parades rejoice in our progress, and look forward to a better future together," Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a National Day address.
"In difficult years, we still hold National Day Parades, to renew our resolve to weather the storm and take Singapore through to better days,” he added.
Over the course of its short history, Singapore has made incredible progress—economically, it is regarded as a thriving global business hub, its education system is among the best in the world, and its 5.6 million racially-diverse citizens enjoy beautiful waterfront views and crime-free streets.
But despite its major achievements, the city has started cracking down on free speech under its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, commonly referred to as the “fake news” law, which came into effect last year. Under the new law, the country’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has sunk, and observers have raised concerns that the law may be used as “a tool to quiet dissent.”
Most recently, the island nation has faced challenges in curbing its coronavirus outbreak, particularly among foreign workers housed in overcrowded dormitories. As of Monday, August 10, the country has recorded 55,104 cases, making it one of the worst-hit countries in Southeast Asia. In July, the country slumped into an economic recession exacerbated by the pandemic.
But Singapore has maintained its democratic spirit despite the pandemic. In July, the nation held a historic election that allowed opposition parties to take hold of a record number of seats, a sign of change in a country that has been ruled by the same political party since it became a self-governing state.
VICE News reached out to three Singaporeans abroad—a human rights activist living in Taipei who was sued by the prime minister in 2014, a queer Tamil student living in Sydney, Australia, and a Brooklyn-based Singaporean lawyer who left the country and is on the path to freeze her eggs—to share their wishes for the country from afar.
Roy Ngerng, a political blogger and human rights activist
I was sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2014 for defamation over a blog post I had written about our national social savings plan.
As someone who isn’t legally trained, I am proud that I was able to stand my ground in court and fight for my case. After I cross-examined Lee in court for six hours, a journalist covering the trial told me that it was a defining moment for the country. The prime minister had taken an ordinary citizen to court—only to have that citizen stand up and face the challenge. Looking back, I wanted to show Singaporeans that it is our right to question the conduct of the people we put into office. They are just people like you and me.
I left Singapore in 2016 and came to Taiwan looking for a job. I am now a researcher at a leading Taiwanese university and was even named an official human rights defender by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015.
Arriving in Taiwan, I felt like I was being transplanted from an authoritarian regime to a democracy. Singapore and Taiwan may share similarities, but Taiwan has been able to democratize while Singapore is still being ruled by the same party.
Living in Taiwan has helped me realize that democracy is a gradual process. While Taiwanese activists were denigrated in the past, their actions have helped pave the way towards greater hope for changes that they continue to see in their country.
The recent Singapore general elections gave me hope. Seeing so many Singaporeans speak up—before, during, and even after the campaigning period—makes me so proud, to see us as citizens that are finally taking ownership of our country and using our voices to call for change.
It makes me immensely proud to be a Singaporean.
We now have an official opposition leader and two other parties in parliament. We are seeing a new era of dynamism and a culture of political activism in Singapore.
Young Singaporeans will shape our future because they are willing to dream and are brave enough to fight for it. They are an inspiration and a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Singaporeans are taking back power. My biggest wish this National Day will be for us to use the space that we’ve created to undergo collective political awakening and to drive towards the kind of society that we want to live in. This will mean letting go of our insecurities and believing in our power using it to shape a new and better future.
Sujith Kumar, a queer Tamil student
When I think of Singapore, I do feel a sense of gratitude for many things. It’s where I grew up, where many of my friends and family still are and where I’ve made many fond memories. However, returning home after spending most of the past decade living abroad—first in New York, then in Boston and now in Sydney—I experienced casual racism, censorship against my sexuality and the preference for “Chinese speakers only” in job interviews, among other things. I felt compelled to leave Singapore soon after returning.
Being in Singapore, I was always terrified of someone seeing me out on a date or holding hands with my partner and then telling my parents. Here in Sydney, I feel free to love and be myself. Life is much freer.
Singapore prides itself on racial harmony, meritocracy and efficiency. But growing up and working in the country slowly revealed to me just how much further we have to go in terms of becoming a truly just, equal and democratic society.
I’m not saying that living in bigger, more westernized cities has been free of challenge. But living in these places has given me a shot at living a life where I feel wanted, equal and loved. For the first time my 32 years, I have been made to feel human, like I have more value than my economic worth and that I deserve a shot at a full and happy life. If I had remained in Singapore, I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities, protection and support that I enjoy now. I wouldn’t have felt as optimistic about my future.
Singapore is invested in maintaining the status quo in several areas of society, which include race and sexuality. I doubt that will change anytime soon.
So as a queer Tamil Singaporean, my wish is for a more compassionate society, one where everyone can live, love and express themselves freely and fully, without fear of discrimination, prejudice or persecution—that’s fundamentally what I hope for.
Happy birthday, Singapore. You will always be an important part of me.
Melanie Ang, a lawyer
As a working woman who made it professionally in cutthroat Singapore, motherhood was never on the cards for me. In Singapore, I was told that you can either have a family or a career, but not both. I’ve seen that with a lot of my friends who became mothers but were forced to leave the workforce because balancing a full-time job and running a household simply took a toll.
I finally left a broken and unhappy four-year marriage and met a kind, patient and older man—we fell in love. After experiencing what it was like to be in a safe and healthy relationship, I found that my priorities and approach to life had started to change.
At the age of 35, I realize now that I may want to start a family of my own. But I also want to keep my options open. At this stage, I would like to be able to freeze my eggs but women like myself can’t do that in Singapore unless they have medical grounds to.
Singapore is a world-class medical hub, and medical tourism is a thriving billion-dollar industry there. You can get all kinds of procedures done—but a woman still can’t freely choose to freeze her eggs. Our skilled doctors and world-class hospitals are not allowed to perform this service unless a woman is dealing with a serious illness, like cancer, that will impact her fertility.
Egg freezing is a financial and social privilege. It is also a modern reproductive right. It lessens a woman’s anxiety about having children by offering a sense of security and gives back reproductive control over women’s bodies. My body, my rights.
Why does our government think that it can dictate such an important life-changing decision by withholding the option from us? Singapore claims to be a modern society but traditional and outdated values are still very much deeply ingrained, even in our medical system and laws.
I am currently overseas with my partner and am in no hurry to return home. I will take this time away as a much-needed opportunity to focus on myself and my new life. I will also look into having my eggs frozen—whether I choose to become a mother or not.