Succeed together or fail

Succeed together or fail

The point is not the geekiness of announcing that procreation is the national agenda on National Day. The point is the solemnity with which Singaporean policy makers and public servants received the message.

In his National Day address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Singaporeans to "grow their own families".

"I am happy that we expect more Dragon babies this year, but our fertility trend is still declining. We must go beyond the Chinese zodiac and tackle the underlying causes of our low birth rates," he said.

The response so far seems to address what has deterred young Singaporeans from starting families and having children. The public housing agency announced it would add 20,000 more units to the market to ease the concerns of couples looking for a place to live. A few more subway lines will be built. More schools are planned to accommodate more kids and more part-time work opportunities will be created for young mums with a bit of time available after their children reach school age.

Even the National Museum rose to the call. On the eve of National Day on Aug 9, the museum threw open a travelling exhibition on the history of wedding dresses from Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum.

"We hope people looking at the dresses may feel inspired to get married. It can be considered our service to the nation," quipped one of the museum staff.

I had a chance to watch Singapore's National Day parade this year thanks to a Thai-Singapore journalist exchange programme jointly organised by the Thai Foreign Ministry and Singapore's Ministry of Information, Communications and Arts.

Although the shows were colourful and spectacular, including a vertical ascent by F16 fighters against a backdrop of skyscrapers, they were predictably patriotic - in an old-fashioned, straightforward and one-sided way and not in an eclectic, multi-cultural Danny Boyle's London Olympics opening ceremony way.

One thing that struck me during the National Day shows, however, was how Singapore has been successful in fostering the idea of nationalism by adhering to meritocracy and embracing multi-culturalism (even though in many cases they are imposed by the government, such as having a race quota in public housing projects). Granted, the city state is no model for democracy with a single party, the People's Action Party, dominating the general election and government since 1959 and a press that has supported the state as a policy. It could well be possible that the embrace of meritocracy or multi-culturalism is not a choice, but a strict government order.

Still, as I watched show after show that reminded the mostly domestic audience in the arena what the spirit of Singapore was, I couldn't help but think about my home country. What is the spirit of Thailand? What is our national agenda? What are some of the values and ideals that all Thais can agree on that will then serve as common ground to build our common future, not the many fragmented ones based on political affiliations as seems to be the case right now?

Truth be told, I find myself liking former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's vision that he related to Isra News Agency during his visit to the United States last week. He said that the future of Thai politics from now on will be a "tug-of-war for democracy". I can't be sure exactly what he meant by that short quote but I can imagine the vision as featuring a new genesis of several, flourishing, competing ideas on what Thai democracy should entail. And these should not be confined just to the political context either.

As I sat watching youngsters of different races dance together during Singapore's National Day parade, I thought that it is high time for Thais to seriously rethink our ideas of nationalism and democracy.

Being patriotic should stop meaning that being Thai is superior to other nationalities, as many of us have been told since we were young. Being democratic should entail not just the right to protest against what we don't like, but the need to cultivate space for tolerance and coexistence.

Fail to do this and we will be stuck in the narrowness of the vision of our own selves, while other nations race on towards a bigger, brighter future.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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