Wednesday, 17 October 2012

National Conversation: Rite of Passage?

Back in my advertising days I learned to always do an "overnight test" on my copy. Something made me write the following piece in a matter of minutes and submitted it without the overnight test.

It was published in the print section of Straits Times Forum today.

It's not a perfect piece of writing, but please read between the lines.


THIS is my contribution to the national conversation.

In thinking anthropologically about why there was a distinctive corporate culture where I used to work, I decided that the three-week residential training I had in the United States at the beginning of my time with the company constituted a "rite of passage": a time of separation, transition and re-incorporation, similar to the rites of passage in some cultures.

If one ate, slept and breathed nothing but corporate culture for three weeks, it was difficult not to accept the company ethos for what it was.

I returned to Singapore, thinking and acting like every other employee who had also been through this ritual and, together, we maintained that "culture".

Nations that have been through a national crisis can also be likened to have undergone a rite of passage.

In Britain, all those who went through one or both of the world wars hold a certain perspective. People of my parents' generation who suffered during the Japanese Occupation also hold a distinctive perspective.

My generation of Singaporeans did not suffer war. But we had the rituals and ceremony of pledge reciting and flag raising. For half the population, there is national service.

So when we see a young man, or large groups of them, in their fatigues being transported in three-tonners, or marching along the road with their rifles and backpacks, we say: "Ah! My brother/father/husband/son has also gone through that."

We wave and cheer them on.

Rites of passage cause us to believe that we have earned our status: the trepidation as we approach the time of separation; the liminal stage as we undergo transition, wondering whether we will make it out alive; the re-incorporation stage as we return triumphantly - and the boy is now a man.

Because they are our sons and brothers, female family members also share in these anxieties.

I concluded that corporate culture cannot be "talked" into existence. It has to be "done".

The litmus test of citizenship is not the colour of our identity card. It is if would-be citizens are willing to "do" Singapore culture - curry smells, void deck weddings and funerals, getai, joss-stick burning and all.

Let the "doing" begin.


The point is a rite of passage reinforces the idea that a status is achieved or earned. It is not an entitlement.

Britain has tried to implement a kind of 'rite'. Previously new citizens merely had their British passports posted to them. In recent years they have to attend a citizenship ceremony.

Oddly enough, despite learning and passing (ostensibly) tests on language, history and customs, candidates are asked whether they are happy to shake hands with the dignitary handing out the certificates. Apparently some women candidates object to making skin contact with males.

This is Britain. It is a ceremony to welcome them to British citizenship and they would not shake hands with a male mayor. ???

In my voluntary role at the local advice charity I get too much of people going, "But I am EU citizen, I should be entitled to this benefit."

Or "I am a single parent, I should be given this."

Or "But I have diabetes, I cannot work."

I often think, but cannot say aloud, "What would you do if you were still in your home country and there is no welfare to look after you? What are your options?"

Meanwhile each of these is convinced that I (and fellow taxpayers) have to support them indefinitely. Would a proper rite of passage set right this sense of entitlement?

What 'rite of passage' could we fashion for our new citizens in Singapore? Let's have a think, shall we? Remember there are three stages to a proper rite of passage (according to Belgian ethnologist Arnold Van Gennep): separation (from normal familiar contexts), a liminal "betwixt and between" stage, and a reincorporation stage.

How about speaking either English and/or another official language?

Doing voluntary service in schools, hospitals, libraries, other charitable organizations (MENDAKI, SINDA, CDAC, etc.)?

A test on Singapore history? Understand that local-born Singaporeans have a certain affection for things Singaporean. (I still cannot believe that female at Bras Basah Kopitiam told me off for using the term "chendol" instead of some Chinese transliteration.)

Should we take a busload of them to a pulau somewhere and make them speak Singlish? Make them undergo BMT?

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