S'pore culture like an onion

ST Forum, Jun 3, 2014

RECENT articles in The Straits Times have highlighted an interest in defining our local culture.

Professor Wang Gungwu wrote that the power of "local culture" is strong despite national and international influences ("The power of local culture"; Jan 25).

Cultural Medallion winner Goh Lay Kuan said in an interview ("The ballerina who overturned tables"; May 3) that a unique culture takes time to create and develop from much interaction with our multicultural environment.

Indeed, what is our culture and our heritage? This question seems relevant as the nation celebrates its 50th birthday next year and the bicentenary of its founding in 2019.

Culture can be described as the DNA or software of our social history and social behaviour. How we address our family members, what we wear normally and on festive occasions, the food we cook and the customs we observe, among other things, are very much rooted in our ethnic countries of origin.

But as we live in South-east Asia among other races, we acquire and adapt to other customs and languages, speaking not only Chinese dialects but also Malay and, later, English during the period of colonisation, and now more Mandarin with the rise of China.

We learnt to cook different foods and adapt to and modify other fashions, establishing synergy with the cultures of others. This is how the early settlers became Peranakans, forming hybrid cultures.

Thus, when we planned and developed the Peranakan Museum, we wanted to show how such adaptations led to peaceful and harmonious living among the different races and religions here and in other parts of South-east Asia.

With increasing globalisation, a further layer of cultural adaptation developed so that the Singaporean's composite culture is like an onion, with a central core of ethnic customs and beliefs, an intermediate layer of South-east Asian traditions, and an outer layer of globalised knowledge and taste.

This, then, could really be our heritage and our "culture".

This is perhaps why many are anxious to keep Bukit Brown cemetery (or part of it) as a repository of our local history. We could celebrate our forthcoming bicentennial by making it a tourist attraction, with a memorial heritage park to tell the history of our pioneers and the stories of our heroes, while helping to bond old and new citizens.

James Khoo (Dr)