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Local flavour

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 8 min read
Local flavour
Options asked four people from different backgrounds and vocations what it means to be Singaporean. Here are their answers
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Options asked four people from different backgrounds and vocations what it means to be Singaporean. Here are their answers

SINGAPORE (Aug 12): This is the time of year when we reflect on what our home means to us. It has been 54 years since independence and 200 years since Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore and turned it into a trading hub. What makes Singapore home and what are the things that make us unique?

Singaporeans have quirks such as “chope-ing” (reserving) seats with tissue paper or willing to queue in the hot sun for -anything from Hello Kitty dolls to handphones. Yet, when we are in a -hawker centre, we would rather sit in air-conditioned comfort.

And how many countries would you find all four races — -Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian — represented in a gathering of friends?

Options asked four Singaporeans — Claire Chiang, Douglas Benjamin, Ivan Heng and Alejandro Blanco — to give us their take on what it means to live, work and play in Singapore.

Who is he?

Ivan Heng is one of Singapore’s most prominent and dynamic creative personalities and the winner of the 2013 Cultural Medallion. In a pioneering career spanning three decades, Ivan has directed, acted in and designed many landmark Singaporean theatre productions, which have been performed in more than 20 cities around the world. Ivan founded WILD RICE in 2000. Under his leadership, the company has reached out to an audience of more than a million people by creating theatre with a distinctive Singaporean voice. In September, WILD RICE will open its new performing arts complex in the heart of Singapore’s civic and cultural district.

On being Singaporean

“In 1986, when we were rehearsing for Michael Chiang’s Army Daze, one of the early plays to depict Singaporean characters on stage, we asked ourselves: ‘What do Singaporeans sound like? Who are we? What are our concerns, and how do we express ourselves as [a] people?’

After more than three decades, I still find myself asking these questions as I approach every role I play or show I direct. I’m inspired by the creative tensions that arise from living on a miniscule island that is also a city, state and country; that is as cosmopolitan as it is parochial; that is struggling to break free from the shackles of our patriarchy even as we obsessively plan for the future.

It’s hard to pin down what it means to be Singaporean, because our identity is fluid, and our culture is so richly diverse. Being Singaporean is something I can only describe as a feeling. It’s there when I sing Majulah Singapura, and say our pledge, eat with family and friends, or take visitors on a tour of our city. And it’s especially evident in the theatre, whenever I’m in the audience watching a local play. In the laughter, silences and sighs, I experience the sense of ‘being Singaporean’. Like any artist, I struggle with it sometimes, but, ultimately, it’s a feeling of pride and belonging.”

Who is he?

Douglas Benjamin has been with F J Benjamin, founded by his father, since 1989, and is the chief operating officer of the group. He works closely with his uncle, Nash Benjamin, to coordinate the group’s activities. In 2012, Douglas was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the lifestyle and retail category. He sits on the board of trustees for the KK Hospital Health Endowment Fund.

On being Singaporean

“When I was first asked to pen my thoughts down, the immediate answers were nasi lemak, Changi airport and Orchard Road. However, as I ruminated more about not giving such a flippant answer, I began to think about the deeper nature of our society and the country that we live in.

The one, overriding and truly unique feature about our country is that we live in a multi-cultural, multi-racial melting pot. I have been fortunate enough to live overseas and travel to many places, but nowhere have I experienced the togetherness and colour blindness that we have here in Singapore.

Of course, it can never be a 100%, and there will always be spoilers, but by and large, as the generations grow up, live with each other, work with each other and depend on each other, the attention to one’s skin colour and family history has become much less. What started out as literally a social experiment to group people of various races into close living quarters to teach them to live with each other has turned out to be probably the most successful of its kind in history.

So, to be Singaporean means not only being proud of this situation and being able to enjoy the benefits of it but, more importantly, thinking of how to keep this equilibrium going in a world that does not always value this.”

Who is he?

Alejandro Blanco came to Singapore in 2004 as the former General Counsel for a Mexican MNC based in Singapore. He made Singapore his permanent home after leaving the corporate world, and became a restaurateur in 2009 with concepts Senor Taco and La Mexicana in 2009, and El Mero Mero in 2014. He took Singaporean citizenship seven years ago, becoming the first Mexican to become a Singaporean citizen. Blanco is now a father to two beautiful girls. He aims to share his love for authentic Mexican culture and food in Singapore and globally.

On being Singaporean

“In 2008, the company I had worked with for 13 years decided to close the Singapore office, and proposed to relocate me. As I liked living in Singapore and also saw a gap in the Mexican food scene here for a Taqueria concept, I decided to stay and open one in Singapore.

To me, being a Singaporean means to be fortunate to have almost endless options for things that make our everyday life better. Be it cuisine from all over the world, access to multiple education branches, convenient transportation, freedom of religion, opportunities to forge friendships with people of any nationality, sports and leisure options, safety to walk around at night, access to justice, celebration of diverse culture or access to multiple job options. Here in Singapore, we have multiple opportunities and the freedom to choose. These options sometimes translate into hours of queuing, [but it] is just one of [the] many quirks that we have here.”

Who is she?

Claire Chiang is the co-founder — along with her husband and group executive chairman, Ho Kwon Ping — of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, a leading developer and manager of premium resorts, urban hotels and destination spas around the world.

She also chairs Banyan Tree Global Foundation, and is responsible for directing and guiding the evolving process of the group’s commitment to corporate social responsibility and its mission of “Embracing the environment, empowering the people”.

Chiang is founder and executive director of the Banyan Tree Gallery, where she pioneered Banyan Tree Group’s retail businesses and oversaw the launch of over 70 retail outlets worldwide.

For her advocacy in social issues, Chiang has won national and international awards, including the Public Service Star BBM in 2014 for her contribution to implementing work-life integration in Singapore. In April 2016, she received National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Distinguished Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Award.

In October 2018, she received the Asia’s Top Sustainability Superwomen Award for impactful leadership in the sustainability field within her organisation and beyond. Most recently, Chiang was the winner of the Supernova Category at the inaugural Women Entrepreneur Awards 2017. On March 24, 2018, she was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame established by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.

On being Singaporean

“Over the last three decades, my work and commitment to building meaningful and sustainable enterprises brought me to and from Changi Airport every month — the feeling of ‘I am home!’ is so precious and joyful. Singapore has given my family over five generations of experiences and memories that I treasure, cherish and will defend. This is ownership.

I see the ‘rojak’ character of Singaporeans as a strength. In the long historical trajectory of 700 years, as sons and daughters of Singapore, we become at once local and international, committed to our ancestral roots while embracing the universal values that are espoused around the world. We share fragments of many thoughts and cultural waves in this unique little red dot that enjoys the confluence of four major civilisations’ influences, which allows us to navigate our own history to create a value of our own as a nation characterised by resilience, inclusiveness, connectivity and multi-level engagement. This concentration of peoples in one spot will continue to make Singapore an interesting laboratory in exploring cross-cultural understanding and integration. I feel the excitement of this melting pot, its enterprising capacity in spinning new possibilities that will enable Singaporeans to become effective citizens of the world while being proud Singaporeans.”

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