I have often thought about assembling a soundtrack to my life. To me, the idea is about self-expression and the exuberant exploration of the possibility that life offers; it is about an explosion of music, sound and infectious emotion. Such whimsical self-discovery, however, seems irrelevant to most Singaporeans. We Singaporeans do not partake in such self-indulgent fancy; we grapple with what is real, what we have. As the politburo likes to remind us, such stolid practicality has kept Singapore going for 40 odd years, and will keep it going for 40 more.
This mind-set is very familiar to me; in China, where I was born, living has become a science of survival in a ruthless and unrelenting society. My cousins, upon graduating from high school, are sorted by all-important state examinations into production lines (they call them universities) which churn out workers of all kinds. In a society where people are mere factors of production, labels become essential for reducing them to better fit office cubicles. The same happens in Singapore. In school, I am stereotyped by my classmates as a cold, acerbic homo economicus headed for a career as one of many faceless bureaucrats making slightly important decisions. It is as if I have already been thrown into orbit, and these expectations are a sort of gravity that keeps me revolving around the society that has put me there. There is an insidious urge to give in, to acquiesce to others’ stereotypes and behave accordingly. There is no room for special little snowflakes in Singapore.
Practicality in Singapore is a social fact, and fears of poverty frighten parents and children alike to pursue economically viable life goals. I do not dismiss their concerns, but they short-change me constantly. I find it difficult to comply with something that wants to simplify me, to make me less than what I am. I do not want to be pithily summed up for classification, and perfunctorily slotted into the Singapore growth machine. I find defining myself a terribly uncomfortable exercise because, as Wittgenstein suggests of the project of definition, I am held together not by a covering law, but by strands of similarity. Defining a person is like defining the concept of art: no sooner has a definition been set down that the person has evolved beyond it, or in some cases, deliberately and spitefully thwarted it.
Fundamentally, I have a constant desire to be Protean, to defy self-definition. I shrug off categories and labels that society imposes on me not because of some anarchic need to assert absolute mastery over my identity, but because I am bored by satisficing society and having only one identity. I often find myself inverting society in my head, and recently, have started realising these little inventions in real life. Like the Romans during Saturnalia, I find episodes in my life when I can change the dynamics of social interaction. It is an experimental process, a little like play-acting: giving a false name, inventing a fanciful background or simply adopting character traits that are not characteristically me. Once, when eating at a food centre, a server asked me where I was being schooled. I was about to give her the straight answer, but some strange impulse compelled me to lie to her; I told her that I studied at a technical school, even though I was in a junior college, and had for all my life been an advertisement for the educational elite.
It was liberating. In Singapore, such distinctions matter; one’s alma mater is a mark of prestige here. However, at that moment, the border between reality and identity was so irrelevant that such pedantic factoids surely did not matter. I realised that the place marked for me in Singapore’s rigid hierarchy is in no way integral to my sense of self. If anything, it distracts from the person I really am.