Multiculturalism: The Singaporean Spring

Hirzi Zulkiflie on the Singaporean millennial's coming of age
by Hirzi Zulkiflie
First-personAugust 8, 2019
On the occasion of our nation’s 54th birthday, we gather four different young Singaporeans to reflect on one of Singapore’s biggest, and most essential, ideas – a harmonious, multiracial, multicultural society. Here, Hirzi Zulkiflie breaks down the generation gap between “woke” Millennials and their predecessors, and suggests a way forward for us all.

While it feels a little bit loaded, grim, and maybe even pretentious to title this article “The Singaporean Spring”, allow me to share with you my observations of how the Arab, African and Latin American Springs could serve as a similar metaphorical comparison to what is possibly happening amidst the underlying currents of this generation of Singaporeans.

The Singaporean Spring is – in this context – not about an uprising against an authority or government but more about the power our generation’s voice have been given with the birth of the digital age, especially with respect to our search for identity and culture. Much like the nature of all the other Springs across the world, I want to talk about how the digital age and social media have heavily influenced the cultural awakening (a-woke-ning?) that we’re currently seeing spread across Singapore, and brought back power to people’s voices.

(Sheesh! That was a long disclaimer. After all that is happening online these days, I am not taking any chances, plis.)

Let’s ALL play Monopoly!

Think of a time where we grew up with one single state-run media outlet, which made the effects and impact of arts and media easier to manage by the government. *coughs bureaucracy coughs* (Sorry! That’s just how I cough. It’s the haze.)

Now fast forward to the digital age of social media, when new technologies and mediums were introduced so fast that our laws were not yet prepared to govern and police independent content creating, thus allowing a diversity and variety of narratives to flourish even more. This is especially so with minority narratives that mainstream media would have otherwise implicitly ignored.

Unlike previous generations of kids, we no longer have to turn up to school or work the next day to discuss that episode of the one sitcom that was cherry-picked to air on mainstream TV. With so much more choice in what we could watch, read, and consume, we finally could socialise according to who we were. Now, we socialise on the basis of shared content that we consume and thus who else subscribes (pun intended) to our narratives.

Of course, this happens naturally in every generation, but in a way, social media and Internet culture accelerates and amplifies this trend. As just one example, think about YouTube channels dedicated to beauty routines for darker-skinned hijabis, a minority demographic that had long been ignored by mainstream media. With this newfound independence and diversity, minorities have turned to social media to consume content that finally reflected their narratives and ‘Singaporean culture’ began to grow laterally.

After a decade of social media, there has been enough time to cook and empower enough internalised sentiment for a Cultural Singaporean Spring. Suddenly minorities too have a voice, suddenly we too have power.

“Hi Singapore, it’s your future calling.”

So let’s trace millennials and their upbringing to understand how their style of content creating is vastly different from their predecessors.

Millennials are categorised as the generation who were in their teens anytime between the 90s to the mid 2000s and became workforce adults between the 2000s to present time. This explains and informs a lot about how independent Singaporean millennial creatives have a unique hybrid of localised content with a Western flair.

Just from observing the trajectory of content we consumed in our most impressionable teen years, you can note that the heavy influence of ‘90s local television sitcoms and imported Western cable content, which arrived in the 2000s:

Listicle videos from local Youtubers like Wah!banana and Night Owl Cinematics lean towards the influence of ‘90s local sitcoms, while the rant videos of Dee Kosh and Xiaxue mirror reality TV-style confessions from the early 2000s. Even the music parodies of MunahHirziOfficial (hello!) reflects the influence of MTV music videos, while comedy sketches like The Benzi Project (hello, again!) favours the Westernized writing styles and production of Little Britain and Key and Peele.

But while this creative freedom and breadth of inspirations has positively empowered a generation of younger Singaporeans, it has to be acknowledged that it also contributes to the rifts between Singaporeans of different generations.

Unlike Millennials and Gen Z Singaporeans, the earlier generations (which includes the Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers) are not as equipped for the cultural phenomena that the Internet and social media have presented them. And I don’t mean this in a tech-savvy way – Singapore’s earlier generations find it hard to keep up with all the cultural trends and movements that the younger generation have been immersed in throughout their youth, including the awareness of political correctness and “woke culture”. This becomes especially polarising with the older generation, who are not consuming content beyond the mainstream media and thus not being able to unlearn ‘unwoke sentiments’.

And even among millennials and Gen Z’s themselves, we see quite a spectrum of what woke-ness means and how it is perceived because Internet trends change so rapidly, thus shaping (and reshaping) minds differently every year.

As a young digital native, it’s easy to see something and call it out instantly – “It’s 2019 and we still (insert offensive discrimination).” However, in saying that, are we actually allowing space for a dialogue that could help another generation unlearn their unwoke sentiments? Or are we ourselves behaving entitled, by assuming that everyone would have the same access to information that helps them be more politically sensitive and updated with the times, the way our generation has?

Progress and dialogue happens when people from opposite spectrums come to the middle to voice their perspectives and listen to each other, and not when we just have conversation within our own camps.

After Awakening, the Coming of Age

So the question now is – are young Singaporeans ready for the power and independence that comes with the Internet and social media? While we laud and celebrate our generation’s independence from the old bureaucratic ways of creating content and art, we have to be mindful of the responsibility that comes with having a voice. What happens when the Woke Police run riot?

Much like the Arab Sping, with power finally returning back to the people, the outcome of our cultural awakening is dependent on the people that are given (or take up) leadership roles. Influencers are, in their own rights, tribe leaders of their communities and what they choose to do with that role is important, and requires attention. While policing the Internet questions our freedom of speech, weaponising the Internet can be just as dangerous and divisive. Illuminating divisiveness that currently exists does nothing for us as a society if we do not have a channel for follow-up dialogue immediately after revealing the rifts. Any time delayed in bridging conversations allows sentiments to divide even further.

After the spring, comes another season. Much like our local ‘90s sitcoms and the heavy import of American content in the 2000s raised the Millennials and Gen Zs of today, the content that we put out there today will raise the next generation of Singaporeans. In our search for identity and representation in a multicultural nation, do we only speak for ourselves?
This essay is part of a series on multiculturalism in Singapore.

First-Person is a narrative column by JUNK, exploring the real lives and perspectives of people in (or influenced by) Southeast Asia. Have something to add to this conversation? Email us your thoughts at [email protected]

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