I am Singaporean first, Chinese second.

The week LKY passed away.

So I was in Turkey a little while back, and on one of the days we were told to don our country’s traditional dress for this thing called Cultural Night. So I put on an Indian costume.

…and then I ended up talking to more people in that few hours than I did in the entire day. A delegate from another country does a double-take, then walks over with a look of utter bewilderment. ‘Are you Indian?’ Nope, I reply cheerfully. There wasn’t an Indian delegation this time, but there were Indians representing other countries, all of whom had much larger eyes and were exceedingly pretty, so I suppose it was a valid question. 'Wait, then what country are you from again?’ Singapore, I say. 'And you are… Chinese?’ Mmhmm, ethnically so. Confusion deepens, forming a furrow between their brows. 'Then why are you wearing an Indian costume?’

And it’s my turn to look confused - on hindsight I probably should have expected this, but it’s one of those things you don’t think about, because it has become so natural to don another race’s costume the moment you hear the word 'cultural’. 'Why not?’ I ask in return. I am Singaporean first, Chinese second. My nation’s cultural identity is not so much that of my own race, but the ability to embrace another ethnic group’s, and feel no less proud of my nation and my own ethnic identity. And then they just look astonished. Which is strange, so I see that, and get astonished myself.

We hear so much of other cities being equally cosmopolitan and more culturally-diverse than our little red dot. That’s why our multicultural trope has to stop, people argue, because it’s not something unique to us. And to some extent, that is true - New York, London, Berlin; every major city in the world perhaps has greater diversity in a neighbourhood than our entire country. But in that conversation I realize we have something they don’t and might never will: we aren’t just a group of different races sharing a physical space. Even with the rising xenophobia (which has to STOP, by the way), we have long progressed beyond that, so much so that you don’t think twice about wearing the ethnic costume of another race in an international conference where you represent your country, and take pride in doing exactly just that.

And I guess it’s something I’ve always known, but one I could never quite explain - because how do you explain something that is so common you know longer think about it? How do you explain how water tastes? How light looks like? And though it took a garish neon purple monstrosity that was bought because my sister has lousy taste (the second, less noble reason for having this photo in black and white, ahem). I am glad I can finally put this in words.

So here is to the man who believed in cultural integration and the nation he leaves behind - he was not perfect, and we are not perfect, but as the week draws to a close and we return to the world a little more pensive and a little more bruised, may we never lose sight of who we are, and where we came from.