I was three when I first met Uncle Royaards. He was the Dutchman whom my mother worked for and sometimes, he’d answer the phone when I called the office looking for her. He had a loud, booming voice and even as a toddler, I knew he was different from us because he had a funny way of pronouncing his words. I sometimes didn’t quite understand everything he said, but he was always friendly, and happy to oblige a talkative three-year-old with a little chat.
Even so, it frightened me when we first met. I’d never seen someone like Uncle Royaards. He was as tall as a beanstalk and he had yellow hair. As he bent himself to huddle into our tiny Toyota, his head bumped against the roof and his elbows got caught in the gap between the door frames. He squeezed himself into the front seat, and his knees stuck out at a pointy angle, pressing against the dashboard of our car. He must be a real life giant, I thought breathlessly.
Yet something else about Uncle Royaards puzzled me, and it wasn’t his size. As we drove towards the airport, I leaned over to my mother and cupped my lips against her ear. “Mama,” I whispered. “Why does Uncle Royaards smell like cheese?”
My poor mother could not decide between amusement and mortification. “Don’t be rude!” she finally sputtered, hushing me as she stifled giggles that were bubbling uncontrollably in her throat.
But when we got back that night, Mama sat me down in front of the world map that hung on the wall in our study room at home. She pointed at random spots on the speckled surfaces of blue, green and brown, repeating the names of the strange lands that stood opposite the little red dot I knew as my Singapore.
I don’t remember exactly what else we did or spoke about, but I do recall the lasting impression the events of that evening would make on me: the world was huge, and it was home to a diverse mix of peoples, cultures, and ideas.
As a child, Uncle Royaards was my first exposure to the idea of diversity and difference. Yet it wouldn’t be my last. At the age of five, my piano teacher organised a mini concert, where I performed a musical item together with two Jewish girls. I learnt the lyrics to Hava Nagila, and they gamely sang along with me to Xiao Bai Chuan.
I grew a little older, and my mother enrolled me in primary school — a convent, where almost all of my classmates were Catholic. I sang Amazing Grace and learnt to say all the responses in Latin during Friday mass. Yet back at home, Ah-Mah, my grandmother and primary caregiver during my childhood years, was a devout Buddhist who lit joss sticks at the prayer altar for Kuanyin Mah, and had a habit of sighing “amituofuo” when things looked grim.
My exposure to new experiences become more colourful the older I became. I went on exchange programmes to visit communities and people overseas. Back in Singapore, both at home and in school, we hosted youth groups and students who were just as curious to learn about us as we were about them.
And then, I left school and entered the industry where, in the course of work, I had to interact with people of all nationalities and backgrounds. Some were expats who worked for multinational companies, others were young professionals who’d left home in search of better job opportunities. There were Europeans and Americans, there were Filipinos and Australians. Many were Malaysians, some came from China. Each, however, came with his own sets of perspectives, values and beliefs that didn’t always sync with mine. By this time, however, encountering diversity in the course of everyday life had become so routine that I barely gave any of it a second thought.
Diversity in Singapore
I imagine that many Singaporeans have similar experiences. For sure, it is our exposure to diverse backgrounds that has laid a strong foundation for a people who are receptive to ideas and beliefs
different from their own. Rather than viewing diversity with suspicion and hostility, I’m seeing a new generation of Singaporeans who not only embrace and enjoy these differences, but who also see opportunities in them for growth and creativity instead.
Our food and beverage scene, for example, has experienced a boom in the last couple of years. These days, it’s a whole lot more than just chicken rice, nasi lemak and roti prata you’ll find in tiny Singapore. You can think of any world cuisine from Lebanese to Brazilian, German and Scandinavian, and chances are, you’ll find a version of it back home. In fact, pick any fashionable food trend that’s making waves around the world these days, and you’ll be spoilt for choice — from Hawaiian poké bowls to raindrop cakes, rainbow pastries and milkshakes piled high with pretzels, chocolate wafers and toasted marshmallows.
If the food scene is a reflection of our growing culture, diversity in Singapore has evolved to encompass much more than just our Malay-Chinese-Indian heritage. It’s now a vibrant melting pot of world cultures, a blend of modernity and tradition and a fusion feast of East and West.
The last visit back to Singapore, I was blown away by my experience at Bar Stories, my favourite cocktail bar that’s located on the second floor of one of the shop houses along Haji Lane. “Make me a girly drink,” I demanded. “One that’s pretty and fruity and reminds me of a pocketful of posies.”
The team of mixologists behind the bar winked at me and got to work pouring, mixing, muddling, stirring and shaking. The final masterpiece was pretty as a springtime picture. A dainty glass sat nestled in between a bed of green moss dotted with tiny red petals and flowers. The drink: a cocktail of gin, yuzu, sour plum, egg white, lemon and Kyoho grape.
My yuzu cocktail
I had two more drinks that night. A rum-based mixture that paid homage to some of my favourite local flavours of gula melaka and calamansi, and a second concoction that satisfied the chocolate lover in me – butterscotch liquor, Frangelico and vodka topped with an ice cream stick of Nutella globs, cereal, oats and little bits of toasted marshmallow.
Buzzing from my cocktail high, I stumbled out of the bar into the thick of Haji Lane. It was late by my standards, but judging from the buzz that evening, the night was only just beginning. Live bands lined the street from start till end, entertaining a captive audience who were lying on cushions and daybeds sprawled across the entire area.
Creativity in Diversity
I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been dismissed as being no more than a little red dot on a map. Yet the way I see it, in an increasingly globalised world, our small proportions can also be a strength. New trends, influences and fresh ideas spread across our tiny island, creating fast ripples in a society where change and adaptability have become a way of life.
I believe I’m starting to see a new generation of young Singaporeans who are not only fiercely proud of their Singaporean identity, but who are also becoming increasingly clever in offering new products and services that blend a variety of diverse influences with local cultures and practices. Our arts scene, for example, is bursting with local talent who have become remarkably adept at creating uniquely Singaporean sounds. MICapella is lovely, as is The TENG Ensemble.
But the food and beverage industry is where many of our home grown stars truly shine. Bar Stories has started offering a food menu featuring delicacies from Ah Hua Kelong, a local seafood supplier. Some interesting inventions include pickled cockle crostini and grilled prawns with seaweed butter. I’ve also been told that restaurant The Naked Finn serves some delectable versions of our favourite street foods — think Teochew fish soup and hei mee tng (prawn mee soup). Also, who can forget Candlenut, our Michelin starred Peranakan restaurant helmed by local chef Malcolm Lee?
These days, I’m sceptical of critics who complain about the lack of creativity within our Singapore shores. Perhaps it hasn’t always been so, and perhaps it has taken some time. But our increasing exposure to diversity has led to a vibrant new generation of Singaporeans who embrace change and difference, and are able to harness it to feed their creative energies.
It’s a thrill to read about new developments and achievements in Singapore that stem from a new culture of innovation and creativity. Because even if I cannot directly be a part of this, there is an undeniable sense of pride to have been part of a society that made it happen.