I am astonished by the furore over the absence of fresh chicken in Singapore markets. Is chicken an existential food? If it is, Singapore is doomed.
Yes, who would not prefer fresh food over frozen food? However, habits and expectations must change as circumstances do. Just three decades ago, it was customary for stallholders in wet markets to slaughter chicken on the spot, leading blood and offals to clog drains in those markets. Markets have grown much cleaner in the years since then, people queue up to buy fresh chicken (slaughtered more hygienically elsewhere), and chicken is still chicken. Why should it be habitually different for consumers to adjust their palates to frozen chicken? Yes, again, this country is diversifying its sources of chicken supply. But even diversified sources of supply add to the leverage that other countries have on Singapore. When it comes to chicken, which is not even a staple diet such as rice, why not match culinary demand with patterns of supply?
Why should the citizens of a resource-starved country allow themselves to believe that their buying power can override demand-supply curves in other countries, the legitimate need for foreign governments to feed their populations before exporting food, and any other political calculations that might enter the map of globalisation, which is fraying around its edges?
Why are Singaporeans so confident as to believe that the world owes them chicken for dinner?
They are confident perhaps because they have forgotten that the world does not owe them a living in the first place — no job, no income, no breakfast, no lunch, no dinner, no vegetarian meal, no non-vegetarian meal, no chicken or beef or pork, no food. Nothing.
I believe that it was this realisation in 1965 that has enabled Singapore to survive. All that this country had on August 9 that year were its borders. There was no SAF in its present form to protect those borders, no HDB as it exists today, no CPF savings to underpin the extent of public housing that is a visual commonplace now. There was little but a people imbued with a vision of themselves as an unlikely nation in the making. Surprisingly, Singapore has not only survived but succeeded as a nation, thus vindicating the mood of its Merdeka generation. It is that independence generation whose stoic, everyday grit today’s generation must remember and cherish if Singapore is to continue to thrive. I am sorry if this sounds like a platitude, but it is true.
I am not a political dinosaur. I understand that life expectations are always work in progress. The Merdeka generation was economically thrifty and politically conservative because it had emerged from the turmoil that had produced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. The preceding Pioneer generation was even more survivalist by instinct because it had emerged from the horrors of World War II and the Japanese invasion and occupation of Singapore, the darkest phase of its history.
Those times were different: Those people were different. Everyone understands. I understand.
But there is one enduring connection with the past. This is the inevitable fragility of an island city-state in a predatory world of continental powers vying for global supremacy. That recognition would entail the further realisation that while globalisation increases Singapore’s economic heft and provides it with the financial wherewithal to invest in a credible deterrent force, the scope and pace of globalisation do not lie within Singapore’s control. Needless to add, great-power aims and objectives do not lie within the ameliorative ambit of intervention by small states such as Singapore; the amelioration of great-power conflicts is a matter to be resolved (or not) among them.
Admittedly, Singapore’s fragility is reduced when it is absorbed into the strength of Asean, a substantial regional organisation whose ability to speak with a single voice on international issues amplifies the interests of all its members. However, Asean is an international and not supranational institution such as the European Union. It would be naive to expect Asean members to agree on every issue of consequence facing them. For example, Asean members have not reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the same set of punitive measures such as economic sanctions. Indeed, they have not been equally vocal in denouncing the invasion itself.
The contest of wills between China and the United States could generate centrifugal forces in Asean, with some countries bandwagoning with the rising Asian power and others against it.
To return to Singapore, this country will be tested by such developments, possibly not to the extent of questioning its survival but probably to the extent of placing a question mark on the future of its admirable record of success. There simply is no guarantee that Singapore will flourish in accustomed ways.
However, there is one guarantee. That guarantee consists in the studied faith of the Singapore people in their ability to mould their future within national borders. This is why Singapore has survived. It has survived because Singaporeans have learned to relate to one another across race and religion, adjust inherited culture and custom to the changing mood of fluctuating times, and have created an indigenous social basis for Singapore’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
From time to time, upholding that fundamental contract between citizen and state will require behavioural adjustments.
Fresh chicken is a nice thing to have. What is more important is that Singapore should not be held hostage by its shortage, which might prove temporary after all.
Other kinds of chicken also are chicken.