Why S Rajaratnam’s ‘being Singaporean’ quote is relevant to Loh Kean Yew’s world championship win

In the wake of shuttler Loh Kean Yew’s win at the BWF World Championships, becoming the first Singaporean to win it, there’s plenty of interest about his origin story.

Chief of all his nationality.

The 24-year-old was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1997 and spent his formative years in his home town, picking up badminton and subsequently representing the northwest Malaysian state in competitions.

When most of his peers his age would probably still be pondering about the future, Loh made up his mind and chose to move to Singapore to further his studies and hone his badminton skills.

Thus in 2010 that he packed his bags and moved to Singapore as a 13-year-old after receiving a scholarship from Singapore Sports School.

He became a Singaporean citizen in 2015 and served National Service as a transport operator.

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What does it mean to be Singaporean?

Amongst the thousands of congratulatory comments online, there were a handful of comments questioning his nationality.

And this is something that has come up in the past.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: What makes a Singaporean?

Does one need to serve National Service? Is it the ability to string a sentence using multiple languages before ending it with Singlish? Or is it knowing where the best chicken rice in Singapore is?

The answer to these questions is probably yes. But that would be superficial and sometimes we do lose sight of the fundamentals.

If one were to look at the fundamentals, look no further than one of the nation’s founding fathers S Rajaratnam.

Beside penning the National Pledge, S Rajaratnam, like many of the Party’s founding leaders, was a proponent of multiculturalism in Singapore, famously saying in Singapore’s admission to the United Nations in 1965: “We think of ourselves not as exclusively a Chinese, Indian or a Malay society but as a little united nations in the making.”

As a place that served as a port of call for many people back in the formative years, Singapore has seen its fair share of nationalities. Indeed, many first generation Singaporeans were not born in Singapore – a fact that is probably lost among the new generation of Singaporeans of today.

If one were to question someone’s origin story, it’s wise to first understand Singapore’s own origin story too.

And yet again we can seek some answers in what S Rajaratnam said in The Straits Times in 1990 – a quote that is oft-repeated throughout the years that follow.

“Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice.” 

To Loh Kean Yew, being Singaporean is perhaps less complex but not the least bit superficial.

“I have no regrets coming here, becoming a Singaporean and serving National Service. I have spent many years here and I feel like a Singaporean. And I’m proud to wear the Singapore flag on my chest,” he said.

And that is good enough for us.

Welcome home, champ.

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Cover photo credit: PAP and Tan Chuan-Jin Facebook page.