Our traditional customs are part of our identity in Singapore. But as they get reinterpreted for a global future, what are the consequences?
While older relatives insist things aren’t the same as the good old days, there is merit in progress. But “improvements” also mean that kampongs give way to condos and mother tongues get overtaken by English. Sometimes, Singapore feels like the least Asian city in Asia... does that mean we may be in danger of losing some of what makes us who we are?
One tradition that’s evolving incredibly rapidly is weddings. Traditional Malay weddings are guided by adat or “customary practices”, which originally come from ancient court traditions. It is a complex process. The groom’s family meets the bride’s, followed by a proposal ceremony and a host of prewedding events. When it’s tough enough to organise dinner with friends when everyone is working full-time and spread over Singapore, it’s easy to see why some couples are turning away from these traditions because they just seem too cumbersome.
But it’s not just convenience that’s causing the changes. In April, Singaporean Chinese mark Qingming by cleaning graves and offering food and incense. It’s a way to honour their ancestors and reconnect with their heritage. As old cemetaries are being relocated in land-scarce Singapore and more people are choosing to have their ashes scattered at sea, will this tradition fade away completely?
Public dance and music performances used to be ubiquitous at Hindu temples. In the 1930s, dance performances were so widely appreciated, that troupes based the length of their shows on how many people were watching. These days, grants help promote temple dance forms and troupes still perform – but now, you’re likely to catch them in the Esplanade Theatre.
Social (media) evolution
Some of our more colourful traditions are faring OK – take the Indian religious festival of Holi, which is now popular worldwide. Even if it’s marketed as the sanitised Colour Run, it helps us to continue to participate in this part of our culture, and to share even more widely. Even as things change and the old makes way for the new, there’s something cyclical about how some things become popular, which make us feel like some traditions may come back. But actually, the best traditions go beyond nostalgia. They take time, effort and care – and that’s why they matter. They help us shape our own identity and connect with our heritage. Traditions can and do evolve with the times, but it’s always about self-expression and connection. For now, we’ll just have to decide what Singapore traditions we let fade, and what we keep. Let’s just hope hindsight is kind.
Images SPH - Shin Min Daily News, The Color Run, 123RF.com.