No identity without language, culture

KAVITHA KARUUM

As a child, a typical Deepavali morning for Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam started with his family waking up before dawn and taking a traditional oil bath in which gingelly oil is applied on the scalp and washed with soapnut powder.

The family would put on new clothes, share Deepavali greetings and head to the temple for prayers.

Today, Mr Shanmugam still follows most of these traditions although he doesn't go to the temple as often.

On Deepavali this year, he visited the Jurong Fire Station in the morning and spent time with the Home Team personnel deployed there.

"After I took on the Home Affairs portfolio, I've made it a practice for all political office holders in the Home Team to visit front-facing units on festive occasions such as Deepavali, Christmas, Lunar New Year and Hari Raya," said Mr Shanmugam.

"In fact, Josephine Teo, Sun Xueling, Faishal Ibrahim visit different Home Team units on these days.

"Our police, SCDF and ICA team work round the clock and they may not get to spend time with their families during these festive occasions. This is a good opportunity for us to meet and thank them, and share festive goodies and celebrate the day with them."

Mr Shanmugam spoke about a wide range of topics - from his growing up years, his beliefs and principles to language, culture and his favourite Tamil book and songs - during an interview with Tamil Murasu at the Indian Heritage Centre last Saturday.

He said he was heartened to see the Deepavali festive mood return to Little India after three years. He had visited Little India, including Campbell Lane, which was buzzing with crowds and excitement.

Mr Shanmugam's recollection of Deepavali during his childhood illustrates his strong belief that maintaining language and cultural roots is key to shaping a person's identity.

"Beyond education, understanding both language and culture are key to knowing yourself as a person. I believe this knowledge gives people the strength and foundation to face any challenge in life," he said.

"Be it a Chinese, Malay or Tamil, I believe a person who isn't connected with his or her culture can be likened to a tree without roots... a willow in the wind.

"But while maintaining our linguistic and cultural roots is of utmost importance, it has become challenging to do so in recent times.

"We are fighting against the tide, competing with external influences like the internet, Hollywood and Western influences."

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged there were less distractions during his youth and he could focus on pursuing his personal interests in promoting language and culture.

"However, passing on language and culture to the young is a challenge for Indian parents," he said. "Today, we have many options for leisure activities and interests - and it's not wrong. Language and culture are but one of the available options for us.

"Students have much more homework than we used to and parents were home more then. The Government is doing its best, and the community and parents have to also play their part. All of us have to come together to fight this rising current.

"Tamil is one of Singapore's four official languages and is taught as a mother tongue in schools. The language has a firm place in Singapore,"

Mr Shanmugam noted that since the Tamil community is just over 6 per cent of Singapore's total population, collective effort is needed to promote and grow the interest in its language and culture - a drive he has had since young.

As a student, he used to be deeply involved in Indian cultural and Tamil language activities at university.

He was a noted Tamil student literary speaker and debater, and was a magazine editor of the National University of Singapore's Tamil Language Society.

"If we don't, who will? So a small group of us got involved and did our part."

Today, another key focus for Mr Shanmugam is the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), which plays a key role in advocating education in the Indian community.

Mr Shanmugam recalled visiting Sinda's tuition centres across Singapore when he was its president from 2002 to 2009.

"Students from less-privileged families would not have access to tuition had it not been for Sinda," he said.

"Sinda has been instrumental in uplifting the educational status of the Indian community.

"In that sense, supporting the Indian community has also been one of my important priorities."

Mr Shanmugam, who took over the Home Affairs portfolio in 2015, also counts rehabilitative efforts and support for drug offenders as one of his key priorities.

"We've helped them integrate into society and ensure they don't become repeat offenders." he said.

"The Government doesn't just see the complexities of drug abuse as merely criminal offences. We recognise it as a social and healthcare issue as well."

Despite a long and illustrious career as one of Singapore's top legal eagles before joining the Government in 2011, reading law was not Mr Shanmugam's first choice.

"In fact, law was a last-minute decision," he said.

"I matriculated in the science faculty and joined law after term started.

"After I joined law, my goal was to do the best I could. When I graduated, I wanted to be a good and exemplary lawyer. I think I have achieved that to a certain extent."

The self-discipline is carried through even to his lifestyle.

"I don't eat festive sweets. My diet consists mainly of salads and such," said Mr Shanmugam.

"Thosai is one of my favourites and I often eat thosai for breakfast. Of course I love Singapore's hawker food, too."

So, what about his mental diet?

An avid reader during his youth, Mr Shanmugam now reads mainly Tamil Murasu and hardly gets to watch Tamil movies.

But he is keen to catch the recent Tamil hit Ponniyin Selvan, as it is based on one of his favourite historical novels.

"I've read the novel Ponniyin Selvan, which the movie is based on. In fact, I've read all of the books written by its author Kalki."

Mr Shanmugam also shared his favourite song, quickly recalling the lyrics of two popular Tamil film songs with a philosophical touch.

He quoted lines from the song Paramasivan Kazhutthil Irunthu from the 1978 movie Thiyagam.

"The world will respect you when you are at the top. Even your shadow will step on you if your standing drops."

The other song whose lyrics he quoted was Kaalathil Azhiyatha from the 1966 Tamil film Mahakavi Kalidas.

"Be it ups and downs, abundance and lack, the wheel turns continuously and through that history is made. Everyone has a life and their day will come. Be patient until then, My Son."

Mr Shanmugam said: "These lyrics tell us about the transiency of power and positions, and the need to be balanced while assuming them.

"You need to drop your ego and perform your duty, whichever position you may hold.

"Don't go overboard when you are at the top and don't feel dejected if you are at the bottom.

"Everyone will have their day. Just be level-headed and go about your duties with calm. "

kavik@sph.com.sg

"Beyond education, understanding both language and culture are key to knowing yourself as a person. I believe this knowledge gives people the strength and foundation to face any challenge in life. Be it a Chinese, Malay or Tamil, I believe a person who isn't connected with his or her culture can be likened to a tree without roots... a willow in the wind." - Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam

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