took a stroll from clarke quay to bayfront the other day and seeing an american couple with the downtown backdrop suddenly reminded me of new york and the above track which was once a mainstay in my “top 25 most played songs” playlist on my ipod classic (30gb). with jay-z taking everything away to tidal i had to rely on a makeshift coachella live version (that didn’t have the iconic alicia keys singing but bridget kelly had a good take nonetheless) for my throwback.
its surprising that i didn’t even once listen to the track as i walked down one avenue to another last summer while i took in the towering, eclectic landscape that new york offered. probably because ultralife was on repeat all day (no regrets about this though). i realise how incredibly lucky i am to have even had the chance to spend 4 days in the big apple, looking down at the streets from the empire state, talking to laura osnes, seeing colbert live and so much more. and it was hardly enough time to even cover manhattan properly. those 4 days (spent with incredible company and preceded by a lovely boston stay) reinvigorated some of the fraying reserves in me. in the lights of times square and the noise of the footsteps and dynamism of the architecture i felt the boundless opportunity and hopes that the city had to offer. i felt excited for life and for uni and i bought that back to sg and seized on it the best i could before it dissipated in the face of withering realism but in those spirit-fuelled two months after my return i decided to join RAG, took on a module i had a genuine passion for (though i was supposedly unprepared for it), joined things i probably wouldn’t have had the guts to otherwise. in many ways it does feel like a continuation of what i used to do but heading into 2018 with the idea of consolidation and focus, perhaps the drive to go big will see some tangible results.
jay-z in his song acknowledges, with inspired lyrics and a genuine love for his city, the wonderful things that NYC has to offer but he doesn’t shy away from the truth about some of the pitfalls people get themselves into in the third verse. in the album track listing he even says:
What sticks out to me about the record is the aspiration and hope—that there’s a place where you can become something. But you have to be aware that there’s a downside to living in New York, or any major city. You can get sidetracked and swallowed up, which is why the third verse is the way it is. I’ve seen it happen so many times. But if you can overcome the trappings, you can be successful. Hit records resonate with the broadcast audience. The inspiration in that record connected—all over the world.
and by no means is new york a perfect place – homeless people at street corners, workers not getting paid enough for the work they do, barely getting on by, gentrification and so much more. no city, let alone country, is perfect. but only through tacit acknowledgement of those issues can people embark on the road to resolving them. i’m no specialist in american politics, let alone new york city current affairs but i do sincerely hope that things are being improved on those fronts (just as crime rates are now the lowest in any US city).
but what i find fascinating is the fact that new york even today stands as the main beacon of opportunity and a better life in america. new york is a cultural icon, the goliath among cities… asian cities in particular leave something to be desired on this front, even though places like tokyo and bangalore are lovely, multi-faceted cities (haven’t been to any chinese cities yet but i’m sure that places like shanghai, guangzhou more than qualify). maybe its the image that is portrayed to the rest of the world. i’m not sure what exactly it is.
but looking at singapore as i often have ever since coming back last year, i see in place everything that makes new york the icon that it is. yet i wonder why so often people only see singapore as a stepping stone to some place else. not the endpoint or the destination that people aspire to. why can’t singapore be in that echelon of cities. not a replica of new york (and most certainly not possessing the flaws of other cities) but a place that holds its ground in its own right. maybe there is a need to tweak the culture narrative surrounding singapore – to have more anthems from the jay-zs and alicia keys of sg, to have our identity shaped mostly by the people rather than from the top down (this of course is an enormous task, starting with engaging people on the importance of said culture in life and not just success in the economic sense), just to list a few. maybe there is a need to heighten a “borough”-esque pride in the clementis and yew tees. and of course i’m in not position to know how all this fits in with the larger central planning concept that has seen singapore through the unpredictable tides of the past 50 years.
yet i do know if we don’t seek out this larger vision of singapore taking its place on the world stage and pledge a deep commitment to it going forward, we won’t be maximizing the full potential of what our city-state has to offer. from gardens by the bay to f1, we’ve taken baby steps to that future but more has, and needs to be done. and it has to start from the grassroots up for that is the only sustainable way. and even though the possibility of failure in such an undertaking is immense, we have to be able to break our risk-averse mold and give it a shot. whatever that does come out of it will help us grow in a way that gdp stats will never be able to encompass.
and so as much as i want to go back to new york, boston and paris and live and work there for a few years my heart will always call me back home – to take singapore to that next level. i hope that in the next few years the concerns of day-to-day living do not shadow and gnaw away at this dream of mine. sg can be so much more, and it will.