The National Day Baby(also commonly known as August 9 Babies) project started as a personal question more than a decade ago, when I was at several crossroads of my life.
For many years, I was working hard so that I could leave Singapore for another country. But when I was finally given a chance, I wasn’t very sure if that was the right decision.
In mid-2001, I took the overseas job but in few than four months, I returned to Singapore and continued to wonder if I should be somewhere else.
I’ve often wondered about the meaning of citizenship, of being a Singapore citizen, about what it means to be a Singaporean, about what kind of citizen I should or can be.
I’ve also asked myself where I should live for the rest of my life, and if Singapore offers what I want and need.
I soon figured out that instead of just trying to answers all the rhetorics on my own, it would be better to cast a big net, to see how other Singaporeans feel.
In 2003, I woke up from my daydream and thought it might be good to do a birthday book for Singapore when she was turning 40.
Among many ideas that I contemplated, on the top of my list was a series of portraits of 40 Singaporeans born on August 9.
The 40 birthday babies chosen would be a reflection of our demographic, in terms of race, sex, religion, occupation, orientation, political beliefs, etc etc.
In 2013, two years before Singapore was to turn 50, I was approached by the Land Transport Authority of Singapore to update the project, thus expanding the original 40 profiles to 50.
I would be less than honest if I had said that this was totally my own idea.
One of my inspirations for this project came from the late Brian Lanker, an award-winning photojournalist, for his excellent book called I Dream A World. For over half a decade, Lanker photographed and profiled 75 black American women who made a difference. I believe his title came from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.
Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July, which became a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Tom Cruise, was another reason.
Like Ron, I am often conflicted about my feelings about my country. While I am very proud to be a Singaporean, I have my fair share of complaints.
Another important reason for doing this project is because I was born July 8, 1965, one month and one day earlier than independent Singapore.
I have always wondered if I would be more ‘patriotic’ and question less if I was born on the same day as the country.
Thus the August 9 Baby project.
The choice of picking people born on National Day is not one of sheer convenience. I believe these National Day babies will each have a special story to share. I want to tell them through pictures and words. I seek to find from them and in them answers to several basic questions that I often asked myself: Who am I? Who is a Singaporean? What it means to be a Singaporean? Am I typical? Am I Singaporean enough?
I am very glad that Land Transport Authority came forward to offer me a chance to renew and update this project, which I believe will continue to stick with me for years to come, even after the commission is completed.
For this commission, I was also particularly interested to look at some of the original personalities I profiled in 2005. I have a standard question for this group – “What changed in the last 10 years for you?”
While reflecting the Singapore demography was one of the important criteria in my selection of the people, I feel that it would be very myopic of me to stick to the numbers blindly.
For me, what’s more important is the individuals and the story each of them have to tell me.
As a more traditional documentary photographer with strong roots in photojournalism and having used images to benefit worthy humanitarian causes, I have always gravitated towards aspirational and inspirational characters and experiences.
I like stories of ordinary people doing the extraordinary. I like listening to people who were not supposed to make it but actually did.
I want the profiles to reflect our shared values, and among them, I will say that Singaporeans have a ‘never say die’ attitude. They are also perennial upgraders, always striving for a better life for themselves and their family members.
But life is seldom a smooth upward curve. I love sharing stories of people who take different routes to success and I hope such stories can inspire others. There are also many stories of sacrifices, by the people profiled as well as their loved ones.
In the 50 profiles, you will meet many heroes and they are heroic in their own way.
Mr Lee Seng Hang (1965) never stop upgrading himself, putting himself through a part-time diploma even after he became a father. His wife and in-laws helped him realize that dream. Similarly, he is also loyal, staying in one organization for almost his entire working life.
Mr Quak Hong Tin (1967) is a classic example of a filial son. He gave up his own interest in fashion design when his family needed him.
Mr Ashcvin Mani (1968) struggled for many years in lower-income jobs to get to where he is today – a director in a real estate company. His mother worked three jobs to raise them, and now, they are looking after her. When he was younger, work success was paramount. Now that he has a more steady job, he devotes more time for his family.
Pauline Ang (1976) is one of my personal favorites. She supported her husband throughout his tertiary education and after he got his PhD, she decided that it was time for her to go back to school. At 39, she is much older than her classmates in NIE, but she never let that get in her way.
Alfred Ling (1977) was born with Down Syndrome but his family never give up on him. The email his younger brother wrote to nominate him for this project is very moving but that was nothing compared to the real compassion and love I felt when I met his mother during the photo shoot.
If you have read what Hamdi Hamzah (1989) has to say about his parents, you can’t help but to feel envious about the love he receives at home. The family isn’t well off financially, but that never stop them from giving him the best.
Esther Subramaniam (1993) told me she wanted to be a singer 10 years ago but when I re-interviewed her this year, she had grown up and knows that pursuing her dreams may have to wait because she has responsibilities to her family. Does that mean she is giving up on her passion in singing? No. She just knows she needs to sacrifice a bit first.
I was also very touched by the experience of Adam Samir Ng, who lost his father, a former national swimmer. Listening to his mother talks about her courtship, the difficulties they had to overcome, and the future, just brought me to tears.
Having spent meaningful time with each of the profiles, they are more or less ‘my family’. And this was especially so for those I have met before.
When Rocky Koo (1982) updated me on his life for the past 10 years, including a near-death incident, I felt like I just met a very old friend.
I really feel honored and privileged to be let into their lives and I can only hope that other people ‘meeting’ these 50 ‘heroes’ at Marina Bay station will go away saying, “Hmm, I can really relate to what he went through.”
And if some people say, “She is so Singaporean”, I hope that can also be seen as a form of success.