Nationally Speaking: The Immigrant Identity

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By Michelle Zhu (15A01B)

In conjunction with National Day, Raffles Press is launching Nationally Speaking. Posts under this column analyze and comment on affairs and discussions of national significance. Submissions are welcome at

Note: the opinions expressed in this article are purely the author’s own and do not claim to represent a larger social trend.

My parents came from China and most of our relatives still live there. Gatherings of family friends often lead to heated discussions about politics and society in China – so you can imagine my surprise when, on the day after Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away, my dad suggested that we pay our respects to him at Parliament House (despite the 8-hour long queues). Equally surprising was one of our family friend’s (also from China) comments when we were looking through the NDP funpack: “You must respect the flag! Singapore is our country and the flag is very important.”

SG50, the upcoming elections, and MRT breakdowns – the online discussion about Singapore in recent months has been more frenzied than ever. Underlying much of the talk in the past few years has been that of immigration and “foreign talent” in our society, often seen as undercutting our local culture, stealing our jobs, clogging up our trains and buses. As a second generation immigrant myself, some of the more blatantly untrue accusations have inevitably grated on my nerves.

The identity of second-generation immigrants worldwide has always been in question. Are they native, or are they immigrants? For many, both nationalities and histories are central to their identities. I have known quite a few Filipino friends who pride themselves on being Filipino and speak excitedly about the distinct Filipino habits that permeate their life. My personal distaste for China is not a secret among my friends, but I nevertheless retain a keen and almost instinctive interest in the country – its lack of political and social freedoms, its booming economy, its education system.

I was sitting with the Press EXCO in a café one day chatting over coffee and all-day breakfast, when my dad calls and asks where I am. My Chinese accent has always been something of a novelty among my friends, and on this particular occasion I tell him “Upper Thomson Road”, thinking nothing of it – until they burst out laughing. Somehow, this isolated incident has become an inside joke with not only EXCO, but also my group of close friends and even my class. Inevitably, there will be differences between second-generation immigrants and “locals”, some more obvious than others.

There are some of us though, who would prefer for these differences to not be a way of “otherisation”. If a second-generation immigrant identifies as Singaporean rather than Chinese or Indian, are we justified in otherising them by virtue of who their parents were, especially for the people who are pretty well assimilated into our society? People are often surprised when they find out my parents are not local, exclaiming that “but you speak English so well!”

Interesting enough, my conversations seem to have revealed that I am more patriotic than many others around me. Quite a few people I know would not hesitate to emigrate elsewhere given better opportunities, or actively want to leave this island. Others look at national day and anything related to patriotism with apathy bordering on distaste. Lee Chin Wee’s article on being an ever reluctant patriot sums it up quite nicely – many identify as Singaporean simply because they happened to be born here.

But for immigrants, the case seems to be slightly more complicated. My parents came to Singapore 20 years ago looking for better opportunities, as do many immigrants. Now, we would never dream of moving back to China, and not just because of the opportunities Singapore offers. My family sees this island as home (perhaps inevitable after living in a place for 20 years), and enjoy hawker food as much as the average Singaporean. The move here may have been pragmatic, but the sense of belonging we feel with Singapore definitely goes beyond that.

Unlike some of my friends who want to leave Singapore for good, this place is likely to continue to be my home, and not just because I’m inordinately attached to laksa and bak kut teh. For me at least, there will always be an added element of where I would be if my parents hadn’t moved to Singapore twenty years ago and the vastly different life I’d have had in China. While queuing outside Parliament House in the middle of the night, my dad talked about how we should be more grateful for what Mr Lee and his contemporaries have done to make Singapore the bustling city it is today. True, we have our fair share of social issues and MRT breakdowns, but we are also one of the safest countries in the world. Our annual visits to China, for someone who has been born in air-conditioned comfort here, only reinforce my gratitude.

Some would accuse this of not being true patriotism. Can love for a country be founded on misgivings of another? Yet what is our Singaporean identity founded on? An appreciation for how far we’ve come, or a shared love for Singlish and kopitiam food? I would argue that many immigrants have all that, and more. The recent talk of new Singaporeans not being real Singaporeans seems narrow-minded to me. That these people have chosen to give up symbolic and often emotional ties to their country of origin should be testament to their considered decision to identify with Singapore. Some of these people may in fact be more fervently patriotic than their “native” counterparts.

Definitely, many of these people become Singaporean for pragmatic reasons. But as long as they actively seek to become one of us for reasons beyond the economic ones, should we be excluding them from this possibility? There will always be those who identify more with their home countries, but it seems unfair to paint such a diverse group of people with the same brush. As Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday, maybe it is time for us to broaden our ideas about who can be Singaporean, whether they come from China, India, Vietnam, or America.

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One thought on “Nationally Speaking: The Immigrant Identity”

  1. Thanks for the nicely written article about your experience as a second-generation citizen of Singapore! I concur with your questioning of what exactly the Singaporean identity is, and would like to add that in my opinion, what we consider as quintessentially Singaporean may become outdated in a generation’s time, or perhaps even less.

    When people consider what makes one a Singaporean, they generally focus on the way we interact and the lifestyles we lead – these may very well disappear or at least evolve beyond recognition in the distant future. All those childhood games of yesteryear that we experienced recently at RI’s National Day celebrations, including country erasers, that marble game that requires good aiming, five stones… do kids actually play them these days? Our glorious hawker food, including prawn mee, curry fish head, chicken rice etc. might one day disappear off the face of Old Airport Road, if no youngsters are willing to take up these tiring jobs. To add, the newer HDB estates (especially those in DBSS?) may give a different vibe from those built years ago, making the whole experience of life in Singapore different from what is ‘definitively’ Singaporean.

    Taking all these into consideration, it is perhaps time to revisit the question: what exactly is the Singapore identity? Like you, I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that question. 50 years on, I believe our national identity is still a work-in-progress. And as you said, “As Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday, maybe it is time for us to broaden our ideas about who can be Singaporean, whether they come from China, India, Vietnam, or America.”. After all, we are a country of immigrants and it looks like that is going to remain.

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