Becoming Singaporeans

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By Valerie Chee (15S07B), Michelle Zhu (15A01B), Chew Cheng Yu (16S06L), Sean Lim (16A13A), Kristal Ng (16S07C) and Monica Lee (16S06J)

This article is a preview from the upcoming Issue #5 of the Rafflesian Times, slated for release this week.


The signs of celebration are everywhere this year – from the SG50 Celebration Fund, to the familiar SG50 posters adorning our buildings and buses. For some, however, Singapore’s jubilee year celebrations may raise more perplexing questions rather than exude the pride and confidence a nation needs to bolster its national identity.

‘One of the reasons Singaporeans continue to be anxious after 50 years of existence is because our national identity is a utilitarian one based on functionalism. Nothing is sacred to us. The most important question we ask is – does it work?’ This was one of the insights that Dr Terence Chong shared with us when questioned on the important implications of globalization on Singapore’s national identity.

The question he raises is a salient one. National identity is not sufficiently entrenched in Singapore’s society for us to celebrate it with complete self-assuredness and without question. At a time when more people are becoming Singaporean rather than being born Singaporean, the matter of how to define our rather nebulous identity has become more pressing than ever. And for the increasing minority of foreigners who are either new to or familiar with our country, how exactly do they establish this sense of ‘Singaporean-ness’?

Why Singapore?
Looking back, one thing we can be certain of is our unwavering adherence to the pragmatic and meritocratic ideals that have governed our society for the past 50 years and are integral to our identity. Dr Terence Chong cites how ‘the Singaporean identity was born out of the trauma of Separation and national survival’ and ‘has been designed to embrace the very trends we find so disorienting. Meritocracy, competition, excellence and exceptionalism are integral to our national identity.’

The implementation of these pragmatic ideals has seen renowned success in our country, even becoming a source of pride for most Singaporeans. It therefore comes as no surprise that the increasingly foreign makeup of our society has grounds in this pragmatism that has been so central to Singapore, beginning with the motives of the immigrants themselves.

Natasha Lim (15S07D) recently immigrated to Singapore, drawn by the ethnically unbiased meritocratic system entrenched in Singaporean norms. Originally born in Malaysia, she pointed out that ‘in university admissions, even if Malays have lower scores than their Chinese peers who may get straight As, they would be accepted more readily… I feel that the environment is more friendly in Singapore, and I’m more protected here.’

Reis Low (15S07B) cites the ease of travelling and applying for visas that accompanies Singaporean citizenship as one of her family’s primary motivations for immigration, perhaps one of the pragmatic concerns that Singaporeans often take for granted. ‘Apart from my hopes for going to overseas universities which equates to applying for visas, my mother travels a lot for her work and it would be much easier with Singaporean citizenship to do so,’ she explains.

The pragmatism that surrounds this decision to emigrate is not confined to the part of the immigrant alone; it is also pertinent to those tasked with granting citizenship on a selective basis. Yuki Pan (15S06D) speculates that ‘Citizenship is given out on a purely practical basis. I would think that the ability to contribute economically would be the biggest factor, followed by the usual things such as criminal records, etc.’

What makes us Singaporean?
In daily life, we come into contact with a plethora of cultural symbols and institutions that promote a fundamental sense of belonging. A naturally-derived sense of belonging plays an indispensable role in forging the emotional bonds between individual and homeland, and this role cannot simply be replaced by the official, government-controlled ideals of what being Singaporean should mean.

For instance, food has become more than a means of sustenance for many locals, becoming almost a national obsession. Similarly, social norms like speaking Singlish have been established in Singaporean culture as trademarks of our identity. Speak Singlish to any seasoned Singaporean and you will be understood. Singlish, as Ms. Yu-mei Balasingamchow (RGS,1990; RJC 1992) puts it, ‘comes naturally to your tongue when you talk to your own people […] whether you’re in Singapore or abroad’.

Despite the government’s attempts at rooting it out, through the Speak Good English Movement and more, the incessant and pervasive use of Singlish has continued to endure. Ms Balasingamchow embodies this phenomenon well, telling us how she eventually found how to be ‘comfortably Singaporean in ways that may or may not gel with what official narrative says.’

‘You can say it’s important to speak good English and also love Singlish,’ she says. ‘They do not have to be diametrically opposed as government language tends to be. Because, obviously I’m always a stickler for grammar, that’s what I do for a living right, but don’t take my Singlish away from me lah.’

However, the extent to which such trademarks can represent the real depths of Singaporean identity is questionable. Ms Balasingamchow points out that much of the local hype and discussion about food can be rather shallow in nature. The Singaporean obsession with food ‘focuses on consumption rather than creation’ and can be mindlessly simplistic – she brings up the example of how there are different trypes of curries in Singapore, because of migrants who came from different parts of India, but we speak as though there is only one definitive type, fish head curry. ‘It is fine to be proud of our food, but I hope it doesn’t make you Singaporean to be harping on about how great our food is.’

Additionally, as much as language unifies, it can simultaneously lead to a sense of estrangement. For Blazer Challander (15S06G), who lived in the USA for 3 years before returning to Singapore, language plays a huge part in his integration. Despite being Singaporean, he feels different from his peers because of his American accent and admits to ‘trying to fit in sometimes by not sounding so American’.

Clearly, the endearing icons of Singapore culture are simply not enough to create the sort of deep-rooted sense of identity we see in countries with long-established traditions and norms that assimilates immigrants and preserves their shared heritage.

History and Culture
For many countries, what ties their people together is their shared history and culture. To our interviewee who was originally from China, Singapore has not ‘formed such a distinct sense of identity yet, as compared to the sense of identity in China’. The Chinese build their identity on their millennia-long and illustrious history; the Americans on their independence struggle and the ideals of the American Dream.

Some Singaporeans however, seem to be able to freely relinquish their national identities, as the people behind Neurotic Ramblings of a Singaporean Couple (NRSC) have. Shawn Ang (RJC, 2003) from NRSC testifies that ‘We can’t renounce citizenship yet, but for all intents and purposes we don’t identify as Singaporean.’ The ease with which many like him can give up their Singaporean identities is a disturbing trend, one which can be attributed to Singapore’s relative lack of a strong sense of history and culture, which is what binds people to their home countries.

Singapore does not seem to have that. After all, our official history dates back only 50 years, or to the colonial period. Unlike our neighbours Indonesia and Vietnam, we do not have an armed conflict in our struggle for independence to pull us together, and our people come from many places around the world, with no homogenous religion or culture. Ms Claire Leow points out that ‘to be Singaporean is to acknowledge our immigrant roots’. But such a patchwork identity is harder to grasp than say that of a Japanese or a Thai identity, where nationality is clearly tied to a single ethnicity; or even if we looked to American identity, that is dazzlingly multicultural, it has had a longer time-frame to gestate and cohere. Singaporeans often struggle to find an identity that we can reconcile, given our relatively short history.

Natasha puts it well when she notes now ‘that sense of nationalism is not active amongst Singaporeans, so I don’t really feel an active instinct to express my pride on a daily basis’. Of course, national identity is not solely a matter of flamboyantly proclaiming one’s love for one’s country, but that many of us feel the same way is telling of our difficulties, as a country, in finding our identity through pride for our history and culture.

For all our talk of equality and multiculturalism, we have not yet had time to find a comfortable balance. In Akash Lodh’s (RI, 2014) words, ‘It remains hard for the common man’s voice to be heard, or the rights of minorities to be protected, in favour of attaining a peaceful majority whose views should apparently be deeply respected at all costs.’

Yes, our multi-ethnic social fabric is something to be proud of, but it can also hinder our attempts to define an identity based on shared history and culture, especially given the wave of immigration Singapore has had in the past decade. Amidst the resultant insecurity surrounding the basis of our national identity, the government’s attempts to construct the official narrative of this identity has become seemingly necessary.

Gaining Citizenship
There are significant problems associated with trying to construct a national identity through the top-down approach we currently employ to target immigrants, which weakly attempts to cater to a wide demographic with the same facile methods. Most prominently, the government only recently implemented the Singapore Citizenship Journey (SCJ) for new citizens, the effectiveness and even necessity of which has been called into question.

The process works around community sharing sessions, heritage site visits, and an ‘e-Journey’ portal. This seems a little far-off from the immersive, thorough programme that the title suggests, and individuals who have applied or are applying for citizenship will be well aware of some of the seemingly extraneous components involved in this process. ‘I felt that it was not very useful, because they’re telling us things that we know already,’ Natasha commented. ‘At one programme there was a guy sitting next to me who has been in Singapore for 50 years […] They had bonding games but we didn’t really bond.’

Seeing that applying for citizenship requires a minimum Permanent Residence of 2 years, it is unsurprising that the SCJ has been received with a mix of exasperation and bewilderment by most of the parties subject to it. It’s clear that most people that apply for citizenship are not as ‘foreign’ as we seem to perceive and treat them. They can be people who have spent their childhoods here and grown up in the same education system, or at least lived in Singapore for a few years.
A sense of belonging is difficult, perhaps impossible, to cultivate through a one-off programme, whether it be the community sharing or the Singapore Experiential Tour. More often than not, it is linked to specific things – the people you know, a house you’ve lived in for years, a favourite childhood park. As Natasha tactfully put it, ‘(The SCJ) was fun…I’m not sure what the purpose of it was.’

Although there is no question that the SCJ and other similar initiatives are important stepping stones, lived experiences cannot be manufactured through purpose-built programmes. Because of this, the SCJ at times can come across as too clinical. ‘This whole journey obviously aspires towards meaningful integration but the online section is a few beats off,’ Reis comments, ‘From my jaded perspective, it is a collection of bad animations and blasé writing which has rather in your face motives, which means forced and ineffective assimilation. I write that based off the assumption that the applicants are people who thoroughly considered all aspects of their life and decided to give up certain symbolic emotional ties to the nation of origin… such a big commitment obviously means that they must have an idea of Singapore’s culture and norms.’

Perhaps it can be partially attributed to these flawed attempts to artificially construct our Singaporean identity that so much confusion surrounds it. An anonymous Rafflesian, who is also a Chinese immigrant, correctly pointed out how ‘Singapore is such a developed country (that) it’s hard for any propaganda-ish ideas to take root…the government might be going a little overboard, and from purely personal observation, the people here are having a generally cynical view on the whole SG50 programme.’

Although not necessarily cynical in nature, many in the country do hold sentiments towards SG50 that understandably fall short of undying patriotism. As Akash puts it, ‘I think the fact that the government has to intervene a lot in terms of building up a stronger national identity is telling of the fact that the pride here is not as organic.’ The reality is that integration has never been entirely successful in our country, no matter how strongly we may preach multiculturalism and boast of inclusivity.

The Faults in Integration
It may surprise some of us that racial stigma still exists in Singapore; after all, we are arguably renowned for our racial and religious inclusivity – at least on paper. In practice, the ‘CMIO’ (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other) framework has done more harm than good in facilitating societal integration, by rigidly demarcating the percentages of each race category making up our society. As Yu Mei explains, the rigidity of the CMIO paradigm eventually leads to the alienation of foreigners, no matter how familiar they may be with Singaporean culture and norms.

Akash, despite having lived in Singapore for almost his whole life and even being born in the country, has always had to deal with feeling like an outsider. A friend of his described it as ‘the shame you feel when people hold their children closer when you sit beside them on the train, but let go when they hear your local-(ish) accent.’

Others, however, are able to integrate eventually despite the initial challenges involved. For instance, Blazer says that he feels more Singaporean than American because he was born here, and has been studying in RI for over 3 years.

Overall, we’re still far from perfect – a fragmented society that finds it difficult to rally the explicit, collective pride befitting of a jubilee year celebration. Perhaps we have succeeded in integrating people from different cultures into our economy by providing them equal opportunities at work, in school, and so on. But there is still a long way to go before we can genuinely claim to hold solidarity with all Singaporeans across all backgrounds.

As Singapore meets its 50th year of existence, it also meets the rising insecurity of its local people, whether citizens or permanent residents, in establishing a coherent national identity. While it is relatively easy to attain a sense of belonging through the various institutes, activities and symbols that make up Singaporean culture, being accepted as Singaporean is a very different matter, and one that many still struggle with.

With the tenuous sense of identity we currently hold, perhaps it is more appropriate to strengthen this by increasing our accommodation towards those we once perceived as ‘foreign’ to us, rather than needlessly amplify the sense of estrangement that afflicts these people on a daily basis. Especially since identity has become a highly fluid and abstract concept in today’s world, who is to say that you cannot be a true Singaporean without having a Singaporean citizenship?

When we share similar values, eat the same food and attend the same proudly inclusive and diverse institutes, there is little real need for an exclusive national identity to further confuse ourselves over the question of what is Singaporean and what isn’t – rather, SG50 should be an opportunity to celebrate our multifariousness. As Alfian Sa’at (RI, 1993; RJC, 1995) puts it, in The Invisible Manuscript: ‘What needs no clarification/if indeed we are in love/is the definition of you.’


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