Musing #2 – The Singaporean(?) Identity In Crisis

I read with much excitement, “Hard Choices – Challenging the Singapore Consensus”, co-authored by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, both prolific writers and academics. Before you continue, I must first make it clear that this is not a critique of the book, nor a particular essay in the book. The book and the essay simply provided inspiration for the writings below.

In particular, as I was preparing for application into the Youth Corps Singapore and volunteering with the Southeast Community Development Council recently, an essay written by Sudhir caught my attention: The End of Identity?

Hard Choices - Challenging the Singapore Consensus

Hard Choices – Challenging the Singapore Consensus


To give some context in which Sudhir wrote this piece: in 2012, China-born Singaporean Feng Tianwei won Singapore’s first Olympic medal in four decades. Yet there existed much public outcry over how ‘a non-true Singaporean’ won an Olympic medal for Singapore, and therefore there was nothing to be proud about.

Yet the problem is not so much that Ms Feng has failed to integrate into Singapore. It is that the people who grew up in Singapore, myself included, have failed to integrate into Ms Feng’s Singapore — the Singapore of the future.” – Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

I agree, and disagree.

This then begs the questions of
“What traits define a Singaporean?”
and
“What is a true Singaporean society (now and future)?” 

I AGREE AND KEE CHIU
If one is born (and maybe) bred in Singapore, necessitates him a Singaporean? Let me raise a few examples.

1) Being born and bred here, – me. Therefore I am a true Singaporean? Maybe.

2) One is born here, but chose to immigrate elsewhere. Therefore he is still a true Singaporean? Depends. If he loves Singapore and embraces the Singaporean Identity, then he is. If he hates Singapore and therefore leaves, then he is not.

3) One is not born here, but is bred here. Therefore he is a true Singaporean? Likely. We could look at Mr Chen Show Mao, the Worker’s Party MP who was born in Taiwan, but moved to Singapore when he was 11. He served his National Service (NS) too, voluntarily. BUT, if we could consider the case of many other first-generation Permanent Residents (PRs), many of them would not serve NS, but are they still considered true Singaporeans? What about those Permanent Residents who have failed to respect the Singaporean culture? I am talking about the likes of Ms Amy Cheong who posted racist comments about Malay weddings in void decks in 2012. One would probably agree that in both cases, the PRs were not true Singaporeans.

It now seems rather clear that we could answer the question of “What truly makes one a Singaporean?.

Singaporean (noun) – a person, who may not have been born in Singapore, but clearly respects and celebrates the diversity and differences found in Singapore.

Mr Chen Show Mao is Singaporean, not because he is born and bred here. But because he loves our society, and that he is willing to serve the country. The same goes to every other ‘foreign talent’ that loves our society, and calls this place, home.

It seems that the public outcry over a “Singaporean’s” first Olympic medal in four decades is built simply (or maybe I am wrong to assume this), on the premise that Ms Feng is NOT a true Singaporean because she is not born in Singapore. There is simply not enough justification for such an outcry. Instead, the outcry would have been justified, if the public were angry over her not possessing enough Singaporean traits, and yet she was awarded the Singaporean citizenship, JUST SO BECAUSE ‘we needed’  her to win a medal for us.

Now that we have answered one of the two questions. Let us move on.

I DISAGREE LAH
What exactly makes up a true Singaporean society? Sudhir wrote about a Singapore of the Future. What exactly is that? And what exactly is the Singapore now?

Yet the problem is not so much that Ms Feng has failed to integrate into Singapore. It is that the people who grew up in Singapore, myself included, have failed to integrate into Ms Feng’s Singapore — the Singapore of the future.” – Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Native Singaporeans cling to a romantic notion of national identity that is now passé. For better or worse, the era of Singaporean national identity, the one that our founding fathers tried to establish, is fading.” – Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Or founding fathers – the initial members of the People’s Action Party that led the Singapore merger into Malaysia, and her subsequent separation from Malaysia, had to create a national identity out of a “polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia”. They thus had to create national identity and consensus through the emphasising of racially, religiously, and culturally neutral elements – essentially multiracialism. Many attempts were made, but perhaps the most striking ones focused on English as a common language to bridge the communication barrier, as well as the espousing of the “Shared Values”.

Placing society above self

Upholding the family as the basic building block of society

Resolving major issues through consensus rather than contention

Stressing racial and religious harmony”

Therefore our founding fathers tried to instill in our people, Singaporeans, the idea of multiracialism, in order to unite our country. It was an idea that, at that time, was so non-existent in the region. China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, it seemed, no matter where you looked, there was an emphasis on the predominant race.

In many countries, national identity develops from a common tribal base, whether stemming from ethnicity, as in Japan, or religion, as in Pakistan. In some other countries, national identity is nurtured initially through a shared values system — for example, freedom and opportunity in the United States.

On August 9th, 1965, Singapore had neither.” – Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it. – Lee Kuan Yew, GCMG, CH

Therefore Sudhir was arguing that the current Singaporean society is one that has deviated from the multiracialism ideas that our forefathers had painstakingly tried to inculcate in us, as that was the essence of Singaporean unity and identity.

Indeed, a true Singaporean society, is one that embraces and celebrates the idea of multiracialism.

A simple search on Google shows:

Multiracialism (noun) is a concept or ideology that promotes a society composed of various races, while accepting and respecting different cultural backgrounds. It is a society that consists of a diverse mix of people, whether it be relative to their ethnicity, language, culture, religion, or traditions. – Wikipedia

As I interpret in context, Sudhir is trying to say that the Singaporean society of the Future is one where there will be dramatic changes in the population mix. The number of foreign-born population will more than exceed those native-born. And therefore, Sudhir, argues that, we have to accept it (as can be seen in which he says that we have failed to integrate into Ms Feng’s Singapore of the Future).

On this issue, I take a more fundamentalist stance. As a society, we should go back to the most basic ideology that has united our society and allowed it to progress thus far. Multiracialism, is the idea in which we should embrace, and that foreigners who have decided to join us, should embrace it too. I think it is not too demanding, it is only acceptable, that foreigners that join us accepts and embraces the idea of multiracialism, for this is what makes us Singaporean. As Singaporeans, we should learn to look beyond the word(s) printed below “Country of birth” on our identification cards.

“It matters not where we were born. What matters is the ideas that we hold dear, and the respect that we have for the differences that each and every social group in Singapore possesses.”

Let us usher in a Singapore that is truly Singaporean.

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