Singapore: Multiculturalism or the melting pot?

Chief Editor of TOC, Choo Zheng Xi, will be leaving for New York University on the 27th of July. He’ll be in NYU to pursue his masters degree in law. As such, he’ll be stepping down as Chief Editor and he’ll also be leaving TOC. Andrew Loh will assume the Chief Editor position in the meantime.

Gerald Giam

With growing immigration from a more diverse spread of countries, will Singapore start seeing a dilution of our national identity as a result of immigrants insisting on their own cultural practices, even in the public sphere?

Last week, Straits Times reader Amy Loh wrote to the paper expressing her disquiet about the government’s emphasis on the need to speak Mandarin. This, she said, could be perceived as a clear signal to encourage residents of mainland China origin to choose to continue speaking only Chinese. She cited examples of how almost all new shop signs in Geylang are in Chinese only, fast turning this into a Chinese enclave.

In response, the Straits Times in an editorial slammed Ms Loh as being “xenophobic”, pointing to economically vibrant cities like London and Sydney as evidence that “recruiting foreigners” has brought great benefits to those cities. The paper went on to explain that the Geylang shop signs were in only Chinese for “purely commercial reasons”, as if that were an excuse for their cultural insensitivity.

This exchange raises another more important issue that Singapore, with its growing diversity and immigrant population, needs to start dealing with: The issue of multiculturalism versus a melting pot social make-up of our country.

Multiculturalism can be defined as a demographic make-up of a country where various cultural divisions are accepted for the sake of diversity.

A melting pot, on the other hand, is a society where all of the people blend together to form one basic cultural norm based on the dominant culture.

Countries like Canada and Australia have often taken pride in their practice of multiculturalism. The melting pot is often used to describe the US, where past generations of immigrants supposedly became successful by shedding their historical cultural identities and adopting the ways of their new country.

The Singapore model

The practice in Singapore has been rather mixed.

During the days of colonial rule, the British were happy to segregate immigrant races into different living quarters in the city, ostensibly in order to divide and rule the place more easily.

In the 1960s, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew actively promoted the concept of a “Malaysian Malaysia”, as part of his attempt to ensure that Singapore Chinese were not disadvantaged by a political system that placed Malay rights above those of other races.

In 1989, the HDB introduced the Ethnic Integration Policy, under which the major races each have a representative quota of homes for them in a housing block. Once that limit has been reached, no further sale of HDB flats to that ethnic group will be allowed. The government claims that this is to prevent racial enclaves from forming.

During the tudung affair of 2002, MOE suspended two primary schoolgirls for insisting on attending school with their Muslim headscarves. Hawazi Daipi, the ministry’s parliamentary secretary, said that ”schools represent a precious common space, where all young Singaporeans wear school uniforms, as a daily reminder of the need to stand together as citizens, regardless of race, religion and social status”.

Backsliding towards a segregated society

Despite this apparent commitment to making Singapore a melting pot, there are examples of how the government has been promoting multiculturalism instead.

The Education Ministry continues to insist on its Mother Tongue policy in schools, whereby Chinese, Malay and Tamil Singaporeans are required to learn the language of their own ethnic group as a second language in schools. Thus Chinese Singaporeans have no choice but to learn Chinese, even if say their parents are Peranakan and don’t speak a word of Mandarin. Similarly, Malays do not have an option to learn Chinese to the exclusion of Malay.

The Speak Mandarin campaign started out as an attempt to get Chinese dialect-speaking Singaporeans to switch to using Mandarin. Over the years, it has morphed into a campaign to get English speaking Chinese Singaporeans to use Mandarin in daily conversations. Government leaders seemed oblivious to the grumblings among many Malays and other minorities about the blatant promotion of one culture over all the others.

“Ethnic self-help groups” like Mendaki, CDAC, Sinda and Eurasian Association have been formed to provide social services separately to Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

Then there was the introduction of Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, which Mr Lee Kuan Yew sent his children to attend. SAP schools are given extra resources to nurture a generation of Chinese Singaporeans who are well versed in the Chinese language and culture. Again, nevermind the disquiet on the Malay and Indian ground.

Fast forward to last week, when the Straits Times all but condoned the use of Chinese-only shop signs in Geylang. Is our country sliding more and more towards a social model where it is acceptable for ghettoes of different races and people of different national origins to develop?

Many Singaporeans, and not just racial minorities, have expressed their irritation at service staff who are only able to converse in Chinese and not English, the de facto lingua franca of today’s Singapore.

With growing immigration from a more diverse spread of countries, will Singapore start seeing a dilution of our national identity as a result of immigrants insisting on their own cultural practices, even in the public sphere?

I hope not. Our nation may be young, but we have built up elements of a culture that is somewhat unique to Singapore — our local food, Singlish, a commitment to meritocracy to name a few. I welcome new immigrants who can contribute to Singapore. But I expect these immigrants to conform to Singaporean cultural norms rather than that of their country of origin. They should not think that they can simply continue to live and speak like they did back home, especially when interacting with Singaporeans.

As for local born Singaporeans, there is also a danger of our ethnic backgrounds taking precedence over our Singaporean identity. Chinese Singaporeans in particular need to be reminded that Singapore is not a Chinese country, even if their race might make up the largest proportion of the population.

Choosing the right model

I suppose there is no right or wrong in choosing multiculturalism or the melting pot. Different societies have tried both models, with varying degrees of success. Each nation will need to choose which one to emphasise more, depending on their unique circumstances.

My view is that Singapore needs to be more of a melting pot. This celebrates our commonalties rather than our differences. However this would necessitate giving up some aspects of our individual cultures, which some from the dominant culture may be loathe to surrender. But on the whole, I believe our society and culture will be stronger, more peaceful and more resilient if we emphasise our Singaporean-ness more than our Malay-ness or Chinese-ness


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