Singapore – a nation or merely a state?

Singapore has a nascent national identity despite being lacking the depth of culture, linguistics and history which many other nations possess, said a group of panelists representing academia, the legislature and civil society.

And while this represents good progress in the country’s 45 years of existence, significant challenges still remain in its developing of a strong and coherent sense of nationhood, they said.

This was the consensus the four panelists reached on the question of whether Singapore was a nation or merely a state during the Singapore Forum on Politics, held on Saturday (15 May) at the National University of Singapore. Organised by the NUS Political Science Alumni, the bi-annual event – in its sixth edition this year – was attended by over 80 members of the public.

While Singapore may not be considered a nation in a cultural sense of the term, it could be regarded as one in the political sense, Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Singapore does exist as a political community, in which the State articulates a common will and shared destiny and thereby seeks to “concretise” a national identity, he said.

Social and communal ties between citizens have also fostered a unique Singaporean identity, NUS Associate Professor Paulin Tay Straughan said.

The sociologist and Nominated Member of Parliament said that existence of such an identity is evident from the sense of otherness and the awareness of differences from foreign communities and countries, something which Singaporeans feel when they travel overseas.

For People’s Action Party Member of Parliament Hri Kumar Nair, the fact that Singaporeans are concerned with issues like immigration and influx of foreigners shows that there is a growing sense of national identity. Rather, it would be a problem if no such reaction occurs, as it would indicate that citizens had no sense of belonging and identity.

He added that nation building in Singapore is a “work in progress”. He noted that similar debates over national identity are occurring in countries with comparatively longer and richer histories and cultural identities, such as Germany and the United States.

The panel also included Mohd Nizam Ismail, chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals and banking professional, who focused on offering the perspective of a member of an ethnic minority and civil society activist.

The 80-strong audience raised concerns on various factors that could undermine the development of a strong national identity, such as immigration, S’s economically-driven corporatist ethos, lack of space for political activism and unstable race relations.

With regards to the corporatist nature of Singaporean society, Professor Tan acknowledged that the focus on tangibles and quantitative approach to decision-making in Singapore “may be too technocratic, too narrow and not democratic enough”.

He also agreed with the observation by a member of the audience that political activism was an important expression of citizens’ sense of ownership and national identity, noting that that there have been signs of growing civic action and grassroots activism. These include the petitions against the demolition of the old National Library and the redevelopment of Chek Jawa.

Mohd Nizam agreed with Professor Tan on the potential pitfalls of an economically-driven Singaporean ethos, saying that it may result in greater resentment from minorities against government policy. This was especially so on the labour front.

Many top employment opportunities and scholarships have been taken up by foreigners, especially from China, as a result of foreign talent schemes and the meritocratic system. This creates an impression that minorities have to face greater competition from both the majority group and foreigners when seeking top-level opportunities, which in turn could damage race relations, he said.

Race-based policies may too undermine the efforts to build a strong national identity, Mohd Nizam said. These include racial categorisation on identity cards and the ethnic in public housing, with the latter placing undue disadvantages for minorities in terms of a limited market size when selling flats. This is because flat owners from ethnic minorities are forced to sell their flats to members of their minority group, in order to preserve the quotas.

In response to these concerns, Hri Kumar acknowledged that the system of meritocracy and some of the race-based policies, such as the various ethnic self-help organizations and Special Assistance Plan schools, may result in lack of interaction between people of different races and thereby inadvertently foster racial intolerance.

While acknowledging the problems the existing model throws up, he said that “meritocracy is what we settle on”, as a “not perfect, but sensible system”. He also emphasised the need for the government to govern within the context of the situation on the ground, citing the recent debate over mother tongue education as an indicator of strong feelings on the importance of cultural education in Singapore.

Nonetheless, race relations in Singapore and the progress made in this area is at the same time something to be celebrated, Hri Kumar said.

He related an experience he had whilst travelling in Thailand with two Chinese friends. As the trio approached a drinks stall on the streets of Bangkok, the vendor immediately identified them as Singaporean, even though they had not yet spoken to him.

“He said, ‘People of different skin colour walking together must be Singaporean’,” Hri Kumar said. Racial diversity and harmonious race relations have become a significant aspect of the Singaporean identity, locally and abroad.

“That’s our branding in the eyes of a Bangkok drinks seller,” he said.


By Wong Chun Han


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