Hope for the Singapore Identity

Hope for the Singapore Identity

This article is a joint project by participants of  Writing For Hope, TOC’s inaugural blogger training programme. The writers were tasked to produce an article on the theme “The Singapore Identity”, and hit the streets to conduct interviews for their material.


By Winston Tay, Kelvin Chua, Hoch Y. Lim, & Darren Lai

Image credit: Light Bandit


There used to be a time where it was easy to tell if someone were a Singaporean or not just by looking at him or her. That was a long time ago.


These days, not so much.


As of 2012, there are 5.31 million people on this island, with less than 3.29 million of them native Singaporeans (because statistics from the Singapore government do not differentiate the native from the naturalised). That means a much less than 62% chance that the next person who walks past you is a native Singaporean, compared to back in 2000 when 91% of our population were Singapore Citizens.


But is our Singaporean identity to be played out as a numbers game, or is there something more intangible that we may be missing here?


Given the perceived widespread concern about how our “Singaporean core” is being diluted by our country’s open-door policy on foreign immigrants, and a long-standing debate on that elusive concept that is our Singapore identity, TOC went to the ground to get a sense of what people really thought of the issue.


The Young Singaporean


The value of a Singaporean core drew mixed insights amongst the youth that we spoke to. Ng Mei Ying, 15, a student, agreed that it is important, raising the example of how local food should be food cooked by locals, and not by foreign cooks who now dominate the many food courts now. And when asked whether she feels the Singaporean Core exists, she replied, “We are losing it… (I) don’t see much (of it) now in everyday life”.


At the other end of the spectrum, 18-year-old Dylan, a sales assistant, is not concerned with the notion of a Singaporean core at all, saying that that he does not plan to remain in Singapore in 5 to 10 years’ time. He did, however, have an impression of what a Singaporean identity consists of – “patriotism”, saying “I love Singapore” regardless of situation, service to the country, and listening to the government.


As to whether such an identity exists, Dylan concurs with Ng, believing that those among his age group feel it will die out, even though he feels that older folks in their forties will still harbour an attachment to Singapore.


The Old Singaporean


53-year-old Michael Tan begs to differ. Speaking in Mandarin, the unemployed Tan maintained that it was pointless to talk about the Singaporean Core or the Singapore identity, “because the government already decided to let foreigners come. It’s becoming more difficult for a Singaporean family to survive.”


Tan does acknowledge the existence of a Singapore identity exists, but maintained that it held no consequence to an individual’s survival. He shares his experience of trying to apply for a bus driver job five years ago, “The HR person told me bluntly, “We won’t consider you. There are many (foreign) applicants who are younger, able to work longer hours, willing to take lower pay.”” However, when asked why he did not plead his case to the union, Tan reserved comment.


The Adult Singaporean


But perhaps it is the working adults, who feel the most strongly about the subject (and again, over both ends of the spectrum), many of whom form part of the “sandwich class” that the government is currently focusing many of its policies on.


Desmond Tan, 37, an optician, doesn’t sense much of the Singaporean core around him due to the overcrowding, saying, “Singapore is too small a place to take more people. Now already 5.3 million
people. Another 2 million people (will be) too many. Transport how? Triple decker (buses)? Now already not enough jobs.” Without a doubt, Desmond knows the Singapore identity exists. But if we were plunged into war, he believes everyone will run, given the opportunity. “I also won’t defend,” he says.


Staffing consultant Yen Tian, 28, feels differently. She cites a sense of belonging to country being a reason for underlining the importance of having a national identity. “Everyone needs an identity,” she said, adding that one “can’t have shelter without an identity.”


She feels that while the Singapore identity does exist, it is changing, and will continue to change.  However, her definition of the Singapore identity is decidedly more negative, using terms like “selfish”, “kiasu-kiasi-kiaboh”, and “impolite” to describe the Singaporean identity. She feels that Singaporeans share a common trait of being too self-centred and self-absorbed adding that Singaporeans tend to be closed off and cautious, although they will be helpful if you ask them for help. Yen Tian also doesn’t understand why Singaporeans aren’t accepting of foreigners, saying, “After all, we’re all foreigners actually.”


Kenneth Koh, 30, architect, offers the government some credit to trying to “identify what is the Singaporean identity”, but doesn’t think it possible to properly define a Singaporean. “I don’t believe we have a clear identity now, because I think Singaporeans… have a varied history – we come from different places, and it’s very difficult to say what Singapore is about.”


Despite the government’s efforts, Kenneth doesn’t think the government has succeeded in trying to help its people identify with this Singaporean core. When asked what his own definition was, he said, “I think we cannot escape from the fact that we are a very clean and efficient society. We’re very functional, but at the same time, I think there’s this growing sense of rebellion against what this is about, against things that are too clean and too efficient.


But he feels the answer to the Singapore identity may well lie in the struggle against the authorities of what Singapore should be about. “Perhaps that in itself is the identity,” he says, referring to “the fact that people are sort of resisting these kind of aspects of society – cleanliness, efficiency, the economy, things like that.” Kenneth adds, “Personally, I am not adverse to (these aspects). Of course, all of us are enjoying the benefits of a very well-organised society, but of course I think there should be more room for personal expression.”


Though opinions vary as to the definition of a national identity and the value of a Singaporean core, even the most jaded will not deny the existence of both. But where consensus cannot be arrived at, perhaps there is a need to rethink our approach to the debate, and view our Singapore identity as a personal right rather than a national one.