Singapore river marina bay raffles
Image of Singapore river, Image – Terry Xu


By Ong Ye Kung

As we prepare to celebrate SG50 in a few months, recovering from the somber mood after the passing of our founding Prime Minister, many Singaporeans have become more reflective, asking what defines us as a people.

For the Chinese, 50 is the age of epiphany 五十知天命 where one knows the “Will of Heaven” – a metaphysical awakening about identity and the meaning of life.

The issue of identify and race was recently discussed at a lecture by Mr Ho Kwon Ping, Institute of Policy Studies’ SR Nathan Fellow. He said Singapore is becoming more diverse, and the concept of CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) that is used to categorize major ethnic groups in Singapore should perhaps evolve, by blurring the lines that differentiate each group.

What Mr Ho said resonated with a friend. She is in her mid 30’s and while she felt Singapore is not ready to do away with CMIO grouping, perhaps if we stop telling and reminding people of their ethnic categories, we can move towards a stronger shared Singaporean identity.

This desire for a strong Singapore identity is as old as our history as an independent state. It was etched in the words of our national pledge by our founding leaders – ‘regardless of race, language or religion…’ It is an ideal that endures and lives amongst old and young Singaporeans today.

There has always been a limit to the CMIO blunt categorization. Singapore has always been diverse. Within each community, there are numerous heterogenous sub communities. There are Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hakkas, Peranakans etc amongst Chinese; Orang Melayu, Boyanese, Bugis, Javanese, etc amongst Malays; Tamils, Malayalees, Sikhs, Sindhis amongst Indians. Immigration and inter-community marriages add even more diversity and color to our ethnic mosaic. CMIO does not capture even half of this.

As I was writing this, I whipped out my IC for a closer look. After all, CMIO is only on our ICs. We do not have CMIO branded on our foreheads.

My IC indicated me as O+ blood group – supposedly the blood group of the oldest human ethnic groups such as the Eskimos in Siberia and Red Indians in South America. That is why we can donate blood to everyone. But while interesting it is irrelevant to my identity now.

Then comes the important identity information, which have deeper meanings:

First, my IC says I am Chinese, and by extension, Asian. My thought patterns, my sense of self versus family and community, is different from those brought up in a western culture.

Second, my surname Ong indicates I am Hokkien, because Teochews would likely be Heng and Cantonese likely Wong. Our family on my father’s side were immigrants from Fujian province, but our ancestry traced back to Shanxi in China, where Ongs originated. We were villagers, with an innate instinct to help out each other.

Third, my IC is pink, and I am Singaporean and born here. I am a citizen of this small island that fought for its independence and success. I have many Singaporean experiences – PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination), National Service, National Day Parades, SARS, hawker centers, Kallang Roar, mourning the loss of founding fathers, ERP, Singlish. And even though being Asian is part of my identity, I am different from Chinese from China, from the way I speak, the way I behave, of the food I miss when I am out of Singapore.

Most importantly, I am different from Chinese from China because of my neighbours and close social circle includes Malays, Indians and Eurasians. So because there are other fellow Singaporeans carrying pink ICs with M, I and O on them, I do not melt into the identity of 1.3 billion Chinese in China. And I believe the same applies to other ethnic groups – my Malay friends who are Singaporean are different from Malays in Malaysia, and Indian friends who are Singaporean different from Indians in India.

The truth is no label can adequately capture the complex essence of a person, nor is it meant to.

The broad strokes of my identity, revealed through information of my IC, does not reveal many other deeper aspects that make up who I am. That I am a family man; that I enjoy team sports, music and painting; that I am also half Teochew; that I spent almost two decades in public service; that my late mother, a teacher, with her traditional and strict upbringing shaped and defined my life values.

My label as a Singaporean is inadequate in describing who I am as a person. But does not mean the label of Singaporean should be discarded or de-emphasized. It is an important starting point to describe who I am.

Likewise, being CMIO cannot be an adequate description for a stronger national identity, but that does not mean it should be de-emphasized or discarded.

I tend to think the national identity of an immigrant society like Singapore, is water in nature. We start with several major C-M-I-O ice capped peaks. The ice melts and flows into numerous streams and tributaries of sub communities, sects, clans, before converging back into rivers of shared experiences and national identity. Then all rivers flow into the sea of humanity, which evaporates into clouds that feed the peaks again.

Each part of the system cannot exist without the other. They are interdependent, reinforcing, and although different, never mutually exclusive.

We are better off if we respect and appreciate each other for all our rich diversity, treating everyone as equal, striving for a common destiny. As members of our respective community, we are also citizens of Singapore, with a lifetime of common experiences, creating an identity as a one united people.

This article was first posted on Mr Ong’s facebook page and is being reproduced with writer’s consent.

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