Singapore Identity… Musings upon a Theme

What makes us who we are? Our identity, embodied in a million ways, crystalises our sense of belonging to what we call home. And if home is where the heart is Picture 103— where is our heart?

By Kirpal Singh

The Singaporean identity has been thrown into sharp relief by robust debates and discussions that have been taking place about and over the influx of foreigners. Apparently, Singaporeans are collectively questioning the wisdom of having too many foreigners inhabiting our small island-nation. In many ways, this is familiar. In the history of many other nations, there comes a stage when, as more people arrive, citizens become uneasy and anxious over how these new migrants might shift established values and priorities.

It’s worth remembering our migrant beginnings. In the early years, they came chiefly from China and India, but now they come from everywhere around the world. Ironically, these Singaporean Indians and Chinese, former migrants themselves, feel they are different from those arriving from China and India today. So the question, “Where is our heart?” becomes complex.

Defining Identity

Identity can come through simple, universal consensus, like how Americans are taught to joyously sing This Land Is Your Land in kindergarten. Often, identity isn’t easy to define because each person has his or her idea of what it means. Generalisations may (or may not) lead to conversations provoking a more profound understanding of identity. One could offer the formula “The Singaporean identity may be defined as one embracing hard work, honesty, open-mindedness, loyalty, commitment and prudence.” Yet it does not adequately cover all of our values — and none are unique to us. One could explore the complex notion of identity by pondering the opening lines of a poem written by one of Singapore’s foremost poets, Lee Tzu Pheng, almost 50 years ago. My Country and My People, opens with lines that remain memorable and quotable today:

My country and my people
are neither here nor there,
Nor in the comfort of my preferences,
if I could even choose —
And yet, worse than being alien
Is to be a patriot of the will.

Lee challenges us to understand that identity goes beyond mouthing half-understood terms! She invites us to ask, are we still “neither here nor there”? Is home still a vague idea, without grounded reality to anchor the hopes and dreams, the aches and pains, the joys and sorrows? And are most of us only “patriots of the will”? Meaning we know we should say we believe in Singapore, but would we die to protect our country? In a recent TV discussion, four out of 10 young Singaporeans interviewed openly said, ”No.” Shocking? Yes. But the young are unafraid of articulating their innermost feelings and thoughts — and unconcerned whether we are a nation in constant change or not, so yesterday’s values no longer apply.

Still Evolving

Apart from the nationalistic and patriotic, there are those for whom “identity” is merely an extension of pragmatic goals. For a long time Singaporeans were, literally, neither here nor there. The Malayan peninsular was the hinterland of our thoughts and feelings because we were considered one people for centuries. Things changed drastically after August 1965 when Singapore had to forge its own identity after being ejected from Malaysia. Every Singaporean student was then compelled to recite the National Pledge: “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves to be one united people regardless of race, language or religion…” While it would  be simplistic to imagine that the Pledge gives us our identity, it is fair to say that reciting it during school assembly, still a tradition today, is perhaps the one moment in every student’s day when he/she feels distinctly Singaporean. To grasp how others see the Singapore identity, I took a simple poll among my students, some colleagues and older friends. The responses? Mixed, but with some commonalities.

Food stood out big-time! Chicken rice took the lead, with fish-head curry and rojak  coming close. Then came, surprisingly but not alarmingly, Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, LKY— yes, L-K-Y. A friend said, “What unites most of us is that collectively we are all under the spell of LKY. Like it or not, we would not be who we are if LKY hadn’t been around, if our lives were not fashioned and shaped by him, and if our nation was not where he has been.” But for the young, LKY stands remote, a figure in their history books but not someone they necessarily identify with.

This significantly marks a shift from personality to locale. Singapore is a tiny dot on the map, but a dot whose reach is wide and grasp is tight. It receives ready global recognition today, making it attractive to carry a Singaporean passport. I know from the way the officers smile and welcome me at different airports that being Singaporean does matter. Many say, “I hear your country is very nice — clean, safe, stable. I want to go there one day.” Singapore appears to be getting an international reputation that inevitably contributes to a Singaporean identity, a sense of ourselves.

Ties that Bind
Some years ago I found myself in a well-known hotel in Hong Kong, the city often used as a comparison to and for Singapore. In the lobby waiting for my transport, I suddenly heard an unmistakable Singaporean accent. I turned and saw a young couple in an altercation with the hotel reception staff. I went to see what the kerfuffle was about and the young Singaporean said, “You know lah, these guys are trying to ketuk us…my girlfriend and I feel we are being conned, bullied. Eh, you also from Singapore ah?” I said “yes” and joined the verbal fray, arguing that a hotel such as this ought to have some decency when it came to treating its guests. My fellow Singaporeans agreed, “Ya lah, this kind of service really terok and after the three wonderful nights, not shiok at all.”

They were Chinese, I a mixed Sikh-Scott, but we bonded. We were distinctly Singaporean — our manner, our articulations, our immediate taking to each other (even if we would never have said hello in Singapore!). This is what our sometimes ubiquitous island-nation has instilled in us. We are starting to witness ties that bind… our Singapore songs, home-made films, particular (some think peculiar!) mannerisms, reluctance to pass judgement, reticence in the face of adversity. We may not do all things the same way but all Singaporeans seem to know when to stand back, and when to step forward. Though hard to pin down, it is becoming evident that there are numerous behavourial traits shared by Singaporeans, no matter what their complexion.

Now, we may ask, “Will the day come when all Singaporeans will be providing ‘typical’ answers and behaving in ‘typical’ ways?” I mean, by observing how people talk, eat or shop — we can pick out the Aussies, Brits, Americans, or PRCs — will we be able to say, “These guys are definitely Singaporean?”

What Unites Singaporeans?

Things That Make Us Singaporean, a little book published a few years ago, listed our Singaporean ‘favourites‘ — food to hobbies, and people to sports.

This collection of little gems, mostly one-liners, draws a sense of shared togetherness from Singaporeans. Many said Singa and the Merlion unite us, others alluded to the Zoo and the Night Safari. The small book makes it clear that there’s absolutely no consensus on what really makes us Singaporean. All we can confidently conclude is that we Singaporeans are a very varied bunch with an array of likes and dislikes. We rarely speak up, yet are known for our somewhat transactional, pragmatic mentality. Though not universally acknowledged for our humour, there is such a thing as “Singapore humour.” Above all, we work hard, very, very hard. This determination to get things done encapsulates the Singaporean spirit. While these are too simplistic to warrant ‘identity’, they are general ground truths that most Singaporeans take for granted.

As I look back over my 64 years in Singapore and ask what is it about this country that draws me to it and gives me a sense of belonging, my easy response is: “I have seen it grow, mature and become the wonderful metropolis it is today.” But is this ‘identity’? Should we even simplify it by attempting to ascribe fixed frames to ‘identity’, which these days keeps changing?

Questions to Ponder

Mass migration continues as a global phenomenon for economic, political, self-discovery and humanitarian reasons. It challenges traditional descriptions of identity, home, etc, making one wonder if the question is even valid in this era of global citizenship. By pinning it to specifics like Singlish, chicken rice, recognisable accents, are we too caught up in trying to articulate something that is indefinable?

Is this a ‘new country’ consciousness which we exhibit? Or is this necessary for a young country which hasn’t quite arrived at an identity of its own? Especially now as Singapore is dealing with large scale migration that is throwing our unformed identity into very choppy waters and muddying further what the Singaporean identity is. Alas, when it comes down to the individual, we might ask ourselves, “does it really mean about feeling at home in one’s skin, or being confident about oneself, whether it’s Singlish, Queen’s English, Chinese or half-Scottish?” So what say you? Do we recognise ‘home’ when our taste buds begin to moisten? Does the  Singapore identity even matter to you, or are you happy to carry on living your life without asking this question? As for those not searching for the Singapore identity, what more of the Singaporean way of life do you want to see before giving an answer?

The writer is Associate Professor of English Literature at the Singapore Management University.

Thinking About Identity

The country has grown, matured

The economy flourishes

The people appear happy —

Well, to a point —

to be happy they say, is to

own and own and own

houses, cars, businesses, what you will.

I ponder as I travel to new lands

I note that different flowers

Mean different things to men and women

This difference being accepted.

Will my beloved Singapore, too, now

Accept its many different flowers

Allow their different scents to exist?

Perhaps this will provide a basis

For unity, for what they term ‘identity’?

— Kirpal Singh, June 2013


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