Sunday, August 06, 2006

Post No. 79: On The Singaporean Identity

In view of the fact that our country will be soon celebrating its 41st National Day and with the recently concluded Heritage Festival 2006 in mind, I think that it is an appropriate time for us all to look at this issue of the Singaporean identity. What constitutes this identity? In other words, what is our identity as a nation and as a people? What is it that makes us unique and different from the rest of the world (even though it may be true that this distinctiveness of ours can only be recognised by our own compatriots when we are overseas, as Mr. Colin Goh, founder of, has pointed out in his Sunday Lifestyle column of 16/7/2006)? However, seeing no need for me to add to the multitude of possible answers which have already been offered in response to the above questions, I will not be attempting to provide answers to these questions. Instead, I will be discussing and examining the various issues that we all may encounter in our quest to define a national identity for Singapore.

Let me begin by addressing the question of why is it important for us Singaporeans to define a national identity for ourselves. In my opinion, the importance of this lies in that a sense of national identity helps in the fostering of a greater sense of belonging in people. From my viewpoint, there are many ways for how we are able to instil in people a greater sense of belonging to their countries and one such way would be to make them identity with it. Also, similar to how an individual would feel somewhat incomplete and/or inauthentic without a clear sense of identity, Singapore, as a nation-state, will most likely not be “complete” without a definite national identity of its own. Hence, it is evident that the importance of defining a Singaporean identity can be found in it being a crucial part of the process of fostering a greater sense of belonging in us Singaporeans and in Singapore’s ongoing endeavour of nation-building.

Moving on, I would like to briefly discuss Dr. Lee Boon Yang’s, Minister for Communications & The Arts, remarks, in his opening speech for the Heritage Festival 2006, that we should not be too overly concerned with the defining of a national identity for Singapore, as it is something which will emerge naturally in time and should not be rushed. In his speech, Dr. Lee also pointed out that countries, with longer histories than Singapore, are also still grappling with their own national identity related issues. While I do not dispute Dr. Lee’s reasoning behind his remarks, it is my opinion that we all may possibly not have the luxury of time to wait for a Singaporean identity to emerge naturally by itself. I say this with the increasing pace and impact of globalisation in my mind. As many observers have cannily pointed out, the phenomenon of globalisation has contributed much to the breaking down of national boundaries and also to the diluting of many countries’ national identities. Hence, faced with such a situation, it is my concern that if we do not put enough effort into a quest for a national identity and leave it to naturally emerge on its own, we may perhaps lose our national identity before we even manage to define what it is. Thus, while I agree with the sentiment that we all should not be too overly concerned with establishing a Singaporean identity, I also think that we all should not be indifferent to such an endeavour either. For if we Singaporeans do not concern ourselves with the establishing of a Singaporean identity, who else will?

Next, I would be focusing my attention on the question of whether it is possible to identify certain characteristics and traits of the Singaporean society which can be utilised to define a Singaporean identity. Personally, it is my opinion that those traits & characteristics which have been suggested so far fail to clearly define a Singaporean identity. I say this mainly for 2 reasons. One, these characteristics are not unique only to Singapore. And, secondly, these characteristics are not inclusive enough. For example, there have been those who suggest that we should use our institution of National Service to define a Singaporean identity. To me, having recently completed my NS, while I understand the sentiments behind such a suggestion, I also recognise its deficiencies. In case you all are not aware yet, Singapore is not the only nation in the world which practises conscription. Countries such as Israel and South Korea also have their form of military conscription. In addition, many are exempted and excluded from NS here in Singapore. This would include those from the older generations (before NS was implemented), Singaporean women and those males whom have been exempted from NS. Hence, it can be seen that since NS (as a form of military conscription) is neither unique only to Singapore nor inclusive enough, its value to the defining of a coherent Singaporean identity is very low.

Another trait which has been suggested to be used in the defining of a Singaporean identity would be Singlish. Indeed, Singlish is something unique to Singapore and very inclusive, considering that most people who reside in Singapore know and/or speak a little bit of Singlish (perhaps except for those staunch defenders of proper English). While I understand the concerns of those who are against the use of Singlish, it is my opinion, and that of many others, that the promoting of proper English should not come at the price of “sacrificing” Singlish; that, to me, would be too high a price. Just look at the Australians, they too have their version of “Aussie English” but do we see them trying to discourage the use of it or them becoming less effective in their communication with the world around them? Furthermore, I believe, though perhaps there are those who will dispute this belief of mine, that we Singaporeans have enough sense & sensibility to be able to discern when & where it is appropriate to use Singlish and when & where it is not. This belief of mine is shared by Mr. Colin Goh (see above) who, during a recent episode of “Real Talk”, pointed out that we Singaporeans are not going to write job application letters using the line of “Give me a job leh!”. Thus, it is my hope that while the government moves to promote the use of proper English here in Singapore, they would not wipe out Singlish. For all we know, if they wipe out Singlish, they may perhaps be wiping out a significant aspect of the Singaporean identity.

However, having said that, it should be pointed out that the Singaporean identity should be more than the use of Singlish. I say this because I think that it would be too easy and perhaps even too frivolous to just equate the notion of being Singaporean to the use of Singlish. I mean, it would greatly cheapen the value of being Singaporean if we just automatically regard anyone who can use Singlish as Singaporean. Call me idealistic but I believe that there’s much more to being a Singaporean than just the ability to use Singlish (which is, though I myself hate to admit it, after all has been said, a “corruption” of proper English).

In addition, I would also like point out that it would be perhaps better for us to not just look for characteristics and traits of the Singaporean society to define a Singaporean identity but to also look at what important values we all have in common or aspire towards. I say this bearing in mind while societal traits and characteristics are susceptible to change, values have a greater sense of permanency and have greater power to inspire & rally people. Example of important values which we can choose to adopt as the defining essence of a Singaporean identity can be meritocracy, multiculturalism and multiracialism.

Moving on, I will turn my attention to the suggestion that for Singaporean to truly define a national identity of its own, it would be necessary for it to have a matured and vibrant cultural/arts scene. Sadly, while I would not go to the extent of labelling Singapore as a “culture desert”, I’m afraid that the local cultural/arts scene may perhaps be suffering from a case of having the necessary “hardware” but not the “software”. In other words, we have the beautiful “durian shell” but this “durian shell” seems to be an empty shell with nothing much contained in it. Thus, I would suggest that while the government put their effort into the building of iconic landmarks, it should not neglect to also build the necessary cultural “software” to complement those landmarks. Of no use to us would a beautiful but empty “durian shell” be.

In addition, we need also seriously think about how strict or loose we set our definition of a Singaporean identity. On one hand, if we set the definition too loose and general in nature, bearing in mind that it is an item’s exclusiveness which gives it its value, we may find ourselves cheapening the notion of a Singaporean identity and thus diminish the sense of pride in people to be associated with such an identity. And considering that people most usually do not value what they obtain too easily, having too loose a definition of what a Singaporean identity is would most likely result in people (specifically Singaporeans) not valuing their pink I.C.s and/or red passports. Yet, on the other hand, if we set the definition too strict and too exclusive, we would be excluding a lot of people who are already here in Singapore from being seen as true Singaporeans, thereby alienating them. By this, I mean that if we determine that for one to be a true Singaporean, he/she would need to have quality “X”, we would then exclude those who are in all ways a Singaporean but who just happen to lack the quality “X”. Also, we would perhaps deter or repel those who want to be Singaporean though they were not born here in Singapore (i.e. foreign immigrants). Hence, in my opinion, it is imperative for us to find a proper balance between setting our definition of a Singaporean identity too loose and setting it too exclusively.

Having said that, I would like to move on to the delicate issue of foreign immigrants, specifically those who are dubbed as “foreign talent”. It is my observation that while most (hopefully, it is “most”) Singaporeans are generally positive or indifferent towards the influx of foreign talent, there are also those who have negative attitudes towards such a phenomenon. For the latter group, foreign talents are seen as not being true Singaporeans (despite some of them having already obtained Singaporean citizenship) and/or are seen as only here for the money and thus not fully committed to Singapore. Well, personally, I think that those who hold such negative perceptions of foreign talent maybe suffering from “historical amnesia”, in that they have failed to consider Singapore’s own history. For, as much we hate to admit it, most (if not all) of us are descended from ancestors whom have come from other parts of the world to settle here in Singapore. Also, do not forget that most of our ancestors initially came here to Singapore, not to settle down here, but to earn a living and make some money before returning back to their homelands. Thus, in my opinion, it would be grossly unfair and hypocritical of us to now accuse those immigrants whom recently came here as foreign talent of being here only for the money and not being fully committed to Singapore. Yes, I do concede that there may indeed be those amongst the newly-arrived foreign talent who are here only for the money and/or not fully committed to Singapore. However, if we use this as a justification to totally shut our doors to foreign talent, not only would it be detrimental to ourselves, we would also be shutting out those who really want to make Singapore their home and those whom, though they initially are here only for the money, after residing in Singapore for a while, become committed to Singapore. Thus, it is my opinion that we should keep our doors open to foreign talent, welcome them and make them feel at home, so that they will really decide to make Singapore their home.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that while most of us may be eager and anxious for a Singaporean identity to be defined soon, we should note that the process of doing so would most likely not be a straightforward and/or an easy one. Instead, there will most probably be a countless number of twists & turns that we have to navigate and a myriad of issues which we will have seriously consider along the way. Thus, while there will be no easy and/or straightforward answer to what a Singaporean identity should be, rest assured that there is an answer and that this answer, when found, would be a most significant one in the history of Singapore as a nation.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading this insightful article. In addition, I hope to share this in school as research material for a discussion. Thank you! :)

LCC said...

You're welcome, Anonymous (1/3/2011, 2353h)!

Hmm, just curious, are you a teacher or student?

:D said...

So, in your personal opinion, what will you regard as the one trait that will be able to be used to define most, if not all of the singaporeans? Also, I find your argument of FTs very interesting and refreshing. With all these bashing-of-FTs around us, it is nevertheless important to note that our ancestors came to this island with the same goals as these FTs, and who knows, one day these FTs may truly be able to integrate into our society!

Post a Comment