Sunday, February 10, 2013

Who is a Singaporean?

"We are Singaporean because of the common responsibility that we hold towards one another, because of the common hopes and dreams that we share with one another, because we are stakeholders and the protectors of the future of our country. These are what unite us and define us. We feel proud to be Singaporeans because of what Singapore is and what Singapore stands for. No foreigner can share in this pride. We feel sorrow when misfortune befalls one of our fellow Singaporeans, and display a generosity of spirit to our fellow Singaporeans. We defend Singapore and Singaporeans, because we are the stakeholders of our country – and our families, our homes and our futures are here. No foreigner can feel the same way. We may help to ensure the safety of foreigners who are here in time of conflict, but we are not defending their families or their futures. We are defending ours. And that will never change. We are Singaporean not just because of where we are born, but because of what we believe in, the values we live by, and a common desire to want to make our home, a better one."

In the recently concluded parliamentary debates on the Singapore Population White Paper, it was interesting to me that, besides other issues being debated, a thread of the debate was on the question "Who is a Singaporean?". This question was first raised and discussed in Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's opening speech, a part of which is quoted above. It was also discussed, implicitly or otherwise, in the other speeches made during the debate.

Piqued, I started to think about how one can define a "Singaporean" and managed to come up with the following four definitions.

1. Legalistic definition: Singaporean by state recognition
2. Nativist definition: Singaporean by birth
3. Experiential definition: Singaporean by experience
4. Ideological definition: Singaporean by ideological assent or aspiration

Evidently, one way in which people are or can become Singaporean is through state recognition, that is being recognised as a Singapore citizen; this is the first definition. And, as the second definition suggests, one usually is born a Singaporean when one is born in Singapore and to Singaporean parents.

One can also be Singaporean through, in my opinion, sharing common experiences and memories that other Singaporeans have. And, last but not least, one is a Singaporean when one shares and agrees with the Singaporean "ideology", that is the common set of socio-cultural beliefs, values and aspirations Singapore espouses.

These four definitions may overlap and be combined with one another. But considering each of them by themselves, I would say that while the first two definitions are "weak" definitions while the other two definitions are "strong" definitions.

It is perhaps obvious that possessing Singaporean citizenship is a "weak" form of being a Singaporean. I mean, although the famous artiste Gong Li (巩俐) may be a Singaporean citizen since 2008, I think very few, if not none, of us would really think of her as a Singaporean.

I would also consider being born a Singaporean because one is born in Singapore and/or to Singaporean parents as a "weak" form of being a Singaporean. A child may, by accident of birth, be born in Singapore to Singaporean parents but if shortly after his or her birth, the child is moved overseas and subsequently grows up overseas, can we really consider him or her as a Singaporean just because he or she was born a Singaporean?

It is thus perhaps better or more exacting to consider a person as a Singaporean when he or she shares a common set of experiences and memories with other Singaporeans, regardless of whether he or she was born in Singapore or have acquired Singapore citizenship.

Similarly, as DPM Teo alluded to in his speech, being a Singaporean involves sharing in and espousing a common set of socio-cultural values, beliefs, aspirations and practices.

To end off, I would like to quote the late S. Rajaratnam, "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice."

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