We are Singapore, but who are “We”?

This article is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Rafflesian Times, a biannual school publication jointly produced by my juniors at Press and the RI Communications Department.

My grandma tells me that her father was 23 when he left his village in Hainan. The year was 1919; the world had barely recovered from the painful scars of the First World War.

Great-granddad arrived in Singapore alone – accompanied only by a small luggage that contained all his worldly possessions, and a steely determination to make enough money so he could send for his fiancé. Grandma doesn’t recall much else, but she does know that her father eventually made good on his promise. He found himself a home in Singapore, and married my great-grandmother here in the 1920s.

As an immigrant, his experience is but a short sentence in the much grander narrative of the Singapore Story. It is a story of coolies and labourers from Fujian and Guangzhou, who unloaded crate after crate of goods from the numerous sloops and barges that used to dot the Singapore River. It is the story of craftsmen and traders from Tamil Nadu and Delhi, who sailed across the Indian Ocean in search of a better life. It is the story of military officers and merchant bankers from Europe who, upon being posted to Singapore, decided that they preferred our sunny climes to the harsh winters back home. And it is the story of an indigenous Malay populace who surely must have felt overwhelmed and displaced by the sudden tsunami of humanity that had crashed onto their shores.

Today, those considered ‘alien’ are now Bangladeshi and PRC migrant workers. They are Filipino domestic helpers, Thai businessmen, and American expatriates. In a curious reversal of fortunes, it is our turn to stand by as new languages are spoken aboard our buses, and as foreign customs encroach upon our own. It all seems rather ironic that we, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of pioneering immigrants, have become the ones who complain the most bitterly about immigration.

Perhaps it is to be expected. At 50 years young, Singapore can best be described as an adolescent nation. And like most teenagers, we have become keenly self-aware in our search for a collective identity. What makes a Singaporean is now more intangible, more elusive than possessing a red passport. We have tried to define what it is: knowing the difference between kopi o and kopi siew dai, living next door to a Malay family and opposite a Hindu temple, or being able to recognise that an ang mo is a person while Ang Mo Kio is a place.

In this search for an elusive Singaporean identity, many of us succumb to using simplistic and derogatory stereotypes that caricature what being Singaporean is not. Regrettably, there exists the widespread belief that a ‘real Singaporean’ would not speak with a Filipino accent. He would not walk along the Sentosa Cove promenade with his all-Caucasian family. And he would not spit on the pavement or make a nuisance of himself in public.

This is the paradox of the Singaporean identity – whilst we pride ourselves as a meritocratic melting pot of diverse ethnicities and cultures, this doesn’t apply if you happen to be Thai, or Burmese, or Bangladeshi, or PRC Chinese. We celebrate our immigrant heritage, yet we seek to close our doors to those who seek entry.

Many of us can call ourselves Singaporean simply because we are lucky. We are lucky that our grandparents and great-parents were willing to brave the unknown and abandon their lives back home. We are lucky that they decided to settle down here, rather than any other country in Southeast Asia. Had we been born in a different time, a different place, or to a different set of parents, we might well have found ourselves on the outside looking in. If my great-grandfather decided not to board the steamer bound for Singapore, I would probably be living on Hainan Island right now.

The Bangladeshi construction worker toiling away from dawn to dusk isn’t too different from the Chinese coolie who had to endure the merciless heat of the Singaporean sun. The Filipino domestic helper who cooks and cleans for a family is doing a job that Hainanese and Malay housewives used to perform for rich European families. Why then, are we so quick to write foreigners out of the Singaporean narrative? Why are we so quick to condemn immigrants for coming to Singapore for their own self-benefit, when that was exactly what our ancestors did?

The answer is just that we’re naturally selfish. It’s the same reason why people who were once poor, but managed to make millions of dollars, vote in favour of conservative political parties that take away welfare and lower tax rates on the wealthy. It doesn’t matter that other people are in a position that we were once in, or could have been in. It’s all too easy to remain cocooned within the self-indulgent realities of our lives, keeping a safe distance from people that we consider inferior.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for unregulated immigration. There are legitimate reasons to be cautious – for instance, I doubt that Singapore can support upwards of 6.9 million people without compromising on the standard of living of her citizens. It’s also true that immigrants might occupy jobs that would otherwise have gone to a Singaporean. And in some cases, an uncontrolled influx of immigrants can lead to an oversupply of workers, bidding down wage rates. But this isn’t something I want to discuss, because the minutiae of immigration economics are best handled by experts. What does need to be addressed, however, is the continued and insidious ‘otherization’ of immigrants in Singapore. For migrant workers already residing and working in Singapore, we need to stop treating foreigners as one of Them.

I’ve personally been guilty of quickening my footsteps at night if there’s a group of construction workers nearby. On my morning commutes to work, I’ve witnessed aunties casting dirty glares at South Indian laborers who were guilty of nothing more than taking a seat on the bus. On the Internet, netizens lie in ambush, eagerly awaiting the next insensitive slip up from an immigrant so he or she can be hounded out of the country. These may all seem like small, insignificant things, but they add up. Over time, when faced with enough cold shoulders, enough racist comments, and enough irate mutterings, foreigners will feel the sting of rejection.

Recently, an NUS study revealed that the catered food served to foreign workers in the Tai Seng area was ‘unhygienic’ and ‘stale’. While it was reported in the mainstream media and other online news sources, any change has been glacial at best. Imagine the massive public outcry if it were Singaporean children who were being forced to eat such unappetizing, foul food in their canteen. A school principal would be forced to resign, while ministers would have to make an unreserved apology. When it comes to our children and our schools, hell hath no fury like a Singaporean’s wrath. But for foreign workers, people whom we consider distant and separate from our own, their concerns are but a small footnote in our national consciousness.

In our interactions with immigrants, a simple principle to apply would be that of reciprocity. How would you want to be treated if you were overseas? Surely you would feel demeaned and insulted if an American called you a ‘chink’, or mocked your Singaporean accent in front of his friends. You wouldn’t want a Frenchman to walk past you with an upturned nose, convinced of his superiority and sophistication. Then why do so many of us think it’s okay to call Filipinos ‘Pinoys’, with a hint of derision? Why do so many of us not want to sit next to a Burmese construction worker on the bus? Why do we sneer at the English spoken by a PRC Chinese bus captain? Anyone who has been a victim of subtle racism overseas would know how degrading and dehumanizing it can be.

But this goes beyond how we treat laborers, domestic helpers, and other transient blue-collar workers. It’s also about how we treat people who are here to stay. Our table tennis team is oft-derided for being ‘China Team B’ and ‘un-Singaporean’, because we give PRC Chinese sportspeople Singaporean citizenship in exchange for their talents. It somehow seems wrong that citizenship is being used in a transactional exchange.

But all citizenship is, on some level, a transaction. We stay in Singapore because we enjoy the stability and peace here. Our friends and family are Singaporean. We appreciate the familiarity and warmth of a place that we’ve grown up in since young. And some of us just don’t have the ability to uproot and relocate. In return, the nation asks for things from us – tax, military conscription for men, a general deference to Singaporean laws. All of us have come to the decision that the holistic benefits of staying here outweigh the potential costs of leaving. A new citizen goes through the same thought process. Singapore might seem like a place of opportunity, a country that supports aspirations. It might appear to guarantee a level of security not present back home. These reasons are as valid as those we have for remaining Singaporean.

Why then, do we elevate birthright over all other gateways to Singaporean citizenship? It’s just a happy geographical accident that you happened to be born on Singaporean soil. If we believe that first generation Singaporeans are somehow ‘less authentic’ than second or third generation Singaporeans who were born in the country, then it stands to reason that our Malay friends and colleagues are far more ‘Singaporean’ than the rest of us. But this clearly isn’t a principle that our country was founded on. Someone who has moved to Singapore because they want to spend the rest of their life here doesn’t deserve to be treated like a mercenary. There are just as many born-and-bred Singaporeans who decide to remain in this country out of entirely selfish reasons, but are never classed as ‘fake’ citizens.

Maybe it is true that foreigners and new citizens aren’t taking enough initiative to integrate. After all, such tribalism is a natural human tendency. But perhaps we, as hosts to guests entering our country, have an even greater obligation to extend a warm hand of friendship and comradeship. It is easy for us to try and make friends with a foreign colleague at work, attend a Korean neighbour’s housewarming party, or simply flash a smile at a construction worker glancing our way. It is hard for a new immigrant, still adjusting to life in an unfamiliar land, to reach out beyond their comfort zone and chip away at the icy barriers erected by Singaporeans. Whether new citizen or born-and-bred native, immigrant or local, no one deserves to be erased from the Singapore Story.

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