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The Singaporean Identity

Singapore is one of Asia’s most multicultural cities. Its three main ethnicities are Chinese (75 percent), Malay (13 percent) and Indian (nine percent), but the country has a distinct cosmopolitan vibe. Westerners blend easily into this multi-ethnic mosaic, and can feel very at home here.

Of Singapore’s almost 5.4 million population, some 62 percent (3.25 million) are citizens – of whom some 23 percent were born outside the country – and the remainder, a little over two million, are permanent residents (“PRs”), foreign workers or students.

This unique demographic is crucial to understanding the Singaporean national identity, which even Singaporeans have difficulty defining:

“We are the only people in the world who have to say what we are not. We have to say, ‘Yes, I’m Chinese, but I’m Singaporean, ‘Yes I’m Indian, but I’m Singaporean.’ These things override us and it’s going to take a long time before this unique Singaporean identity develops.” ~ Former president S.R. Nathan, forum discussion, April 2012

Religion and religious tolerance is also important in understanding the Singaporean identity:

“Many faiths share this country, share this island. Each has different teachings, different practices. If we have to live together in peace, then all have to adopt ‘live and let live’ as our principle. We [the government] hold the ring so that all groups can practice their faiths freely without colliding with one another in Singapore. And that’s the way Singapore has to be…” ~ Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, National Day Speech, 2009

While secular by its own constitution, Singapore is a country of many faiths: Buddhism (33 percent), Christianity (18 percent), Islam (15 percent), Taoism (11 percent), Hinduism (5.1 percent), Others (0.9 percent). (Click here to read more on practising religion in Singapore). Some 17 percent of Singaporeans identify as having “no religion”.

Language has also helped shape the Singaporean identity. There are four official languages – English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil – with English being the lingua franca and the language of business, government, and the first language in schools. Most Singaporeans are bilingual in English and their “mother tongue” (Mandarin, Malay or Tamil), which is taught compulsorily in schools. First language figures break down as follows: Chinese 50 percent; English 32 percent; Malay 12 percent; Tamil 3 percent (see Language).

This unique mix of ethnic backgrounds, religions and languages makes it difficult, both for outsiders and for locals, to agree about what it means to be Singaporean. However, this is nothing new. Starting life as a trading post has meant Singapore’s population has always been made up of people who call somewhere else ‘home’.

From its post-colonial beginnings, the government has believed that a Singaporean identity couldn’t develop organically and so has tried to create one through policy and education. This hasn’t been easy, and despite its reputation as an orderly and ordered society, Singapore experienced race riots in 1964 (when it was still part of the Malaysian Federation) and then again in 1969 after independence, largely as a result of tensions between Malays and Chinese.

Since this time, the government has zealously fostered and promoted religious and racial tolerance, and today Singapore prides itself on having a nondiscriminatory, meritocratic society and being a place that welcomes diversity. It’s a cosmopolitan, modern, orderly society that is secular and comfortable with international culture, and where there is zero tolerance for racism in public or in cyberspace.

Allied to this is the value that all Singaporeans place on the family. This is where the values of the country’s diverse ethnic communities converge, and respect for the family and one’s elders is sacrosanct and universal; the family unit is regarded as the pinnacle of Singaporean society.

Historically, Singapore’s different ethnic groups have also come together in appreciating hard work, rewarding success, and having a healthy respect for authority. In this combination of positive qualities, it’s possible to understand some of the values that make Singapore tick today.

There is, however, also some sense of anxiety about what might happen to Singaporean identity and values in the future. In early 2013, the government released a White Paper entitled “A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore”, which has provoked furious debate among citizens and in the press.

The White Paper calls for a 30 percent growth in Singapore’s population by 2030, bringing the number of inhabitants on the island to 6.9 million, up from its current level of just over 5.3 million. Of this number, the government anticipates that the bulk of the increase will consist of foreign workers and immigrants, and is proposing to take in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens each year.

Part of the anxiety emerging from this debate stems from the same difficulties that the country has always faced – Singaporeans often can’t describe or define their national character, but at the same time they are absolutely certain that they know it when they see it. Food, Singlish and a respect for the family and religious practices are the common values that unite its citizens, but many still find it difficult to define what it is to be Singaporean.

What does all this mean for the foreigner in Singapore? An open mind is important, as is a wariness about Singaporean stereotypes, such as it is a nation obsessed merely with shopping and eating, and all that anyone cares about is the 5 C’s: cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club membership. You’ll find that the country is much more than malls and hawker centers, and that its diverse population is struggling to work out exactly who they are. This is one of the reasons why it’s such an intriguing place in which to live.


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