Thursday, May 5, 2011

Identities in Changing Contexts: Whither the Singapore Identity?

Excerpt of a paper I delivered at the Asia-Pacific Youth Forum in Nago, Okinawa, 5-14 December 1997. Even though it's more than a decade since I wrote it, the main thrust is still holds relevance today.

As a researcher, I find Singapore’s experience with ethnic-based community self-help organisations (CSHG) an interesting area for study in relation to the country's efforts to build a national identity. The promotion of CSHGs since the early 1990’s seems at odds with the moulding of a national identity.

What started out as a focused effort to improve the educational achievements of the Malay community with the establishment of Yayasan Mendaki in 1981, spawned a series of similarly constituted CSHGs beginning in the early 1990s with the Association of Muslim Professionals followed by the Chinese Development Assistance Council, the Singapore Indian Development Association and the Eurasian Association.

With each organisation catering to their own community, one cannot help wonder if this will only serve to further delineate Singapore society along racial lines, with each being more acutely aware of their sense of communal identity.

Singapore’s history suggests that the government had wanted to play down the sense of ethnic differences through its policy of multiracialism, multiculturalism and the practice of meritocracy where everyone was judged on the basis of their ability rather than their race.

A question that bears asking, therefore, is, can a Singapore identity ever evolve? Is it at all possible to establish a homogenous national identity for Singapore?

It would be easy to suggest that the answer is an emphatic 'No'. We are all too acutely aware of our own ethnic identities to ever allow it to be subsumed or even assimilated into a single identity.

The notion of identifying ourselves along the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) framework is very much entrenched in our psyche and looks to stay for quite some time yet. Its most overt representation being found in our identity cards. Maybe this is something that cannot be avoided in a heterogenous society like ours.

Yet, strangely enough, when we go abroad, we tend to identify ourselves as Singaporeans, as a people from one country, having a uniquely distinct identity despite our ethnic differences. How does one explain this apparent paradox? How is it possible that the very people who see themselves as being Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others at home, suddenly adopt a super-identity, Singaporean?

It has been suggested that this strange paradox was borne of the fact that Singapore’s birth as a nation was not quite what was intended at that time. The early and mid-1960s was quite a tumultuous time for the region and especially so for Singapore. Race relations were very fragile following the outbreak of riots in 1964 and later in 1969.

While the government publicly strove to bind the people together through multiracialism and meritocracy, the private domains of the people were very much left untouched, each allowed to develop on their own. Hence, each community saw the rest as the ‘other’.

This sense of otherness may offer some explanation as to why Singaporeans tend to see themselves as distinct communities at home and as one people, one nation when abroad.

While Singapore has generally been structured along racial lines since its colonisation by the British, her economic prosperity and development has also seen the emergence of class stratification.

But even before this, other dichotomies have existed such as majority vs. minority, vernacular vs. English-educated, the local vs. overseas graduate, Asian vs. Western values, to name a few. These dichotomies suggests that at one point or another, every Singaporean could undeniably feel themselves to be marginalised.

With not golden past to return to, save those primordial links to our ethnic identities, it became logical for Singapore to be a nation of many races, many faces. But with the emergence of class as a distinct means of dividing society, racial lines are beginning to be blurred.

It has been argued that this stratification of society has been the direct result of the practice of meritocracy in Singapore. While it served Singapore well in its early years to ensure rapid economic progress and rewards for those who worked hard, it has, as a consequence, produced a society driven by material gains.

This is clearly evident by the standard and cost of living in Singapore and the aspirations of its people – the five C’s (Career, Credit Card, Car, Condominium and Country Club) being an example. This is a concern because if the class divide should become entrenched, it could result in social sedimentation and the formation of a permanent underclass.

So, with so many different factors to consider, is it at all possible to create a common identity for a nation like Singapore? Or are we fighting a losing battle? I hope not.

If our annual national day celebrations can be used as a benchmark, I am quite optimistic. It is quite moving to see people of different class, race and creed coming together in one voice, in unity, in praise of their nation. Somehow they manage to cast aside their differences to see themselves as Singaporeans.

But this is only one occasion.

There are still many hurdles to clear before we can truly say we are one nation, one people.

Maybe, that is the uniqueness of Singapore. Maybe our lack of a common supra-culture is what defines us as Singapore and being Singaporean. And in this ever globalized world, this special characteristic, this diversity may be what will see us through.

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