Singapore’s recent Olympic successes have raised a slew of uncomfortable questions. On one hand, the Singapore Olympic team has returned with a pair of bronze medals, a laudable achievement in of itself. On the other, Singapore’s Olympic medallists in 2008 and 2012 were born in China, and immigrated to Singapore as part of the government’s foreign talent program. While Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu are naturalised Singaporean citizens, many people refuse to accept them as Singaporeans. They were branded mercenaries for participating in Singapore’s sports development program, in which lavish incentives are offered to attract, retain and reward foreign talent. They have also been called less-flattering terms because of their national origins. This phenomenon is just the latest outgrowth of Singapore’s greatest existential questions.
What makes Singapore Singapore? What makes a Singaporean Singaporean? Is a naturalised citizen of foreign origin a Singaporean, and why? While increasing immigration to Singapore unmake Singaporean society?
There are no easy answers. The government states that anybody with citizenship, regardless of land of birth, is a Singaporean. This is the approach adopted by virtually every nation on Earth. But there are people who believe that you can only be a Singaporean if you were born and raised in Singapore. Others insist that you are Singaporean only if you are a citizen and have contributed to society in a meaningful way. Still others opine that a Singaporean is someone with citizenship and acts like other Singaporeans. The whole spectrum of beliefs and definitions is less a straight line and more of a Venn diagram.
I won’t pretend to offer any answers. One man’s thoughts means exactly nothing. Instead I’ll try to offer a way to solve this issue.
Humans are social animals. Socialisation is easily accomplished by defining in-groups and out-groups. Whoever is not in an in-group must be an outsider, and therefore a target of group-approved sanctions. In-groups can best be thought of as group identities in the modern world. The military is one group, the workplace is another, the nation is a third, and so on. The modern human identity encompasses multiple intersecting in-groups, and therefore overlapping out-groups. The main contention the presence of foreign-born citizens raises is whether they belong to the in-group that is Singapore, instead of the out-group that is everybody else.
Which leads back to the above questions. What is the Singapore identity? What makes someone a part of that group, as opposed to outside it?
The latter is easy to answer. An insider is someone who is recognised as part of the group, acts according to the group’s defined code of conduct, and embodies the values of the group. This recognition comes in many ways: membership cards, approval from the group’s superiors, or in the case of nation-states, citizenship papers. The second criterion is self-explanatory: he or she does what the group says a member should do (i.e. National Service for male Singaporeans) and avoid doing what the group says is not allowed (eating pork for Muslims). The third aspect is an extension of the second. A person’s deeds tells you what he or she values and despises. A group’s actions and image tells you what the group stands for. By doing group-approved activities, it can be assumed the person has values the group sees desirable. For instance, voting in an election suggests the voter believes in democracy.
Applying this to the question of foreign talent, I don’t see any easy answers. The government recognises naturalised citizens through identity cards and passports. Native Singaporeans, however, clearly have differing opinions. The government says a naturalised citizen has contributed to Singapore (i.e. foreign talent), which is what the government wants. Other Singaporeans would object, for example, by stating that said citizen has not undertaken National Service, and so has not contributed to society. Values usually aren’t discussed much in the public sphere, apart from lip service towards multiracialism and multiculturalism — I think it’s fair to say that, in Singapore’s case, the ‘value’ discussion usually doesn’t extend much past the discussion on action.
I think this is where the real question lies.
What does Singapore value?
Which takes us back to the above question: What is the Singapore identity?
What are the narratives that underpin the Singapore identity? What does Singapore stand for? What does Singapore stand against? How is this shown? Why is Singapore ‘uniquely Singapore’?
There are no answers. None that will satisfy everyone. None that every Singaporean can immediately point out and say, this is what it means to be Singaporean. The closest answers I can think of are kiasuism, multiculturalism, maybe pragmatism. And even that has problems.
Kiasuism is distinctly Singapore, and incredibly insular. Kiasu, Hokkien for ‘afraid to lose’, is the result of living in a highly competitive society. Everybody is competing for everything, ranging from grades to housing to cars to jobs to seats in a hawker centre. Such a pressure-cooker society is almost unheard of: even in Asia, the main competition is for grades and jobs; you don’t usually have to place bids for public housing or car ownership certificates. Until you understand kiasuism, you’re not Singaporean. If you stay in Singapore long enough to participate in the competition that bred kiasuism, you become a rival competitor and must therefore be opposed in any way possible. Recall, for instance, the controversy over immigrants and permanent residents buying public housing, apparently much more readily and easily than Singaporeans. Either way, if you’re not born as part of the in-group, it is extremely difficult for you to break into it. Is this Singapore? If so, how do you explain the government accepting these naturalised citizens?
Multiculturalism is Singapore’s watchword. Here, we are constantly reminded, people of all races and cultures can live freely and practice their personal faiths without fear. This sounds all fine and well, but this is no different from many other First World nations. It is not even a Singaporean one: it is a concept as old as history itself, stretching to the days of the Roman Republic and the Greek city-states. It is certainly a laudable value, but it is not something that is distinctly Singaporean — especially in an age where globalisation is the global watchword.
The government prides itself on pragmatism. That’s the point of having a foreign talent program: bring in foreigners who can do what Singaporeans cannot. Pragmatic solution to a societal worry. But pragmatism isn’t seen as a national value, outside of National Education and Social Studies texts. When Singaporeans think ‘pragmatism’, they are more likely to think ‘the government’ — which consistently describes itself as pragmatic — instead of ‘Singapore’. And let’s not forget that the pragmatic approach of importing foreign talent created this issue in the first place.
If we can’t collectively define the values that make up Singapore, we can’t define who is in the in-group and who is the out-group. Not on a societal level. Large nations with large numbers of local-born nationals may not see this as a problem. But with about 1/3 of Singapore’s population hailing from foreign lands, questions of identity and belonging become very touchy ones. This touchiness is amplified by Singapore’s foreign talent and immigration policies, which continue to bring in large numbers of foreigners, and by the common perception that foreigners are ‘stealing’ jobs, houses, and school places from locals. (Think back to kiasuism.) Further, Singapore’s globalisation policies means Singapore is in constant contact with dozens of foreign cultures, whose values and memes shape Singapore’s at a rapid pace, which degrades notions of a fixed definition of societal values.
I think the debate on who belongs in Singapore needs to be reframed: what, exactly, is Singapore? What makes a Singaporean? Only then can we have something approaching answers. But I don’t think the answers are easy, or indeed permanent. Singapore is situated at the crossroads of East and West. Foreign cultures and memes flow freely through Singapore, shaping and reshaping the collective consciousness. If Singapore ever finds a fixed definition of self, I don’t expect it to last for long. Perhaps only until the next meme comes. That’s if Singapore ever finds answers at all.
In closing, I want to point out a bit of trivia. The title of this post comes from the first line of an old National Day song, titled My People, My Home. The song is about Singapore, alluding to Singapore’s changing self, how the individual and society reflect each other, and individual and collective responsibility for the common good.
The song does not answer the question posed in the first line.
That’s because we are what we make Singapore to be.