The Bedrock of a Nation

Two days ago Alex Au wrote a post about cultural conflict stemming from immigration. In it, he recounts the story of a neighbour from India whose wife steadfastly refuses to return his greetings. Au believes that this may be due to cultural considerations, and asks:

But then it raises the question: If we want to integrate new arrivals in our midst, should it be the new arrivals who should re-organise their cultural habits to “fit in”, or should Singaporeans too change our cultural habits to accommodate them?

Should I persist in greeting and smiling at the wife? Or should I go easy on her and ignore her, the way her culture expects me to behave? It seems to me that the latter would probably be her preferred solution, but would you then accuse me of surrendering Singapore to the foreign hordes?

I think the answer to this lies in asking what makes a nation a nation. I don’t mean the geographical area over which a political entity exercises authority and retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force — that is a country. By nation I mean a given community with a shared history, aware of its coherence, unity and interests. From this shared history the community derives its approach to politics and culture; from this flows the concept of a nation.

Politics and culture is like a fast-flowing current of deceptively dark water. On the surface, culture can be seen in many things: preferred food and beverages, local slang and humour, fashion. Yet these factors have little to no meaningful impact on society, or otherwise have limited impact on everyday life. At this level, nations can give and take from each other with little negative outcome. Consider that the British adopted curry following their colonisation of India and later Southeast Asia. Curry remains a favourite British dish, yet it does not necessarily represent Britishness. If one takes away curry from Britain, Britain still remains Britain. At this level, culture is simply a question of aesthetics.

Conversely, consider Singlish. Singlish is a churning stew of English, Mandarin, Malay, Hindi and related dialects, the result of immigrants from different lands living side by side for decades. People who speak Singlish properly are assumed to be Singaporean or at least well-versed in Singaporean culture. Removing Singlish from Singapore would detract from the overall experience of Singaporeanness.

This example points to what lies beneath the surface of culture and politics. Culture and politics can be thought of as implicit and explicit rules governing human behaviour and outlining their priorities in a given area. Taking the example of Singlish, Singlish is a bridging language that nearly everyone in Singapore can speak or at least comprehend; speaking it sends a signal that you are, indeed, Singaporean. The preferential use of Singlish signals a desire to be part of the community of Singaporeans, as opposed to the community of Chinese living in Singapore, Malays living in Singapore and so on. Going beyond language and talking about culture specifically, the culture of a place indicates what the nation believes people in that given area should act towards each other: how they talk to each other, appropriate greetings, displays of affection and worship, treatment of superiors and subordinates, treatment of in-group versus out-group, and so on. Framed against the context of a nation, culture can be thought of as the oil that lubricates social interactions between people.

When people from different cultures meet, the result is a difference of cultures that could lead to cultural conflict.

Here’s a minor anecdotal example: speaking voice. The Singaporeans I have observed tend towards speaking just loud enough for their intended recipient to hear. This minimises irritation to everybody around them, especially if they are in a crowded place, and I daresay this may be the inevitable result of growing up in one of the most crowded cities in the world. Conversely, the Chinese nationals I have observed tend to speak with much louder indoor voices. This can be particularly jarring inside buses and trains, when most people assume that everybody else would keep to themselves as quietly as possible. Furthermore, mainland Chinese have markedly different accents than Singaporean Chinese, especially when both are speaking in Mandarin.

Cultural differences can be seen in different ideas of acceptable speaking volume, and these differences are aggravated through accents. The accent is a signal of difference, and by speaking in a way that irritates the locals, the foreigner is showcasing his obvious difference to everyone — and equally obvious indifference to local preferences.

This is a minor thing. Unfortunately, history is replete with more serious examples. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan they hoped to build a modern democratic state aligned with Western norms and values. The problem was that Afghanistan was never like that. The Americans, and most of the Coalition of the Willing, believe that a modern nation-state should be governed by democratic values, that people swear political allegiance to their countries first, and citizens should help each other regardless of ethnic origin. The Afghans, on the other hand, are a tribal-based society for whom the tribe is the primary social group, and their collective political history has been one of a weak central government surrounded by powerful local warlords. Little wonder that the experiment in Afghan democracy has yet to bear fruit.

Obviously, and fortunately, things aren’t that serious in Singapore. Nevertheless, as Singapore’s immigrant population increases, points of friction can only grow. In 2011, when a family of Chinese immigrants took issue with their Indian neighbours cooking curry, the result was a mediation that attracted international attention, with the Indians agreeing not to cook curry when the neighbours were home, and some 40,000 people protesting the decision by cooking curry. Last year, when a Filipino group tried to organise Filipino Independence Day celebrations, they drew fire almost immediately all across the Internet, and eventually the group was forced to cancel the event after they could not secure permits and alternative locations.

Going back to Au’s point, the question is: how much give and take should there be? How much should immigrants accommodate locals and vice versa?

The bedrock of a nation is its cultural and political norms. These values, ideas and beliefs are the glue that hold people together and the oil that keeps them from rubbing each other the wrong way. At the surface level, the level of aesthetics, I don’t see much of an issue with people accommodating each other’s cultural heritage. Trivial matters like that should not have escalated to the level the backlash against the Filipino Independence Day did.

But at the level of personal interactions, the immigrants need to integrate into their new society. Through the act of immigration, immigrants signal that they wish to live in a new country. To become a part of their new homeland, they need to become the people of that land, and that means taking on the cultural norms and traditions of the nation. Immigrants who come to a new country but refuse to integrate cannot properly be called immigrants, because they don’t want to behave like citizens. They are carrying their cultural practices into a foreign nation instead of assuming its practices.

History has long recorded times when people from a foreign nation came to different lands, settled down, and wished for everyone else to accommodate their practices. They were Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Vikings, Spanish, British, Europeans. History remembers them as imperialists and colonisers. While that stretch of history was written in blood, it should be remembered that the colonialists used violence because the locals resisted. If the locals refused to resist, as in the case of the Moriori, the conquerors did not need to wage war. And the Moriori were almost completely exterminated.

There is the old saying that when in Rome, do as Romans do. Similarly, to become a Roman, do as Romans do and be accepted by other Romans. One cannot call oneself a Roman but act like a Visigoth. The former is merely words; actions tell the world who and what you really believe in, and through one’s action one sees the culture, and the nation, one really belongs to.

The Bedrock of a Nation
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