Getting to the core of S'porean identity

SINGAPORE - I know that I am a Singaporean. But I do not know what a Singaporean is.

This is the paradox that faces citizens of this "accidental nation", wrote public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani in this newspaper last month.

Unlike old nations like France or China, Singaporeans are not ethnically homogeneous, and do not share a centuries-old history, language or culture, he noted.

Unlike new nations like the United States, Singaporeans find it difficult to identify core concepts that power the national narrative, in the way that words like "liberty" and "democracy" do for Americans.

Still, this young nation of immigrants is no collective of strangers.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this year in Parliament, "Singapore" may be a relatively new concept, but a Singaporean can pick another out from a crowd in a foreign place.

"You don't have to wait for him to speak. You just look at him, see how he walks, his body language," he said.

But what are the markers of the Singaporean identity?

This question has grown more urgent in recent years, as a rapid influx of foreigners over the past six years has stirred resentment over public infrastructural strain, competition for jobs, and, at a deeper, primordial level, a fear that the national identity, however undefined, was being diluted.

This is no surprise, sociologists have pointed out, because studies have shown that a community's sense of belonging or identity tends to become stronger when under pressure or intimidation from other groups.

And so it has been in the past few years, as tension between locals and foreigners have manifested themselves in ways that were called xenophobic by some, and expressions of national pride by others.

In 2011, a mainland Chinese family who complained about the smell of the curry cooked by their Indian Singaporean neighbours sparked a backlash that morphed into a national "Cook a Pot of Curry" Day.

Last year, a trial by train operator SMRT to broadcast MRT station names in Mandarin, in addition to the usual English announcements, was met with outrage as some thought the move pandered to Chinese immigrants.

These - local food and a common language that binds disparate racial groups - are both central facets of the national identity.

But in hardening into barriers of entry, some saw a repudiation of another national trait: the openness to multiracialism and multi-culturalism.

At the start of this year, the Government released a controversial Population White Paper that projected the Singapore population to grow to a size of up to 6.9 million by 2030.

Of this, about 3.8 million were projected to be Singapore citizens, with the rest permanent residents and foreigners on work passes.

Citizens would be a mere 55 per cent of the total population, down from 62 per cent now.

In fact, if the abysmal total fertility rate of 1.2 does not improve, the group of born-and-bred Singaporeans will start to shrink in 2025.

It would take the naturalisation of 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens a year to even form that 55 per cent of 2030's projected population.

This would dilute the Singaporean core, argued Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim in the bruising parliamentary debate over the White Paper.

New citizens "see Singapore through a different lens, and can equally make a decision to leave if the circumstances change," she said.

The Singapore core must be made up of those who "grew up in and with Singapore", she added. If this group becomes a minority in 2030, the character of Singapore will be changed forever, she argued.

But the counter from ruling party politicians was equally vociferous. Many members of Singapore's founding generation of leaders were "new citizens", they argued, but this did not make them any less Singaporean.

They invoked former deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam, who was born Ceylonese and ended up writing the words of the Singapore Pledge: "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry," he once said. "It is conviction and choice."

But can the Singapore identity evolve and expand while surviving intact?

Surveys show that while newcomers and natives share some common ideas of what goes into "Singaporean-ness", they also differ in some key ways.

In a 2010 survey of 2,000 citizens - half local-born, half foreign-born - the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that both groups ranked "respect for multiracial and religious practices" as a top marker of the Singaporean identity.

But they disagreed on the institution of National Service, considered a rite of passage by Singaporean men: 69 per cent of local-born citizens said that having a male child who has completed NS is an important characteristic of being "Singaporean"; only 43 per cent of foreign-born citizens agreed.

In 2011, the Ministry of Defence revealed that one-third of NS-liable 18-year-old permanent residents (PRs) chose not to fulfil their obligations and gave up their residency, noted Dr Leong Chan Hoong, the head researcher behind the IPS survey.

This is an enduring source of resentment for locals, he said, because they see NS as a symbol of citizenship.

Still, others believe that the work of strengthening national identity requires just patience and perspective.

The Singapore state has only five decades behind it, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing noted last year.

In contrast, the US Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, while the Commonwealth of Australia Act, creating one entity from the Australian colonies, was passed in 1900.

Economic growth "buys time" for the Singapore identity to form and solidify, he argued.

Whether it includes a love of durian or the ability to speak Singlish, all that the national identity may need to thrive is a self-confidence that it exists.

"Cultural assurance," said Institute of Southeast Asian Studies visiting research fellow Asad Latif, is what countries like the US and Australia have that allows them to absorb immigrants without worry that the character of the country could change.

"They have a strong sense of themselves and so immigration is not a threat to identity," he said. "It does not touch the core of their being."

For Singaporeans then, the paradox of national identity may well be its kernel.

I may not know what a Singaporean is. But I know I am a Singaporean.

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