Singapore: Who Or What Is A Singaporean?


Dr James Chin

On 14 December 1999, The Straits Times, the most influential daily in the island republic, headlined an article titled: "Young Chinese score low on ethnic pride". A survey of 800 students from secondary to tertiary level, including those from National University of Singapore, the island's premier tertiary institution, provided some unexpected results on ethnic identity. 12 percent of the Chinese students polled wanted to be Caucasian, while over 8 percent said they preferred to be Japanese. The Malays scored the highest in ethnic pride. Nine out of 10 chose to retain their ethnicity. Among young Indian Singaporeans, 17.9 per cent chose not to be Indians. Most of them also preferred to be Caucasian.

The survey, carried out by a NUS sociology lecturer, also yield some other interesting results. The young Chinese Singaporeans who displayed weak ethnic identity tend to be more educated and speak English at home. Official data showed that four out of 10 Primary 1 pupils now come from English-speaking homes, compared to just two out of 10 a decade ago. The researchers speculate that the pervasive influence of Western literature and technology in Singapore have led young Chinese Singaporeans into thinking that Western culture is superior. Malays have a stronger ethnic identity because they are anchored by their religion, Islam. Additionally, English is also less widely spoken in Malay homes. The survey also interviewed the parents in all three ethnic groups and they all scored high on ethnic pride. 94.9 per cent of the Chinese parents wish to remain Chinese. The figure is 93 per cent for Malays and 92.6 per cent for Indians.

The results caught the government by surprise. Within days, the issue has become topic number one among the political elite and the chattering class. The newspapers began to receive large volumes of letters from readers. The Chinese dailies were especially worried that the island was becoming 'less Chinese'. The thinking among the elite was that 'If you're not confident in your own ethnic group, you can't expect to do great things as an ethnic group. Neither can you expect others to respect you.'

The issue of 'Chineseness', ethnic identity and the related issue of nationalism is sensitive since independence 37 years ago because Singapore is the only Chinese-majority state in the region. It is government policy to maintain a numerical Chinese dominance - 77% of the population must be ethnic Chinese. Due to the demographic transition, younger Singaporeans are marrying later and having less children, and this meant that in the past two decades, the government has quietly taken in a sizeable number of ethnic Chinese from Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to maintain the population ratio.

The 'Chineseness' issue is also politically sensitive internally. The Chinese polity is roughly divided into the Chinese (Mandarin)-educated and the English-educated. The political/bureaucratic elite have always been dominated by the English-educated and the Chinese grass-roots see them as 'bananas' (yellow on the outside but white on the inside/in their thinking) who have no appreciation of Chinese ancestry, education or culture. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese-educated have voted against the government, fearing that

Singapore was becoming a Western society due to the government's emphasis on the English language and making Singapore into a global economic player.

Ironically the English-educated ruling elite share some of the concerns of the Chinese-educated, albeit for different reasons. The rapid Westernisation of Singaporean society created a new generation of young people who began to demand more democracy and political participation. They were no longer happy with the paternalistic style of government. This led to a series of government initiatives such as the 'Speak Mandarin' campaigns, making mother-tongue education compulsory, and injecting 'Confucian' values into the education curriculum. These were aimed at reinforcing and reminding the young that Singapore is still an Asian society where collective interests override individual interests.

The government's reply to the survey was to support the release of another survey which showed that Singaporeans were 'proud' to be 'Singaporeans'. The government-backed Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that three out of four citizens believe that Singapore is worth defending, no matter what. Nine out of 10 would be upset if they saw anyone burning the national flag. Those 60 years old and above felt most strongly about their Singaporean identity, followed by the youngest group surveyed, aged 15 to 19. The IPS polled 1,451 citizens from February to May last year based on a questionnaire developed by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. The 24-item index to measure the strength of ties between Singaporeans and the country. People were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "No duties are more important than duties towards Singapore" and "I feel annoyed whenever people criticise Singapore".

While the majority were happy to be 'Singaporeans', the survey details were far more revealing. One in two said they also thought of themselves as citizens of the world and not of any country in particular. About half felt that it did not matter which country they were citizens of, as long as they enjoyed a high standard of living. About one in two Singaporeans gave an emphatic "no" when asked if they were willing to take a pay cut and pay higher taxes in the interest of their nation. One in three even declared they would be willing to give up their Singapore citizenship if given the right opportunity elsewhere. 43 per cent said that they would emigrate if they were given a better offer, such as a higher-paying job in another country.

As a result of the government's own policies, younger Singaporeans are more materialistic as ever, and see advanced Western society as being superior to their own.

WATCHPOINT: Expect the government to step up its efforts in promoting nationalism, especially ethnic pride among younger Chinese Singaporeans.


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