Singaporean Identity

Singapore Table of Contents

The period after Singapore's withdrawal from Malaysia in 1965 saw much public discussion of Singaporean identity. The discussion tended to use terms, categories, and basic assumptions provided by the government and ruling party. One basic assumption was that there was not, at least in the late 1960s and 1970s, a common Singaporean identity, but that there should be. A corollary was that Singaporean identity would not spontaneously emerge from the country's ongoing social, political, and cultural life. Rather, it would have to be consciously created and "built" by policies, directives, and educational campaigns. The content of the identity remained somewhat ill-defined, and it often appeared easier to say what Singaporean identity was not than what it was. The ideal seemed to combine, somewhat uneasily, a self-consciously toughminded meritocratic individualism, in which individual Singaporeans cultivated their talents and successfully competed in the international economy, with an equally self-conscious identification with "Asian roots" and "traditional values," which referred to precolonial India, China, and the Malay world. Singaporeans were to be modern and cosmopolitan while retaining their distinctively Asian traditions.

Singapore's leaders explicitly rejected the ideology of the melting pot, offering rather the vision of a confidently multiethnic society whose component ethnic groups shared participation in such common institutions as electoral politics, public education, military service, public housing, and ceremonies of citizenship; at the same time they were to retain distinct languages, religions, and customs. Singaporeans were defined as composed of three fundamental types--Chinese, Malays, and Indians. These ethnic categories, locally referred to as "races," were assumed to represent self-evident, "natural" groups that would continue to exist into the indefinite future. Singaporean identity thus implied being a Chinese, a Malay, or an Indian, but selfconsciously so in relation to the other two groups. The Singaporean model of ethnicity thus required both the denial of significant internal variation for each ethnic category and the highlighting of contrasts between the categories.

Being Singaporean also meant being fluent in English, a language which served both as a neutral medium for all ethnic groups and as the medium of international business and of science and technology. The schools, the government, and the offices of international corporations for the most part used English as their working language. The typical Singaporean was bilingual, speaking English as well as the language of one of the three component ethnic groups. Hence the former English-speaking Baba, Chinese or Indian, would seem to serve as the model of Singaporean identity. The resulting culture would be the type social scientists call "creolized," in which a foreign language such as English or French is adapted to local circumstances and the dominant culture reflects a unique blending of local and "metropolitan" or international elements. In the 1980s, there were signs of the emergence of such a culture in Singapore, with the growth among youth (of all "races") of a distinctive English-based patois called "Singlish" and the attraction of all ethnic groups to international fashions and fads in leisure activities.

Singapore's leaders resisted such trends toward cosmopolitan or creole culture, however, reiterating that Singaporeans were Asians rather than Westerners and that abandoning their own traditions and values for the tinsel of international popular culture would result in being neither truly Western nor properly Asian. The consequence would be loss of identity, which in turn would lead to the dissolution of the society. The recommended policy for the retention of Asian identity involved an ideal division of labor by language. English was to function as a language of utility. The Asian "mother tongues"--Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil--would be the languages of values, providing Singaporeans with what political leaders and local academics commonly called "cultural ballast" or "moral compasses." Stabilized and oriented by traditional Asian values, the Singaporean would be able to select what was useful from the offerings of "Western" culture and to reject that which was harmful. This theory of culture and identity resulted in the effort to teach the "mother tongues" in the schools and to use them as the vehicle for moral education.

In an extension of the effort to create a suitable national identity, in 1989 Singapore's leaders called for a "national ideology" to prevent the harmful drift toward superficial Westernization. The national ideology, which remained to be worked out in detail, would help Singaporeans develop a national identity and bond them together by finding and encouraging core values common to all the country's diverse cultural traditions. Suggested core values included emphasizing community over self, valuing the family, resolving issues through the search for consensus rather than contention, and promoting racial and religious tolerance.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress