• Joachim Leong <jleongmy@gmail.com> Feb 20 12:41PM +0800

    Link from here

    *Context* - Hong Lim Park Protest last weekend was one of the largest
    public protest Singapore has seen. It was a protest against the rising
    migrant population projected by a Government White Paper. Here's the
    thoughts of activist, Kirsten Han on the protest.

    Who are we and what are we fighting? Thoughts on a ‘Singaporean identity’.
    *by KIRSTEN HAN <http://spuddings.net/author/kixes/> on FEBRUARY 20, 2013 · 8
    · in ACTIVISM <http://spuddings.net/category/activism-2/>,
    , OTHER ISSUES <http://spuddings.net/category/activism-2/other-issues/>,
    SINGAPORE <http://spuddings.net/category/singapore/>*

    I kept track of the protest in Hong Lim Park the best I could, devouring
    updates from Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp chat messages. I had mixed
    feelings about the event, but was still interested because it was different
    from many of the other protests I’ve witnessed at Speakers’ Corner.

    So many people participated, and they were so angry. It was a direct
    protest against government policy – usually a big “no no” in Singapore –
    and yet people were frustrated enough to let go of their fear to attend on
    a rainy day. It *was* significant.

    But there were also things that rang alarm bells, things that could
    all-too-easily lead the movement into ugly territory. Comments and placards
    swirling around the protest with messages like “let’s take back Singapore
    for its people” or “Singapore for Singaporeans”, and the playing up of
    nationalistic ceremonies like patriotic songs and the national anthem. The
    speeches by the speakers. All appealed to a sense of unity and a shared
    identity. *WE are Singaporean.*

    But, who or what *is* a Singaporean?

    It’s an old one, but this
    TR Emeritus attempts to offer three factors that make up a unifying
    Singaporean identity: English as the lingua franca, British
    institutions/heritage and meritocracy.

    It’s an argument that can be quickly and easily unravelled.

    Although English has been used as the language of governance, business and
    education in Singapore, not everyone in Singapore speaks English. And I’m
    not even talking about immigrants; I’m talking about older Singaporeans who
    may never have had the opportunity to learn English, or prefer to continue
    using their native languages and dialects. Sure, one day, after their
    passing, Singapore will be made up of citizens who have been
    English-educated. But right now these non-English-speaking citizens still
    live among us, and are accepted as Singaporeans. To say that English is a
    factor that unites us all is to ignore and exclude generations of people.

    The post’s assertions about Singapore’s ‘British institutions’ and
    ‘heritage’ is both nonsensical and problematic. We may have inherited or
    based many of our institutions upon British systems due to our colonial
    history, but so what? This doesn’t make us more British-like, or bind us
    with other ex-colonies like Australia or New Zealand, as the writer argues.

    In fact, it doesn’t even make us like Britain. I’m saying this as someone
    who is currently living and studying in the UK; whenever I tell people here
    about Singapore’s systems and practices, it is not something that they
    recognise. Our education system is different from the one in Britain, not
    to mention those in Australia and New Zealand. We still maintain laws
    – like the death penalty and Section 377A – that Britain has got rid of
    long ago. If the writer is trying to say that we still share
    cultural/social similarities with Britain because of inherited
    institutions, it’s probably not the Britain of today that he/she is
    referring to.

    What’s also telling is that the writer says that we have problems relating
    to immigrants from China because they don’t share the same “British
    heritage” as we do. He/she also says that this is why we find it easier to
    settle down in Australia, New Zealand or Canada; presumably because this
    shared “British heritage” allows us to identify with people in those

    But what about India and Bangladesh? Going by the writer’s logic, they
    should also share the same “British heritage”. In fact, Singapore’s Penal
    Code is described as a “re-enactment of the Indian Penal
    So why aren’t we buddy-buddy with the Indian and Bangladeshi migrants among
    us? Why do they still get looked down upon, subjected to racism, abused and
    exploited in their jobs?

    Why does the writer find it so easy to relate us to predominantly white
    British ex-colonies, yet conveniently forgets the Asian ones?

    The writer’s final factor is “meritocracy”. It’s a great idea, of course:
    you get rewarded based on your work, rather than who you are. Everyone gets
    an equal chance.

    But it’s a joke. Especially in Singapore.

    We have been told that meritocracy is a core value of our society. This has
    led us to believe that if we work hard, we *will* do well. But there is a
    flip-side to this logic: if hard work *inevitably* leads to good results
    because of meritocracy, then if you *don’t* do well, it*must* mean that you
    aren’t working hard, and therefore deserve what you’ve got!

    This logic has led to a lack of sympathy or empathy for the lower income
    groups in Singapore; we believe that they *must* be lazy and undeserving,
    because if they weren’t, if they worked as hard as us, then they’d be *like*
    *us*, wouldn’t they? But in this line of thinking lies a complete lack of
    awareness of privilege and opportunity. Some people do get a head start in
    life, whether it’s because they have access to things like enrichment
    programs or extra tuition, or whether it’s simply because they don’t have
    to struggle as much to make ends meet, and can therefore focus completely
    on their studies and work.

    An unquestioning spouting of ‘meritocratic’ values that doesn’t take these
    factors into account is not only pointless, but also hurtful in the long

    So we’ve established that the Singaporean identity is *not* what the TR
    Emeritus post said. But that only brings us back to the original question: *
    what is the Singaporean identity?*

    I’ve been researching and thinking about this a lot recently, mostly
    because I am working on this issue (among other things) in my Masters
    dissertation, but also because it’s something that interests and affects me.

    Identity politics isn’t just a Singaporean thing; it’s debated, discussed
    and fought over in societies and communities all over the world. So far a
    lot of my reading has had to do with grappling with in-groups and
    out-groups. In other words, our arrival at a unifying identity has as much
    to do with what we are *not* as to do with what we *are*. We define
    ourselves against those who we see as different. Our efforts to not be
    ‘them’ encourages us to constructs homogeneity for ‘us’.

    But this homogeneity is false. Anyone can tell you that Singapore is not a
    homogeneous society. At the most basic we have different racial and
    religious groups, but those aren’t the only differences I’m referring to.
    There are also differences in language, in opinion, in habits, in tastes
    and preferences. In short: there are millions of different people holding
    Singaporean passports, and each person will have a different definition of
    what makes a Singaporean, according to his or her own choices. A person who
    loves *chye tow kway*might say eating *chye tow kway* is typically
    Singaporean, ignoring all those who can’t stand the stuff. Someone else
    might claim, as I once
    that Singlish is integral to the Singaporean identity. That person would be
    wrong, just like I was.

    Of course, there are things that many of us might share, customs or habits
    that we may practice in Singapore unlike those practiced by people
    elsewhere. But it doesn’t automatically follow that these things become
    rules or criteria that every Singaporean must adhere to before being
    recognised as a ‘true Singaporean’. These things just are. My meeting a
    Singaporean who also speaks Singlish and likes *chye tow kway* isn’t any
    more significant than my meeting a British person who also watches *Doctor
    Who* and eats fish n’ chips. People have things in common. It happens.
    That’s it.

    I’m not saying that those who are upset about threats to the Singaporean
    identity are stupid or dreaming. I’m just saying that we should be aware
    that this identity has been constructed and (to borrow the language of Benedict
    Anderson <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagined_communities>) ‘imagined’.
    We feel the threat just like a small child feels afraid of the bogeyman
    under the bed. But like the bogeyman, the threat isn’t real. There is no
    one maliciously trying to attack who we are, because there is no
    homogeneous ‘we’ in the first place.

    There is still a lot to be angry about. We live under a government that
    doesn’t seem to think of its citizens as anything more than pawns in an
    economic game. Their policies don’t just hurt an imagined identity; they
    hurt us, our parents, our grandparents and our children. We’re hurt and
    angry not really because some identity conjured in our heads is being
    attacked, but because it is getting harder and harder to live in a pressure
    cooker environment that makes us tired, stressed and anxious *all the time*.
    We’re finding it increasingly difficult to recognise our home in Singapore
    not because of the foreigners who suffer alongside us in the crowded trains
    and buses, but because our policymakers have led Singapore towards an
    overly-competitive environment where the quantity of money in our banks is
    prized over the quality of our lives.

    Basing our arguments on ‘identity’ may feel good, but is ultimately
    building on shaky ground. There *is* no definable identity that we can
    really fight for; identity can be disputed from person to person and is
    constantly in flux, never to be defined. This fixation on an ‘us’ is also
    dangerous; it is all-too-easy to step across the line and turn against
    ‘them’, foreigners who we see as ‘outside’, but are really facing similar
    challenges living in Singapore.

    Our ‘identity’ may be imagined, but the high property prices, the
    broken-down trains, the archaic laws and the restrictions on our free
    speech and assembly are real, just like the policies that caused them. So
    let’s not dwell too much on an undefinable ‘us’, making ‘us’ vulnerable to
    turning against the wrong ‘them’. Let’s direct our frustration and
    opposition towards the real problems: not the foreigners in our midst, but
    the policies and mindsets that make victims of us all.