If you were in a foreign country and somebody asked for your nationality, would you refer to yourself as a Singaporean, or a Singapore Citizen?
In the eyes of the law, there is no distinction between being a Singaporean and a Singapore Citizen. However, outside their legal context, both terms are not entirely the same but are in fact differentiated by a small, and yet significant nuance.
The label “Singapore Citizen” is no more than a bureaucratic construct designed to put on paper the relationship between a person and the State. This relationship confers certain privileges to the individual, including the right to work, live, vote and receive certain benefits provided by the state. Qualifying for citizenship is a straightforward process. A person is either born into it, or applies for it after fulfilling a set of established criteria.
The term “Singaporean” on the other hand, is different. It contains within its definition the element of a shared identity. This identity is not one that cannot be qualified on paper. It does not denote a relationship between a person and the state. Instead, it is a measure of how far a person has progressed in embracing the culture and the values that define our society.
An Important Distinction
This distinction is becoming increasingly important in today’s society for three reasons.
Firstly, Singapore is moving further and further away from its founding generation and its colonial past. The number of Singapore Citizens who are first generation immigrants is dwindling. The transition then, from immigrant community to nation-state, is nearly complete. Yet many feel that we are still struggling to find our national identity.
Secondly, globalization has allowed many Singaporeans to access different sets of cultures and values either through the travelling, interacting with foreigners, or via pop media, and be influenced by them. This has led to concerns that our identity is being diluted and the fear that as we become more globalised, we become “less Singaporean” in the process.
Thirdly, the immigration policies pursued by the Singapore government has caused many Singaporeans to fear that the Singapore identity will become threatened by the different cultures and practices that have been brought over by these foreigners, especially when they become PRs or citizens and decide to settle down here.
Looking at these concerns, it is apparent that as a society, we feel that being a Singapore Citizen and holding a Singapore passport is not enough. We want a society that shares common values and a common identity. We want to share a home and build a future together with fellow Singaporeans and not with a group of people holding a set of paperwork indicating that they belong to this country.
So what does it mean to be Singaporean? And how Singaporean are you? While, there are many answers to this question, I think the most straightforward way would be to ask yourself this: If you were in a foreign country and met a fellow Singaporean, would he recognize you?
I posed this question to several of my friends. Most of them answered yes and justified their answer with a range of qualities that make them uniquely Singaporean. Their accent was the most popular distinguishing feature, followed by the use of slangs like “lah” or “lor”. There were then other less obvious features, such as the choice of conversations topics (academic grades, food and shopping discounts = Singaporean) as well as the urge to complain about something at some point in the conversation. The list goes on.
Now that we know what makes us Singaporean, how do we tackle the concerns brought forth at the start of this article? I think one important step would be to embrace what makes us unique. While there are some “ugly” Singaporean features we can do without, there are others that we often sideline as undesirable, even though they have significant potential in giving us our identity. Singlish is one example. Many Singaporeans find the use of Singlish to be “low-class”, which is not necessarily true. Some go even further to change their accents in the hope of sounding more “atas”. If only we could embrace Singlish as a desirable part of our national culture, we could perhaps avoid severing the bonds that bind many Singaporeans to their home.
Another step we can take is to be familiar with the things that make us Singaporean, and share them with those from overseas who aim to settle down here. One beautiful thing about Singapore is its multi-racial society. A Chinese man in Norway, even if he speaks Norwegian and behaves like a Norwegian, may not be seen as one by his community due to the racial homogeneity of Norwegian society. This is not the case in Singapore. Whether a person is Chinese, Indian, Malay, Arab or even Caucasian, they will be embraced by our society as long as they understand the norms and culture of our country. Hence, Singaporeans have the power to aid these Singapore Citizens or PRs in their transition to becoming new Singaporeans, by first understanding what makes us uniquely Singaporean, and sharing it with them.
Singapore is lucky to be small. Large states often face conflicting identities, such as Bavaria in Germany and Catalonia in Spain. However, Singapore faces a separate set of challenges, being a young, multi-ethnic nation. The struggle to find what makes us Singaporean is an unending one, and the answer may change as time goes by. Nevertheless, it is important that we do not stop discovering what makes us special such that we will not just be Singapore Citizens, but rather be proud to call ourselves Singaporean.