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What it means to be Singaporean: Lion City citizens at home and overseas share their feelings about nationhood

Singapore National Day is today. We ask Singaporeans about the characteristics that set them apart from other nationalities and, with its identity still evolving, what the city state will be like in another 50 years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 8:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 10:13am

Ask Singaporeans about their plans for National Day today and they may tell you they intend to head to the beach or that it’s just another day off work to relax.

Three years ago, when the Southeast Asian republic turned 50, things were different. Large celebrations to mark the occasion were held on home soil and in overseas cities with sizeable Singaporean expatriate populations.

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In Melbourne, student association Singaporeans of Victoria organised a black-tie golden jubilee ball, attended by 600 guests. In China, the Singapore Shanghai Business Association staged a love story set in the 1960s about two Chinese immigrants to the Lion City. Meanwhile in London, the Singapore UK Association live-streamed the National Day parade at a special event.

At home, a Singapore “heart map” was compiled, featuring 50 places of significance in the city state suggested by the public. Details about these places – sketches, poetry, photographs and short films crowdsourced from the public – were integrated into the map.

In a young country whose identity is still evolving, and with a large number of citizens who frequently travel overseas, National Day can mean different things to different Singaporeans – especially those living overseas.

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Janice Liu, an online editor with New York University Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, understands that her home country is still exploring its boundaries and what defines it as a nation.

“Singapore will be 53 this year. The fact that we are such a young country with a multicultural society means that we are still evolving and finding ourselves. I’d explain to a foreigner that Singapore is like a teenager – capable, young and still exploring our self-identity,” Liu says.

“We may love Western cultures, but deep within us are our Asian roots and values … We are constantly trying to find a balance that works. Who knows what our Singaporean identity is going to be in another 50 years?”

Liu adds that inviting foreign friends to National Day celebrations helps to shed light on the Singaporean identity.

“I know some of my foreign friends would have loved to join [National Day] celebrations, where they get to finally hear what it means to be speaking Singlish, eating local food, or learning about Singapore’s diversity,” she says.

“I find patriotism grows when you have an opportunity to show it off, or explain why or what you’re doing. We need to be more inclusive in that respect. I have learned more about Singapore being abroad because of the questions I get asked by people who are curious about Singapore.”

I’d explain to a foreigner that Singapore is like a teenager – capable, young and still exploring our self-identity
Janice Liu, online editor

Pinch Tang, a marketing professional at a start-up in Berlin, Germany, believes the freedom to travel visa-free to a large number of destinations around the world plays a large part in defining what it means to be Singaporean. The city state ranked in joint second place with Germany, behind Japan, in this year’s Henley Passport Index. Passports of both countries allow visa-free travel to 188 countries and regions.

“National Day reminds me of our recognition and global visibility. Our red passport, which gives us freedom to travel … and we do really well in global standings in a lot of things,” Tang says, referring to the country’s top ranking as one of the world’s freest and most competitive economies.

The flip side, Tang says, is difficult to talk about.

“For example, if we look at the way Singapore is governed, it actually has a lot to contribute towards where we are today, but we perform poorly in terms of individual rights, which can be viewed as a trade-off for what we have accomplished thus far,” she says.

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“It takes a certain level of knowledge of our unique style of governance, or even of our history and cultural context, to understand these from a foreign perspective.”

Food is undoubtedly at the core of Singaporean identity, Tang adds, and could be a vehicle to bring overseas communities together more often.

“Recreating authentic food would be really challenging …[because] ingredients might be hard to find or even unavailable here [in Berlin], short of having someone from Singapore to bring it directly to us,” he says.

“For more community involvement, I would suggest Singaporeans get more involved in organising these celebrations and annual get-togethers, whether it be cooking the food, procuring the venue, or putting together a handful of side events during the celebration.”

For engineer Shahrin bin Abdol Salam, who lives and works in Dubai, the identity and values of multicultural Singapore are all about respecting differences and relationships. This is something he cherishes about being from Singapore and shares with his foreign friends.

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“I learned that we shouldn’t be too engrossed with only one ‘right’ way of doing things,” he says. “I’ve learned to appreciate diversity and differences of opinion.”

Shahrin has also noticed that Singaporeans overseas tend to be closer to each other than they are at home.

“The Singapore spirit runs high, and [the reason we get along well overseas is] because everyone makes the time to foster close relationships. We enjoy spending time together and create opportunities to strengthen ties. This is something which I will be consciously putting an effort into back home.”

As a society that places a strong emphasis on academic excellence, some observers also see Singaporean identity through the lens of educational achievement. Others say that when National Day comes around, it reminds them of the mix of cultures and emotions they are accustomed to back home.

“Singapore is a convergence of Asian and Western forces. The bilingual and multicultural context I grew up in has prepared me well for embracing a global culture, while staying rooted to my Chinese identity – something profound, intimate, and which I hold close to my heart,” says Jiang Peicun, a symbolic systems and artificial intelligence student in the United States.

“Besides, a sound humanities education, under some of the best teachers, has prepared me well – emotionally, psychologically and philosophically – to respond to the range of feelings I experience living overseas, be it estrangement or camaraderie, hope or despair, love or loss,” Jiang says.

The bilingual and multicultural context I grew up in has prepared me well for embracing a global culture, while staying rooted to my Chinese identity
Jiang Peicun, a student in the US

Others fondly evoke the local patois, Singlish – a mix of English, Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu and Tamil words. Each National Day, many Singaporeans abroad feel the absence of this unusual linguistic potpourri.

“Being Singaporean definitely has much to do with our lingo and way of conversing,” says Cheryl Mui, an international affairs student based in Japan. “Many of my conversations in Japanese are structured in the obligatory polite language, and I miss being able to freely speak in Singlish.

“Using honorifics is an important part of communicating in Japan, which is fascinating but very different from the casual speech I’m used to back home. When I meet and talk with my fellow Singaporeans, it feels like stretching out in bed after a long day of work.”

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National Day is also a time when many Singaporeans – whether they were born and bred in the country, or have adopted it as their home – are gripped with a sentimental sense of belonging. Julia Vasko, a curator from the US who has spent 22 years in Singapore, considers herself very much a Singaporean.

Vasko has been in and out of Singapore a lot over the past two years, and her sense of returning home always starts the minute she steps off the plane.

“That first wave of dense, humid air that hits my skin, before quickly being replaced by the air-conditioned chill,” Vasko says. “Driving down the highway admiring the perfectly aligned trees and flowers, and the motorcyclists that weave in and out of traffic. Passing by the neighbourhood park and seeing children playing on the same swings that I played on as a child.

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“And finding peace in sipping a nice, hot kopi-c [coffee with condensed milk] while listening to the uncles chatting away about their daily affairs. All these seemingly insignificant observations and experiences are what make me feel at home here in Singapore.”