Do we have a unique Singaporean identity?
Former President of Singapore S.R Nathan does not think so.
In an inaugural Social Sciences Conference organised by the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Social Sciences, Nathan said that it would take “one or two generations” before a common culture emerged.
Nathan was responding to River Valley High student Cheryl Chow, who asked about the presence of a Singaporean culture and what could be done to maintain it during the question-and-answer session.
“Do we have a Singaporean culture?” the 87-year-old quipped, drawing laughter from the 300-strong audience of students from junior colleges and polytechnics.
He said that Singaporeans face a common problem of identifying themselves when overseas.
“We have to say ‘yes I’m Chinese but I’m Singaporean, yes I’m Indian but I’m Singaporean, yes I’m Malay but I’m Singaporean.' These things override us. And it will take a long time for this Singaporean identity, this unique Singaporean identity to develop,” he added.
Some students present at the event echoed his view that there is an absence of a common Singapore identity, although their reasons differed from the former president’s.
Said 17-year-old Chow, who posed the question of Singapore identity: “I feel that there’s always this problem of Singapore identity…As globalization is ongoing there’s this sense of loss of the Singaporean spirit.”
According to Chow, the “loss in Singaporean spirit” is due to the attitude of youths nowadays. “When we talk about the old guard of PAP, there’s this desire to improve. And nowadays, I realize that teenagers are just really complacent and it’s all about social media,” she said.
Chow added that another reason for the lack of a common Singapore identity may also be because teenagers are more exposed to “a lot more cultures other than the four main races of Singapore”, citing the American culture as an example.
Similarly, Victoria Junior College student Ling Mei Ying said that the Singapore culture is still being developed.
Said the 17-year-old: “Currently our mindset is still very traditional because of the previous generation. That’s why our generation doesn’t really like the way our mindset is. We feel that it’s very backward and we don’t really like it.”
However, students like 15–year-old Hoo Zhong Han disagreed.
Said the student from Raffles Institution (RI): “I think its [Singaporean culture] definitely there. It’s just that as a young nation we haven’t really managed to create one that is very salient in the global community.”
Hoo added that the problem is that the Singaporean identity is “not visible enough” due to its multi-racial society. “We have different races, different cultures at the same time. So there’s a gap between different cultures, and there needs to be more effort until there’s a point in time where we can actually say ‘that’s a Singaporean culture’. When you say ‘Singaporean culture’, you don’t distinctively think of Malays, Chinese or Indians but you just think of everything as one culture,” he said.
Others like Tampines Junior College student Bryan Goh felt that Singapore has a strong culture. Said the 18-year-old: “It’s [Singapore spirit] pretty strong. You can really feel the Singapore spirit during national days. It’s the togetherness, and despite the diverse cultures there’s still just one culture, one identity.”
Goh added that Singlish is a common feature of the Singaporean identity. “You only hear it in Singapore and when you go to other parts of the world, you immediately recognize a Singaporean by the way he speaks and his accent. And we can recognise a Singaporean from the way he behaves.”
The speech and forum discussion by the former sixth president of Singapore, who made way for Tony Tan last September, was followed by a series of thought seminars conducted by the faculty of the School of Social Sciences.