End of the Singapore national identity?

Feng Tianwei posing with fans from Yishun (Yahoo! photo/Daniel Teo)


China-born Feng Tian Wei’s Olympic table tennis bronze medal has sparked an outcry in this country about what it means to be a true Singaporean.

Yet the problem is not so much that Ms Feng has failed to integrate into Singapore. It is that the people who grew up in Singapore, myself included, have failed to integrate into Ms Feng’s Singapore—the Singapore of the future.

For better or worse, the era of Singaporean national identity, the one that our founding fathers tried to establish, is fading.

In many countries, national identity develops from a common tribal base, whether stemming from ethnicity, as in Japan, or religion, as in Pakistan. In some other countries, national identity is nurtured initially through a shared values system—for example, freedom and opportunity in the United States.

On August 9th 1965, Singapore had neither.

“Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it, “says Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, in his memoirs.


Singapore hence tried to establish both a unique tribal base as well as a shared values system. The unique Singapore tribe comprises Chinese, Indians and Malays, who speak English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil and worship at temples, mosques and churches.

Almost every other person from outside this polyglot tribe was welcomed into the new Singapore of 1965, but was stuck with the rather uncharitable, amorphous label of “Others”.

Singapore also ingrained a common set of values in people—hard work, tolerance, the importance of meritocracy, and the belief in pragmatism both in day-to-day behaviours and national policies.

While the economy grew rapidly, Singaporean identity always remained in flux. Meanwhile, from the mid 1990s till today, a dramatic experiment in mass immigration as a means to counter low birth rates has made identity formation all the harder.

In 1990, more than 86% of Singapore’s population was made up of citizens. By 2011, this had dropped to below 63%. More telling, given the high number of new citizens from abroad, is the fact that perhaps less than 50% of Singapore’s total population was actually born here.

Put another way, Singapore is possibly the only country in the world where there are more migrants—including temporary workers, permanent residents and naturalised citizens—than native-born people. Some like to call the US a country of migrants. Singapore is much more—it is a country for migrants.


Proponents of high immigration in Singapore point to the demographic make-up of global cities such as London and New York as exemplars. This argument is somewhat defensible from an economic point of view, but it also reveals the fundamental problem with Singaporean identity.

London and New York are global cities that are connected to much larger heartlands. Singapore, largely because of history and politics, is untethered from our most obvious heartland, the Malay Peninsular. We have tried to position ourselves as the Asian jack-of-all trades, a developed world hodge-podge that is both all of Asia and yet not Asia at all. Again, while this may work economically, from an identity standpoint, contradictions abound.

This combination of globalisation, low birth rates and high immigration has essentially overturned the very essence of Singaporean identity that our forefathers tried to build. The traditional notion of “tribe”—Chinese, Malay and Indian—has been disrupted.

So have our values. Singapore’s meritocracy has long promised that as long as individuals work hard, they will enjoy the fruits of their labour, with the best workers rising to the top of the ladder. Here, again, mass immigration has undermined this contract.

At the top end, the perception is that the global elite has moved here with containers of cash in hunt of lower tax rates, and is creaming off the spoils of Singapore’s growth. At the bottom end, a seemingly endless stream of low-cost migrants from neighbouring countries has allowed businesses to keep wages low, squeezing out hardworking Singaporeans who face spiralling living costs.

Finally, mass migration has dented Singapore’s attempts at inter-ethnic integration. Ethnic enclaves have now formed, including a rather posh Indian one in the East Coast and a more humble Vietnamese one in Joo Chiat.

With birth rates unlikely to rise rapidly, and immigration likely to continue, albeit at a more moderate clip, it will be interesting to see what happens to this fragile, embryonic, 47-year old Singaporean identity.

Perhaps the reality is that Singapore cannot build both a national identity and a global city identity. We are actually in the midst of a transition from the former to the latter. A global city identity is much more fluid, less rooted, than a national identity. The migrants of today will probably never integrate like the migrants of yesterday. For them, Singapore is just one of a patchwork of identities they hope to stitch together as they journey through life.


And that, strangely, represents the optimism in this identity story. There are few countries in the world where race, religion and language are depoliticised to this extent, where it is so easy to set up a business, where people from all over the world can visit so seamlessly.

By unwittingly de-emphasising national identity, and ultimately nationalism, Singapore is creating a model for a future where nationhood, ethnicity and religion should not matter.

This transition from a solid albeit nascent national identity to the more fluid global city identity will have implications for mindsets, personal interactions and national policy.

For instance, if we embrace this global city identity, Singaporeans should not care if Ms Feng never learns any English. She does not have to sound like us to be one of us.

There are also many policy implications. In a global city, it makes little sense, for example, to maintain ethnic quotas in HDB housing estates, when all over the country little ethnic enclaves have formed.
But there remains one major problem with this transition from a national identity to a global city identity. Many have been left behind. Social inequality has risen rapidly over the past two decades.

The only way for all Singaporeans to accept the pros and cons of living in a global city is if we can actually participate in it. Addressing inequality—including in education, employment and income—remains this global city’s greatest priority.

So, the end of (national) identity, but the start of something new?

This is an excerpt of an essay published on IPS Commons. Please click here to read the full piece.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is a senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The views expressed here are purely his own. Sudhir’s book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, will be released in September 2012.