Singaporean Chinese struggle with identity amid cross currents

By Xue Li Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/12 17:33:40

A recent New York Times article on China's cultural influence on Singaporean Chinese has sparked wide debate.

The identity of Singaporean Chinese can be analyzed from three dimensions, political, cultural and emotional.

Singapore has a population of around 5.5 million. Among them, 3.4 million are Singaporean citizens, with Singaporean Chinese accounting for 75 percent of total population.

Within the nation-state system, nationality is the major sign of a citizen's political identity. Therefore, dual nationality amounts to double political identity. But the Singaporean government does not recognize dual nationality. To qualify for Singaporean citizenship, an immigrant must first renounce his or her original nationality. Thus, a Singaporean Chinese is a Singaporean in terms of political identity, and views Singapore as his country - he has nothing in common with a Chinese in these two aspects.

Most of the Chinese permanent residents in Singapore are eligible to apply for citizenship. They have a Chinese political identity, and theoretically they are supposed to maintain that identity. However, since they have lived in Singapore for a long time, their emotional ties to China seem to be weakening.

By "ethnic Chinese," Singaporean government and media mean past and recent immigrants from China, as well as their descendants, including Straits Chinese (i.e., Peranakan) and Chinese permanent residents who have not been naturalized. Before 1965, Chinese immigrants in Singapore were generally from Fujian, Guangdong or Hainan. But since 1990, Chinese immigrants from other provinces of China have been migrating to Singapore. The arrival of these recent immigrants helped strengthen the original Singapore citizens' self-identification as a true blue Singaporean. New Chinese immigrants or visitors are referred to as "Chinese" or even "Ah Tiong." Singaporean Chinese (except for Straits Chinese) mostly belong to the Han ethnicity in terms of consanguinity, and are part of Chinese civilization and cultural identity. Subjectively, they are proud of the Chinese civilization and identity. But their cultural identification varies sharply among different generations.

The first generation immigrants maintain a strong attachment to Chinese civilization. They show a preference for "Chinese" festivals, dressing, food, art, and even travel destinations. However, second-generation immigrants show a weakening attachment to Chinese civilization. They recognize that their ancestors are from China, but hold a critical view of Chinese culture. Their identification of Chinese culture is mostly embodied in their communication in Chinese on certain occasions and participation in traditional Chinese festivals. Identification with Chinese culture among Straits Chinese is even weaker.

The main function of Chinese cultural identity is to distinguish different ethnic groups in Singapore - Singaporean Chinese do not belong to Malays, Indians, or Eurasians, their ancestors are from Fujian or Guangdong. Having lived in a patriarchal society for thousands of years, Chinese people are accustomed to building a network according to clans or regions, even when they are abroad.

There are several reasons why Singaporean Chinese are not emotionally attached to China. First, for more than a hundred years British authorities implemented an education policy that instilled a servile attitude in Straits Settlements, which is most shown in true-blue Singaporeans. To build a nation state after the founding of Singapore, the government tried to emphasize that Singapore was a country of diverse races and cultures, and made efforts to dilute the Chinese characteristics of Singaporean Chinese.

Second, located between two Muslim countries, the Singaporean government deliberately distances itself from China so as to avoid the suspicion of its neighbors. Third, in an English-dominated education system, elites who generally accept Western education are getting increasingly unfamiliar with Chinese culture. Fourth, Singaporeans hold that China has been chauvinistic toward Southeastern countries since the new century. There is a widely-held view among Singaporeans that though China has provided many commercial opportunities, Chinese culture lacks attraction.

All in all, the political and cultural identity of Singaporean citizens has little to do with China. China or Chinese civilization is not highly appreciated among Singaporeans in terms of politics, culture or emotional attachment. Singapore has undergone thorough desinicization, though not complete Westernization.

The right grasp of the identity of Singaporean Chinese is a necessity to properly deal with China-Singapore relations.

The author is director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


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