Saturday 14 July 2012

Confessions of a former foreign misfit

By Asad Latif, Published The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2012

ONE problem with foreign misfits - immigrants who love Singapore's wealth but not its people - is perception. They believe that Singapore is an extension of their lands.

I know because I used to be one of them myself.

When I came to Singapore in 1984, I brought along the baggage of history. Modern Singapore had been established by Stamford Raffles of the East India Company in 1819 and ruled as a dependency from Calcutta till 1867. Since I, too, had arrived from Calcutta, I came with a vicarious sense of entitlement.

I was incensed therefore by signs of cultural attrition. Roti prata was an unbearable tautology because prata is a kind of roti. When I heard what sounded like roti jaan, I thought that I had stumbled on a recipe by Umrao Jaan, the famous Lucknow courtesan. The briyani in many hawker centres was both a semantic and a culinary misnomer. It was nothing like the real briyani found in South Asia, where the meat is cooked in the rice and not added as a South-east Asian afterthought.

In my case, I realised quickly enough that these were Singaporean realities. They made the place different, authentic and exciting. It was futile to look for India in Singapore, as it was to look for Singapore in India. Singapore is itself because it is not India, and vice versa.

That is true of every other country as well. Singapore is not a distant cousin of China or the younger brother of Malaysia. Britain, China, India and Malaya are all a part of Singapore's history. But they are not Singapore's history.

Similarly, most Singaporeans are the descendants of immigrants: They are not immigrants themselves, floating forever up and down some imagined diasporic sea. Singapore's culture is not an imported commodity; Singapore's identity is not a derived one. It is what real people living on this actual piece of land have constructed, merged, changed and preserved over seven durable centuries.

The problem with foreign misfits, I suspect, is often that they look for the countries they have left behind. And if those countries have played defining roles in Singapore's history and culture, they believe that they have a right to judge Singapore in the light of their own national histories and cultures.

They are looking for the wrong things in the wrong place.

Of course, to go to the other extreme and deny the international provenance of modern Singapore would be equally wrong. It was mostly the labouring masses of the foreign-born who literally built Singapore and turned it into a global city of the time.

But the crucial point is not that they came but that they stayed. They were the proto-Singaporeans to whom we owe our historical depth and our cultural breadth as a people.

The moment I realised that, I repatriated the expatriate in me. On a day that was like a rebirth, I became a citizen. I became one of us.

Immigration angst

MY HUMBLE story bears a little on the angst over immigration today.

While competition for jobs, education, transport and living space is a genuine issue, it can be addressed by fine-tuning policies. What no policy can do is determine the culture of a people and hence the degree to which immigrants can be integrated. That culture comes from a people's sense of its place in time and from the habits of the heart produced by the everyday sharing of a common space.

When Singaporeans respect their authenticity and integrity as a people - a people with their own history and culture - they are less likely to feel that they will be absorbed into the lifespans of ancestral countries such as China or India.

Even a city-state will keep its place between the orbital pulls of continent-size and civilisation-long countries. Immigrants from them will not pose a cultural threat within Singapore.

By contrast, defensiveness is the opposite of confidence, just as arrogance is the alter ego of insecurity. As more foreigners look to make Singapore home, strident anti-foreign sentiments create a very poor impression of Singapore. Indeed, they make Singapore look parochial when in reality it is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.

At the end of the day, it is the self-confidence of Singaporeans that will preserve them and protect the common space into which newer Singaporeans can fit.

After all, it is cultural self-confidence - ranging in attributes from accent and historical awareness to non-negotiable social norms - that makes America and Australia two of the most powerfully integrative societies of our time. It is not their size.

That should be the yardstick for integration in Singapore as well. One does not necessarily have to pass the durian and Singlish tests: I personally would have gone on hunger strike and adopted a vow of silence if forced to do so. But durian and Singlish are a part of Singapore culture and must be accepted.

There are more substantial norms that have to be respected. Singapore is a multiracial, multi-religious meritocracy and a secular Republic. It is not perfect but its people generally judge themselves by these standards.

Those to whom these standards appear alien will always remain alien in Singapore. Those who find these norms appealing will find a home in Singapore.

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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