Friday 3 May 2013

3 stumbling blocks in the politics of identity

By Pravin Prakash, Published TODAY, 30 Apr 2013

Recent trends have centred on a reorientation of Singaporean identity and politics. Much of the debate has been premised on the notion of what exactly encapsulates a “Singaporean” identity. It seems that the question is no longer as simply answered or as straightforward as it used to be.

There are rules now, restrictions, different layers to being Singaporean and even different types of Singaporeans. I myself, a third-generation Singaporean, have often been asked, after declaring myself a Singaporean, if I am a real and pure Singaporean.

Yet, in recent times, the Singaporean identity and its accompanying culture has become increasingly difficult to access and define. There is no denying that much of that difficulty is due to the fact that we are at the crossroads of an exceptional period in Singapore’s relatively young history. Our politics is evolving, a fact acknowledged by the Prime Minister. Our society, both in terms of mindset and its general composition, has changed significantly, with more changes seemingly on the horizon.

Significant questions must be addressed; an introspective inquisition is necessary to realise why our short history has created such complexity with regards to a national identity.


The concepts of race and ethnicity are critical forces that shape the identity of the individual and society. Robert J Brym and John Lie define race and ethnicity as “socially constructed ideas” used to “distinguish people based on perceived physical or cultural differences, with profound consequences for their lives”.

Singapore practices a form of multiracialism that clearly demarcates diverse ethnicities into the four categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO). The CMIO policy has defined Singaporean society, permeating the very fundamental conceptualisation of how we see ourselves as Singaporeans.

The Singapore identity is essentially thus a hyphenated one. Every Singaporean is a Singaporean-‘Something’, with an ethnic identity accompanying his national identity. Each race was also allocated a race-language, (Chinese= Mandarin, Malay=Malay language, Indian =Tamil) and it was made compulsory for Singaporeans to take the prescribed race-language as a mother tongue.

This policy has had some benefit, with links to culture and language being emphasized. However, within the context of creating a national identity, this only served to further complicate the already difficult task of creating a national identity that Singaporeans could subscribe to.

It is not my argument that cultural ties should have been forgone and forgotten in an attempt to create a national identity. Instead, I argue that cultural identities should not have been institutionalised and prescribed. Cultural communities should have been given space and avenue to flourish, but the Singaporean identity should have been allowed to evolve without an ethnic hyphen.

The emphasis of the hyphenated identity has in many ways emphasised differences and perpetuated stereotypes. Perhaps the most hard done by the CMIO model is the simplistic terminology ascribed to those whom fall under the term ‘Other’, a term of convenience that fails to highlight the cultural and historical relevance of diverse vibrant cultures such as the Peranakans and Eurasians, many of whom are unique to this region.

Similarly, many diverse cultures, languages and traditions have been simplified by the groupings Chinese, Malay and Indian. In many ways, we have through an emphasis of an ethnic hyphenated identity, entrenched our differences while homogenising our heterogeneity. In an increasingly globalised Singapore, we should abandon such a model and celebrate our differences through a singular national identity, Singaporean.


Since independence, our shared history has been defined and guided by an ideology of survival with economic growth seen as the only means through which we could stave off the doom that seemingly awaited a country with no real natural resources to fall back on. The ideology is not flawed but again, it has had the consequence of becoming the primary mantra by which our nation is defined.

While preparing to write this paper, I randomly approached colleagues, relatives, friends and neighbours and asked what they thought encapsulated the Singaporean identity. Many replied that Singapore was defined by economics. An uncle of mine summed this up best by telling me that our take on racial cohesion, national service, public transportation, immigration and all the other major issues that seem to generate debate about being Singaporean today are largely defined by our socio-economic status, not by any other defining difference.

In a country in which inequality is becoming an increasingly significant problem, this contention is a startling one. National Identity is a constantly evolving concept, dependent on how people conceptualise their Nation. An economically unequal Singapore will struggle to find a united identity, because it was the dream of economic success and its rhetoric that historically united us in the first place.


Singapore’s history has been dominated by a discourse that has centred on a perceived need to survive against the odds, with dependence placed firmly on capable leadership and a willing, hardworking populace. This has often placed a burden on Singaporeans, with service and sacrifice expected in order to survive and find success.

Service and sacrifice is perhaps best encapsulated in the policy of National Service. Ask any Singaporean what most encapsulates being Singaporean and NS often comes at the top of the list. Singaporean males sacrifice two years, in the prime of their lives, for a national cause; a cause largely driven by the notion of survivability in a potentially hostile region.

The sacrifice is extraordinary, and I think one that often does not get the emphasis it sometimes deserves. Our men, myself included, walk into institutions of higher learning two years later. We lag behind the women and foreigners in terms of completing our education and work experience.

We feel a sense of frustration that our progress is stifled and, in a society largely driven by economic success, being financially incapable into your 20s is a highly depressing reality to deal with. Even our young adult lives are often stifled by reservist expectations; internships, summer programmes and graduate trips are at the mercy of call-ups.

Yet, there is a sense of pride that often accompanies having served your nation, but it is accompanied by a strong notion of expectation as well. NS is an acknowledgement that we will, if and when necessary, sacrifice our lives to protect the sovereignty of our country and the well-being of its people.

Mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends accustom themselves to the idea that Singaporean males will spend two years in service to the nation, and the next decade or more as a reservist personnel, and that if need should ever arise, lives will be sacrificed. Such sacrifice will always demand that we are viewed differently from those who don’t make the same sacrifice.

Perhaps that is where the great divide exists. Sacrifice demands recognition and it comes with expectations. Can a family willing to sacrifice its own for the land conceptualise equality with those who aren’t willing to do the same?

Can our national discourse, so long demanding sacrifice in return for success, learn to turn the other cheek when it comes to accommodating newcomer? Perhaps the solution lies in redesigning our National Service programme and making the same demands, in diverse ways, from new citizens and PRs as well?

These are questions that must be answered as Singapore attempts to define its national identity.

Pravin Prakash is a political science graduate of the National University of Singapore. He currently tutors at NUS and works at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

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