Singapore: a senseof national identity?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Oct 13 18:56:03 UTC 2008

Many developing nations in Southeast Asia are confronted with the need
to create a new national identity, due to the ethnic and cultural
diversity present in the societies. The conflict faced by these new
multi ethnic states, like Singapore, is the conflict of one's loyalty
to the ethnic community, and also loyalty to the wider community.

The period after Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965 saw much
discussion about the Singaporean identity. There was not, in the 1960s
and 70s, a common Singaporean identity but there should be. It was
thought that the Singaporean identity would not emerge spontaneously
but had to be created by policies and campaigns.

The Singaporean identity seemed to focus on meritocracy, where
Singaporeans used their talents successfully in the global community
yet be able to stay true to one's roots and Asian values. Singaporeans
are to be modern and cosmopolitan and yet retain Asian traditions. An
example of how language is used as a tool to create the Singapore
identity is the example of the Speak Good Mandarin campaign. It is not
a new campaign, and I feel that it is not really about the language
per se, but is really about preserving the Chinese culture.

The government gives the reasons that as Chinese, we need to have a
sense of our roots and that the rich Chinese heritage should be
protected, and that it will be difficult for the Chinese culture to
continue without the language. Also, the values that are inculcated as
a result of that culture are encouraged, for example, Confucian values
have worked well in Singapore all these years.

However, there are some assumptions made by the ruling party here in
promoting Mandarin, and that is the assumption of Chinese culture as
unchanging, and the need for it to be preserved. But the fact is
culture is evolving all the time, and there might even be a new
language in the future. The other assumption is that if we did not
keep our Chinese culture, we would be losing our own culture and
eventually has no culture at all. However, I believe that everyone has
a culture, and the emphasis on this campaign elevates the Chinese
culture above other cultures.

There is a great difficulty of reconciling the fact of being Chinese
and also a Singaporean. To be a Singaporean, the government has
encouraged us to have blended identities yet remain separate. What I
mean is this: Each race is expected to preserve their own traditions,
and tolerance of other races keeps this in check. The Chinese will
forever remain Chinese and the Malay will remain Malay forever.

There is this distinction that keeps every race apart, yet at the same
time, to be Singaporean is to be this cosmopolitan person with a blend
of various cultural influences brought by the different migrant
communities. The leaders of the ruling party have often rejected the
ideology of a melting pot, where all the races were to retain their
distinct languages, religions and traditions.

This campaign alienates other ethnic minorities and strengthens race
consciousness among Singaporeans, mainly because this campaign focuses
mainly on the Chinese.

The general language policy of Singapore can be described as
multilingualism, which states that all four official languages are to
be treated as equal. However, it is arguable whether these languages
are equal. English has become a unifying language on an economic
level. According to Stewart (1968), language policies of some nation
states fall into two categories. The first is to eliminate linguistic
diversity, and assimilating all ethnic minorities into a national
culture. The second is to be tolerant of cultural diversity and
reflects cultural pluralism, which is adopted in Singapore today.

Although English was to function as the lingua franca in many areas,
the challenge here is that while it is important to have attachments
to one's ethnic tradition, this may hinder the development of a new
identity. Therefore, bilingualism as a policy was used to provide some

 The other Mother Tongues like Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are languages
thought to instil values in Singaporeans and are called 'moral
compasses'. With the stabilisation from Asian values, a Singaporean
would be able to select the positive influences of Western culture and
be able to reject negative influences. The theory of culture and
identity led to the efforts to teach mother tongues in schools and to
use them to further moral education.

By maintaining economic development through the use of English, the
role of language in Singapore is to create an attachment among
Singaporeans to the country and at the same time, retain the
traditional values through the use of Mother Tongues.

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