It is part of Singapore life to have foreigners in our midst, and that there are people grumbling about how there are too many of them. There are also terms first used by the Government – such as “Foreign Talent”, that have taken a derisory and derogatory tone when used by the same grumblers.
You would have been hiding under a rock if you didn’t encounter someone daily who wasn’t born in Singapore. And that’s the thing I love about living here: you don’t have to travel far to get a dose of somewhere else.
But what I find a bit troubling is the term “integration” and how we must “integrate” foreigners into “our society” and “our culture”. There is this idea that we need to live in harmony, without any social friction, and that is all well and good. But it would pay to remember that we are a city-state of diverse cultures and backgrounds. There is no “our culture” and “our society” as if it were homogenous. All you need to do is look at our Miss Singapore Universe’s “national” costume. To put it in our vernacular, “simisai is a five-star-and-moon national costume?”
We don’t have one national identity, and I think once we accept that, we’re on the way to living together peacefully, no matter where we come from.
My late mother’s papers identified her as a “subject of Negeri Sembilan”, while my father, born some time in the 1920s in Hainan, then part of Guangdong Province, arrived in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan, in 1935 and in 1946 decided to identify himself as a citizen of Chang Kai Shek’s Republic of China, rendering himself stateless after 1949, because, you know, PRC?
Both my parents took advantage of Colombo Plan-subsidized tertiary education and worked and schooled themselves in Australia, eventually settling in Singapore as occasional Aussie-slang speaking educated professionals.
My wife Naomi bears an even more varied family history – my mother-in-law is a Taiwanese lady (who makes the best Taiwanese Beef Noodles you can get in Singapore) who married a Japanese businessman from Tokyo. They both decided to settle in Singapore in the 1970s.
I proudly identify myself as Singaporean, but even I am not sure what that means definitively. I would count NS, Singlish and food as part of our collective culture, but beyond that, we’re really a mishmash of different things.
Maybe that is why both my wife and I find it easy to speak to the new “sin-keh”, as they used to call fresh migrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our next door neighbours arrived from Germany last year, and we’ve hit it off nicely, inviting each other into our homes for tea and handing down our son’s old stroller and toys for their daughter. It’s not so much about them “assimilating” into our culture, but whether they feel welcome and looked out for.
It’s a simple matter of saying “hi” or asking if they need help with carrying their groceries when we do see them. Like we tell our son, Kai – we treat people from abroad extra nice because they’re here in a different country, away most of their family and friends, and we’d like to be treated the same way if we were in a different country, away from our family and friends.
One of my business associates is an American citizen who only had an idea that he wanted to set up a company in Singapore for business, but realised that it was a great opportunity for him to resettle his family here because I took him around and showed him what a varied spectrum of cultures this place actually is. More so than our pigeonholing into four “races” and “languages” makes it out to be.
The key is not just about getting newcomers to fit in. It’s very much about the ones who are already here being considerate and welcoming.