At a dinner party recently, we were conversing about how Singaporeans are different from other Asians when a young Malaysian who works here made a totally unexpected remark: “Well, there are not that many native Singaporeans left here anyway!”. That really shocked me and the words stung.
As I mulled over her left-field comment, I realised that I had been feeling out of sorts in my own country recently. Like on Sunday when I was at Great World City, a very popular central mall that attracts both locals and expats and which has become incredibly crowded over the past year (as with all major malls nowadays on the weekends). As I had dinner in the food court I watched the crowd milling around and noticed that there were many more non-Singaporeans there than in the past. As I observed longer, while walking around the mall and the supermarket, I realised that as many as half of the people there were foreigners! And that’s not counting the numerous foreign staff working in the shops, restaurants, supermarket and food court at the mall. The scene seemed surreal and for a moment, l felt as if I was at an international airport!
This observation reminded me of when I was at Marina Bay Sands mall recently and there I was surprised to see that some two-thirds of the people in that sprawling mall were foreigners, though some of them were probably tourists. But still, 60-70% is a high number. The percentage of foreigners sighted at suburban malls is also high, though less than 50%. And I can’t help wondering that if I, a fairly well-travelled person who has lived abroad, am feeling unsettled seeing this highly visible change in our tiny island country, what more the heartland aunties and uncles? How are they feeling?
I like to think that I am not xenophobic as I love interacting with people of different nationalities and I have many friends among expats and new citizens. And yet I cannot help but feel somewhat disconcerted to see this drastic change in landscape and the sea of foreign faces all over Singapore. Sometimes their numbers clearly match or outnumber Singaporeans such as at popular entertainment places like Clark Quay and Dempsey Hill.
Why have I become more sensitised to this now unlike in the past? Maybe I am more aware now cos everywhere I go these days, I am surrounded by non-Singaporean faces and accents. Just yesterday alone, I must have encountered more than 20 nationalities in my day out from the multi-nationalities on the MRT train that I took and the Filipina staff who served my lunch at an eatery to the people who sandwiched me in the supermarket queue who were from the Middle East, India and Japan etc.
Many cashiers and foodcourt staff these days are from China and I find myself having to speak Mandarin more than English these days to these service staff who steadfastly refuse to speak English. And the list of encounters goes on. Indians, PRCs, Pakistanis, Mongolians, Malaysians, Germans, Swedish, Australians, South Africans, French, Koreans…you name it and we seem to have just about every race and nationality here. It has become a veritable United Nations in Singapore! No wonder so many foreigners love working and living here in this great melting pot of cultures and delicious food.
I like diversity too as it is great for a cosmopolitan country’s development. It certainly helps make for more interesting living and adds colour to our life and society (and gives us more authentic food like better pizzas). And there is that practical reason that they help fill jobs especially in industries like retail and tourism.
But, life is about balance isn’t it especially when you are developing a young nation? When there is clear imbalance it upsets the harmony and equilibrium of society and it displaces the native citizens of our land. When we look around and we see fewer and fewer of our own people and an overwhelming number of foreign faces, we cannot be blamed for feeling outnumbered and we can better understand why there more unwanted feelings of xenophobia surfacing.
There is also the irony that thousands of our country’s citizens are actually newly minted citizens. Fresh-off-the-boat and still steeped in their native country’s culture, many still look foreign and still sound, speak and think differently from native Singaporeans. These people have been churned out en mass as new citizens in recent years as our Government hurried along to boost our population rates and to meet other agenda. But having a spanking new red passport does not make them Singaporean at heart. These new citizens have become part of our nation and yet are not of us and not yet part of us.
As Singaporeans, we can recognise our native kindred brothers and sisters because we share and developed our history and commonalities together. We just know. There is comfort in being from the same family. When I say “Boleh Lah” I know my fellow Singaporean understands me. At the same time, while we can and should welcome “adopted siblings”, our Government has to realise that its frenetic pace of “adoption” and the sheer number of “adoptees” has disrupted our nation’s harmony and also caused a disconnect between our people and our country.
As it is, many of us are lamenting how this country has changed and how it doesn’t seem like what we know as home anymore. The systematic continual destruction of our historical sites in the name of progress doesn’t help retain nor cement our bonds to this nation either. The constant tearing down of our historical icons like the Van Cleef Aquarium and National Stadium removes our common memories and familiar intimacy with the country.
Now, even our people are changing. And now, I comprehend why our ex-President SR Nathan made that cryptic comment at a talk he gave at the Singapore Management University recently that Singapore will take another couple of generations to develop a common culture and Singapore identity.
Personally, I had once naively thought we were making good progress in developing a Singapore identity. But I have since been jolted into realising that this Singapore identity as we know it is fast morphing into a different Singapore culture due to the large number of immigrants. This never-ending stream of new citizens will keep meshing with our society to eventually form a new and different Singapore identity in the distant future.
The home as we know it has changed indeed.