International Relations

Being Chinese in Singapore

Tash Aw's article explores the meaning of diaspora for Chinese in Singapore. The similarities between China and Singapore and undeniable - 75% singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, and they share religions like Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. Moreover, the ethnically Chinese in Singapore appear to be economically and often culturally dominant over other ethnicities. Yet, even though there is a distinctly Chinese personality to Singapore, the same Chinese are now distancing themselves from the mainland. Kim attempts to explain why.

Read an excerpt of the article written by TASH AW:

Festooned with red lanterns and banners bearing auspicious messages, the ornate façade of the 19th-century Thian Hock Keng temple in downtown Singapore seems even more flamboyant than usual. The temple is readying itself for its busiest time of the year: Over the next few weeks thousands of worshipers will make offerings and pray for a favorable Chinese New Year. It’s a time when even the least conscientious of temple-goers, like me, make an effort to maintain the customs that link them to their heritage. Such a classically Chinese setting may seem an unlikely place to start questioning one’s traditions, but to be in Singapore today means to challenge conventional ideas of Chineseness. As China rises on the world stage, it is exporting its notions of Chinese culture and ethnicity, creating new tensions within Chinese communities abroad. In Singapore, Chinese people used to be called zhongguo ren or hua ren interchangeably: The small distinction between the two terms — the former relating to people with Chinese nationality or born in China; the latter to anyone ethnically and culturally Chinese — was considered artificial. But subtle divisions of this kind have now become the crux of what it means to be Chinese here. Three-quarters of Singapore’s people are ethnically Chinese, most descendants of Hokkien-speaking immigrants from Fujian Province in southern China who came to the island in the first half of the 19th century, when it was a British settlement. Malays and Indians, both indigenous and immigrants who also arrived in the 19th century, have long formed important communities in the territory. But it is the predominance of the ethnic Chinese that was crucial to Singapore’s formation in the first place. In 1965, Singapore broke off from freshly independent Malaysia as a direct result of bitter disputes over the preservation of rights for ethnic Chinese and other minorities in the new Malay-dominated nation. (The two territories previously were part of a loose federation.) Today, this tiny Chinese enclave has a G.D.P. per capita about five times that of its far larger, resource-rich neighbor. But it is precisely this upward economic trajectory that has begun to raise questions about what it means to be Chinese in modern Singapore. In 2013, the government published a white paper that laid down plans for sustaining economic growth and increasing the population from about 5.3 million to 6.5 to 6.9 million by 2030. In an already densely populated island with limited space for new construction, the plan sparked widespread debate and unprecedented public protests: Given Singapore’s low birth rate, this increase in numbers would have to be fueled by immigrants — largely, it was presumed by many, from China. On the face of it, few cultural mergers could be more seamless. Singapore’s multilingual educational system treats Mandarin as a de facto second language after English. Almost half a century ago, the country adopted the simplified system of writing Chinese that is used in mainland China, rather than the complex forms from Hong Kong and Taiwan. more