Singapore: Multiculturalism or the melting pot?

Last week, Straits Times reader Amy Loh wrote to the paper expressing her disquiet about how the government’s emphasis on the need to speak Mandarin could be perceived as a clear signal to encourage residents of mainland China origin to choose to continue speaking only Chinese. She cited examples of how almost all new shop signs in Geylang are in Chinese only, fast turning this into a Chinese enclave.

In response, the Straits Times in an editorial slammed Ms Loh as being “xenophobic”, pointing to economically vibrant cities like London and Sydney as evidence that “recruiting foreigners” has brought great benefits to those cities. The paper went on to explain that the Geylang shop signs were in only Chinese for “purely commercial reasons”, as if that were an excuse for their cultural insensitivity.

This exchange raises another more important issue that Singapore, with its growing diversity and immigrant population, needs to start dealing with: The issue of multiculturalism versus a melting pot social make-up of our country.

Multiculturalism can be defined as a demographic make-up of a country where various cultural divisions are accepted for the sake of diversity.

A melting pot, on the other hand, is a society where all of the people blend together to form one basic cultural norm based on the dominant culture.

Countries like Canada and Australia have often taken pride in their practice of multiculturalism. The melting pot is often used to describe the US, where past generations of immigrants supposedly became successful by shedding their historical cultural identities and adopting the ways of their new country.

The Singapore model

The practice in Singapore has been rather mixed.

During the days of colonial rule, the British were happy to segregate immigrant races into different living quarters in the city, ostensibly in order to divide and rule the place more easily.

Then in the 1960s, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew actively promoted the concept of a “Malaysian Malaysia”, as part of his attempt to ensure that Singapore Chinese were not disadvantaged by a political system that placed Malay rights above those of other races.

In 1989, the HDB introduced the Ethnic Integration Policy, under which the major races each have a representative quota of homes for them in a housing block. Once that limit has been reached, no further sale of HDB flats to that ethnic group will be allowed. The government claims that this is to prevent racial enclaves from forming.

During the tudung affair of 2002, MOE suspended two primary schoolgirls for insisting on attending school with their Muslim headscarves. Hawazi Daipi, ministry’s Parliamentary Secretary, said that “schools represent a precious common space, where all young Singaporeans wear school uniforms, as a daily reminder of the need to stand together as citizens, regardless of race, religion and social status”.

Backsliding towards a segregated society

Despite this apparent commitment to making Singapore a melting pot, there are examples of how the government has been promoting multiculturalism instead.

The Education Ministry continues to insist on its Mother Tongue policy in schools, whereby Chinese, Malay and Tamil Singaporeans are required to learn the language of their own ethnic group as a second language in schools. Thus Chinese Singaporeans have no choice but to learn Chinese, even if say their parents are Peranakan and don’t speak a word of Mandarin. Similarly, Malays do not have an option to learn Chinese to the exclusion of Malay.

The Speak Mandarin campaign started out as an attempt to get Chinese dialect-speaking Singaporeans to switch to using Mandarin. Over the years, it has morphed into a campaign to get English speaking Chinese Singaporeans to use Mandarin in daily conversations. Government leaders seemed oblivious to the grumblings among many Malays and other minorities about the blatant promotion of one culture over all the others.

“Ethnic self-help groups” like Mendaki, CDAC, Sinda and Eurasian Association have been formed to provide social services separately to Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

Then there was the introduction of Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, which Mr Lee Kuan Yew sent his children to attend. SAP schools are given extra resources to nurture a generation of Chinese Singaporeans who are well versed the Chinese language and culture. Again, nevermind the disquiet on the Malay and Indian ground.

Fast forward to last week, when the Straits Times all but condoned the use of Chinese-only shop signs in Geylang. Is our country sliding more and more towards a social model where it is acceptable for ghettoes of different races and people of different national origins to develop?

Many Singaporeans, and not just racial minorities, have expressed their irritation at service staff who are only able to converse in Chinese and not English, the de facto lingua franca of today’s Singapore.

With growing immigration from a more diverse spread of countries, will Singapore start seeing a dilution of our national identity as a result of immigrants insisting on their own cultural practices, even in the public sphere?

I hope not. Our nation may be young, but we have built up elements of a culture that is somewhat unique to Singapore — our local food, Singlish, a commitment to meritocracy to name a few. I welcome new immigrants who can contribute to Singapore. But I expect these immigrants to conform to Singaporean cultural norms rather than that of their country of origin. They should not think that they can simply continue to live and speak like they did back home, especially when interacting with Singaporeans.

As for local born Singaporeans, there is also a danger of our ethnic backgrounds taking precedence over our Singaporean identity. Chinese Singaporeans in particular need to be reminded that Singapore is not a Chinese country, even if their race might make up the largest proportion of the population.

Choosing the right model

I suppose there is no right or wrong in choosing multiculturalism or the melting pot. Different societies have tried both models, with varying degrees of success. Each nation will need to choose which one to emphasise more, depending on their unique circumstances.

My view is that Singapore needs to be more of a melting pot. This celebrates our commonalties rather than our differences. However this would necessitate giving up some aspects of our individual cultures, which some from the dominant culture may be loathe to surrender. But on the whole, I believe our society and culture will be stronger, more peaceful and more reslient if we emphasise our Singaporean-ness more than our Malay-ness or Chinese-ness.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

27 thoughts on “Singapore: Multiculturalism or the melting pot?”

  1. Hi,
    We face many challenges.
    The govt’s lax employment policies means that many workers from the region will be enticed by our favourable currency exchange rate and higher wages ( compared to home). Compound this with SME’s who cheat the local-foreigner ratio ( via phamton workers), mean that we see more foreigners than we should and these are from non-English speaking countries.
    Because English is Singapore’s accepted lingua franca, workers who speak English ( eg Filipinos) are acceptable but Chinese workers who have no working knowledge of English are not. However as Sg is Chinese-majority country, these SME’s get away with it as Chinese Sgporeans patronise them without raising any protests ( for the benefit of non-Chinese speaking minorities).
    It is not enough for the govt to just leave things as it is and to let the free market weed out these politically-incorrect SME’s who feel that they do not need the business of non-Chinese Sgporeans.
    Civil society should:
    1. Maintain vigilance and pressure on govt to ensure SME’s do not get away with flouting local-foreigner ratios.
    2. pressurise MOM to roll back loose employment policies
    3. work with agencies ( even if govt-based) to ensure better racial integration .Racial Enclaves are forming.
    4.blacklist SME’s who do not care that all their staff do not speak a word of English
    5.Give positive feedback on SME’s who make effort to service all Singaporeans regardless of language.
    6. Press MOM to have minimum English standards of new employees from these countries.

  2. Interesting the things that came to your mind when you thought about Singaporean culture…Singlish was number 2 on your list. I am a Caucasian living in Singapore. Do you want me to adapt to your culture and start speaking Singlish too? Lol…

  3. Oops, I hit enter too quickly. What I meant to say is that it is hard to change human behavior. It is better to have good policies in place, for example, outlawing the use of Chinese-only signs on storefronts. It would be a very small action for shopkeepers to take but would make Singapore appear much more friendly to minorities. Laws in Quebec, for example, mandate the use of both English and French on storefronts, in equal size font. If the Singaporean government sees no problem with Chinese-only signs, while at the same time discouraging minority Singaporeans from learning Chinese, then something is wrong.

  4. As a matter of fact, yes that would be nice. When Singaporeans go to US to study, many start speaking like the locals there. It’s called doing as the Romans do. I have a few American and Filipino friends here who make an effort to speak to me with a Singaporean accent, which I appreciate. I’m not suggesting you speak broken English or punctuate every sentence with a ‘lah’. But there’s such a thing as a Singaporean English accent, which frankly I’m quite proud of.

    I should have put Singlish as #1. It’s the one thing that helps me to pick out a Singaporean from crowd half way around the world.

    In Malaysia, all shop signs must have Bahasa Melayu. Similar to Quebec. I don’t think govt should legislate such things. But it has the power to influence behaviour through statements from our leaders. More Singaporeans should also speak out, like Amy Loh, against these ethnocentric practices.

  5. This is very interesting, because if I speak Singlish I think most Singaporeans would just laugh and tell me to stop (after a few minutes), or worse, they would think that I am mocking them, right?

    Singlish is much more than a mere “Singaporean accent” – on the one hand you’ve suggested I speak Singlish and on the other hand you have suggested that I not speak broken English. This may come as a shock to you, but to my English ears, Singlish sounds just like broken English. Well, I’m only pointing out that Singlish’s syntax is significantly different from that of English. Not sure how different it needs to be to classify as “broken”…

    Anyway, I can’t really say I understand how someone can be proud of their language, since it really doesn’t represent any sort of cultural achievement – you just grow up learning it with no effort or work. And you are most proud of that?

  6. To Daniel:
    Singlish is something we are proud of because of its unique nature. It may be considered as broken english according to the many purists around but I believe there are not many languages in the world in which you can make instant connections with people from what they type on the net, or how they sound in the streets. In fact, it is a highly infectious language as I have many British and American friends who started using the various connotations we had in singlish in their conversation with our group of friends. In the word of one of my British friend, “It’s a particularly heart-warming language compared to the harsh tones in standard english”. I admit that I still have difficulties understanding her point of view but who’s to fault a linguist in training?

    To Gerald:
    From my understanding of your post, you seemed to prefer the melting pot model as it emphasizes our common identity and traits compared to multi-culturalism. Personally, I disagree with your point as I believe in embracing diversity as it is this nature that make us unique. Compared to a melting pot culture whereby there is still a dominant culture (e.g. Malays and Indians are usually able to listen to some Mandarin because of their viewing of channel 8), a salad bowl culture is one that embraces the individual parts and yet recognise the need for each to work together to present a best self. You cannot just enjoy the lettuce in the salad without having some tomatoes or cucumbers? (Considering the mixture in textures in enhancing the gastronomical experience)

  7. To Daniel:
    in Linguistic terms, I believe Singlish is a creole. It is ‘broken’ English, I would agree. But I believe Gerald is saying that there is such a thing as a Singaporean English accent i.e. English spoken with a different accent. This is different from broken English. No one is under the delusion that ‘lahs’ and ‘hors’ are part of the English language.

    As for being proud of things you grow up learning without effort (actually I think learning takes effort), there would be a long list of things people are proud of that they grew up with without putting any effort into. This includes people from all over the world.

    To Gerald:
    a most disturbing trend to see this growing xenophobia. It’s sticky situation for the government to step in with any policies. Usually they are accused of being too controlling. In this case, it seems they are not regulating enough. I agree with you on the melting pot issue. We need to forge a national identity, while respecting our diverse heritage. Then we could have something we can truly be proud of.

  8. Thanks for both of your comments! I am willing to try to speak standard English with a Singaporean accent (without the lahs and all). But do you think Singaporeans will accept it? How would you feel if a white guy whom you’ve never met starts talking to you in a Singaporean accent. Surely no one would suspect I am Singaporean, and it won’t be perfect at the beginning. Will people think I am mocking them or laugh at me?

  9. Daniel, Singlish can be used to refer to grammatical English spoken with a Singaporean accent, with the occasional lah and lor and wah lau eh.

    You could start by speaking with your close Singaporean friends. Let them laugh at (or with) you and correct you. It’ll be fun. :)

    CK, I’m not advocating a pure melting pot model. That would be unrealistic and undesirable. I love our diversity and wouldn’t trade it for the world. We should celebrate our diversity but focus on our similarities.

    Tat, Dr Huang: thanks. We’re on the same page.

  10. To Daniel:
    personally, my advice would be to be yourself. People would want to see you for who you are. I don’t think you really have to adopt a different accent for our sake. If you pick up some local nuances over time, that’s only natural.

    Also, Singapore could be quite diverse. I have met Caucasians or Eurasians who grew up in Singapore and speak the same local standard as everyone else. You might get some stares if you sound like a local but hopefully no one will think you are mocking them.

    Gerald: Thanks. I have been reading about the CMIO policy and the recent protests against it. Sadly I think without a call to arms from the Govt, efforts to forge a national identity are futile. But we must keep trying.

  11. I am wondering at a simultaneous appearance of a “melting pot” discussion round a British Commonwealth press: for instance, of The Age, “A melting pot may be best path to unity”, by L. Edwards, July 20, 2009, and analogical recent publications in different Australian newspapers.

    Eventually, the reader’s following comment is on technical merits much easily submittable to a newspaper in Singapore than locally:
    “So, is a “melting pot” something new? Not for the USA surely.

    However, nothing exists in the air and the economics (access to resources) dictates everything.

    Meticulously preserving the jobs as a privilege inhereted by a biologically-dominated “community”, affects no pendulum for creating an underclass serving this community, which what is an institutional ground of the UK and its Anglo-sphere-belonged part of a British Commonwealth.”

  12. To Daniel, i have to be honest, i have a few Western friends, and when they try to speak Singlish, i did find it mocking. Just as when i try to speak with English/London accent with them, they tell me to shut up :-)

    To echo Tat’s advice, just be yourself.

    i live in HK and i have to say, though, when i meet up with my singaporean friends here, we’ll just naturally go into our Singlish mode. its just so natural and its something that bonds us.

    But in the office, in business, talking to clients of different nationalities, i will make a conscious effort to avoid speaking Singlish. During business, i feel that people will take me more seriously if i were to speak proper English. Even in a casual setting, when i’m not with Singaporean friends, i will keep to proper English.

    But back to this melting pot issue – indeed, i believe the melting pot way is the best. You may have to give up some sense of identity, as you become “Singaporean”, but there’s nothing wrong with that. its up to you to keep the Malay, Chinese or Indian in you. At the national level, its important to build a Singaporean psyche, a nationhood.

    But sadly, after all these years, i read that LKY still feels we’re not a nation. I wonder why and who’s fault is it that keeps reminding us that we’re different people.

  13. Hi Gerald,

    I would argue that Australia is more of a melting pot than not. Canada is the classic multicultural nation. In Canada, exactly what is Canada’s national culture is a huge debate. There is not a strong national culture as there is in Australia.

    I’m not surprised that many Australians may feel “threatened” by so many Asians going there. It’s the same case as in Singapore, where Singaporeans don’t like it when foreigners come in and don’t assimilate well.

    I think if you’re part of the dominant national culture, you’ll not be happy when others come in and don’t assimilate. That’s natural. Singapore is already a very small country. We do have a national culture. That’s what makes us Singaporeans. If Singapore loses its identity, then we have nothing to be proud of.

    I do think that Singapore should aim to be a melting pot and keep having a distinctive culture. But the government is clearly, for pragmatic and economic purposes (what’s new!), promoting policies that will eventually erode any concept of Singaporean-ness. Maybe, to them, this is needed for our economic survival. Who knows. They may be right.

  14. Typically Singaporean, totally predctable – blaming others for your own misfortune. Which other country is this paranoid about things i wonder. Yeah. i guess you can call me anti-Singaporean. I honestly do not possess a good opinion of these conceited, self-righteous martyls calling themselves Singaporeans.

    No restrain, no inhibitions. Honestly, what kind of culture do you possess back there that makes for all this rudeness?

  15. There is no need for Singaporeans to keep a Singaporean accent if they know how to adopt a Brit/American accent and sound natural with it. Brit/American accents are made up of word stresses and intonation, something which Singaporeans have distorted over the years with their own perceptions of how English should sound like.

    Nouns have been stressed as verbs in the Singaporean accent, for instance “PROject” as “proJECT”. Applying the correct stresses, plus regular practice and exposure to the preferred accent (American or Brit) can make one sound more “English”.

  16. I am new in the country and I am from Spain. I don’t have any problem adapting to this culture, in fact I like it and I would like my country to have part of this mentality because you may work a lot and sale your soul to have such GDP, but in mine we have been chilling out and now there is no job even If we are prepared. I guess there are only two options.

    If you want a better place and a place with opportunities you have to close your eyes and don’t look at injustices. Spanish people can complain and has freedom of speech but, who cares? at the end of the day politics will continue filling their pockets. We have public health that will tell you to come in 5 months. On the other hand, the labour protection can also affect productivity, efficiency and more jobs opportunities. With all these I am not saying what is right/wrong because there is no right/wrong.

  17. Don’t go down the road of Multiculturalism like Australia. Singapore, you had it so perfect. Your melting pot was tension free.

    Australia now has racial ghettos that promote people not to assimilate into Australian culture. Cities have no go areas that are too dangerous to go at night.

    Stick with your existing ways!!

  18. During the men’s double badminton match of the commonwealth Game i can hear one of the English player using the four letter words “F..K”. If fact many English speaking caucasians likes to use the four letters words. I have hear many American school students including the “F..K” words in the conversation. Maybe to them it is a norm like Singaporeans who likes to end our sentences with lah and meh.

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