The Rise of Singapore

The economic rise of Singapore from “third world to first” is widely cited as evidence of Singapore’s success more generally as a city-state — and yet more generally still as a social and political project. This is understandable. It’s hard to talk about Singapore without talking about its economic successes (and that’s certainly been true for me as I write posts here).

But just how far has Singapore come under the watchful guidance of the PAP? Has it really moved, from a backwater network of villages, to a shiny modern metropolis? And, more importantly, has it thereby become better? On the whole, I think the answer is “yes”. But I have at least two reservations about the standard expression of this answer; one is about Singapore’s past, the other about its present.

On the past: it’s important to note that pre-independence Singapore was not, as a matter of historical fact, a mere backwater network of villages. I think it is better characterized, instead, as one of the crown jewels in the global British empire. Indeed, Singapore played a role in the region — as an oasis of wealth and Western influence in the middle of Southeast Asia, as a shipping hub, and as a popular destination for foreign investment — much like the one it plays today. A picture is worth a thousand words. So I present for you several images of pre-independence Singapore, with a few comments above each. I got these images from “On a Little Street in Singapore“, a fun Facebook group dedicated to nostalgic and historical posts about Singapore (of which more later!).

The Telok Ayer Basin (1952). Notice the busy port; on the water side of things, this doesn’t look all that different from the crowded shipping lanes that characterize the Singapore of 2014:

Telok Ayer Basin 1952

Kallang Seafront (~1960). Notice the densely populated city area and the lovely mix of colonial and vernacular architecture. When I see this picture, I get a sense of a clean, efficient, and busy little city. Take away “little city”, and that’s not all that different from the features that now characterize Singapore:

Kallang Seafront. 1960s

Raffles Place and Boat Quay (1955). More of the same:

Raffles Place and Boat Quay - 1955

City Center (~1959). Note, as above, the ships in the background (signs of a bustling port) and the charming and varied architecture (including the spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral).

City Center

All of these pictures are centered, of course, on the city area of Singapore. Prior to independence, the rest of the island was much less developed, and many residents of Singapore were indeed quite poor and lived in kampongs (villages) without any of the niceties of modern living that virtually all residents of Singapore now enjoy. But the lesson I draw from pictures like the above is still salient, I think: Singapore was, prior to independence, a charming and thriving colony. Its later social engineers, technocrats, and capitalists had plenty of raw materials with which to work, then, when growing Singapore into its current state. Sure, Singapore’s economy grew dramatically after independence. Indeed, GDP went from 650 million USD in 1960 to 275 billion USD in 2012 — a remarkable feat, even taking into account inflation and a similarly explosive growth in population. But it’s quite misleading to think of Singapore as a place that grew from a nothing and a nowhere circa 1960 into its current status as a gleaming modern metropolis.

On the present: fast economic development (of the kind Singapore has seen) has tended to engender placeless homogeneity. When you build a metropolis in less than half a century, it’s bound to feel a little less than organic. And the more centrally and carefully planned this building operation is (and Singapore’s has been carefully planned indeed), the more sterile (and accordingly, less charming and unique) it’s going to feel to its residents and visitors. Such results are, unsurprisingly, widely objectionable.

What is placeless homogeneity? Here’s an exercise: visit a random mall in Singapore (there are many from which to choose). Look around. If you took a picture of your surroundings, would you be able to tell from that picture alone where it was taken? Probably not. Asia? Maybe. North America? Possibly. Europe? Probably not… but maybe! Such an exercise evinces the placelessness of modern Singapore; public spaces in Singapore often seem to lack distinctive markers of where in region or even where in the globe they might be. And that’s something many find both sad and boring. Thus placelessness. The exercise also reveals Singapore’s homogeneity:  you could do this exercise in pretty much any Singaporean neighborhood (they all have malls, after all) and get the results I predict.

There’s a lot more to say about the problem of placeless homogeneity. Singapore has, it seems, paid a price (and a rather intangible one) for its rapid economic growth. Since the price is intangible, it’s hard to assess; but in my next post I shall take up that project in some detail. My sense is that the price, though quite real, is not nearly so bad as many think.

So to sum things up: the standard narrative about Singapore emphasizes its economic growth. This emphasis is warranted. But the standard narrative requires qualification: Singapore’s growth did not emerge from a vacuum; and that growth has also brought about some interesting problems.

Singaporeans are…

Google’s auto-fill suggestions are a nice guide to common search terms. Of particular interest are search phrases that presuppose something (e.g., “why are British people so uptight?” presupposes that British people are indeed uptight). So here are a few common search terms concerning Singapore and its denizens:

Why are Singaporeans…

  • unhappy
  • rude
  • racist
  • rich
  • angry

Singaporeans are…

  • rude
  • selfish
  • boring
  • cowards
  • poor

Singapore is…

  • expensive
  • windy
  • hot

These results don’t tell us anything about Singapore or Singaporeans, I think (they’re not even consistent). But they are amusing, and accurately reflect a number of stereotypes. For comparison, here are some results about: Americans (stupid, obese, ignorant, loud, rude, religious), Chinese (rich, yellow, smart, rude, materialistic, thin), Germans (rude), Malaysians (ugly, banned from Israel, muslim, stupid), and Filipinos (catholic, jealous, beautiful, ugly). Few of these auto-fill suggestions (for any group of people at all) are flattering; but this is probably to be expected from peering into the id, as these data do!

We’re Number One

Singapore is highly ranked on many metrics — research and education, development, wealth, cell phone usage, English-speaking population, savings rates, math scores, and many more. The government is fond of touting these accomplishments; each gets a front page mention on the Straits Times (the paper of record). Today, Singapore secured high honors on yet another rankings list; it is now the most expensive city in the world, topping Paris, New York, London, Sydney, Zurich, Geneva, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and all the rest.

Go Singapore.

It is undeniably expensive to live in Singapore. But these results are still, in my view, slightly misleading. Digging a little deeper reveals some of the main factors that led to Singapore’s high ranking: (i) the cost of owning a car (mostly due to astronomical vehicle taxes), (ii) the cost of utilities, and (iii) the cost of clothes. Luckily, two of the three are avoidable. One can comfortably live in Singapore without a car at all; public transportation covers the entire island, and cabs are plentiful and reasonably priced. Further, since Singapore is such an efficient travel hub, it’s not hard to get clothes (even designer brands) on the cheap elsewhere in the region.

Another factor in Singapore’s high ranking is the relative strength of the Singapore dollar against other currencies. But this metric, too, is misleading. The strength of the SGD makes Singapore an expensive place to visit (when you’re exchanging other currency for SGD). But if you live here, you’ll almost certainly get paid in SGD. And getting paid in a strong currency is good, especially if you send any of that money abroad (as do most domestic helpers and foreign workers, a class of residents who tend to be among Singapore’s poorest).

So the good news is that we’re number one; and the bad news — that we’re number one at something bad — isn’t quite so bad after all, I think.

First World Nation, Third World Anxieties

Not along ago, I observed a group of Singaporeans excitedly debate whether a certain urban legend might be true. The legend: hidden in an underground bunker, the Singaporean government carefully maintains a large stash of weapons (indeed, enough to arm every man, woman, and child on the island within a matter of hours). These are kept on hand, the legend says, in case of invasion from Malaysia or Indonesia.

This is funny on several fronts. It suggests that the ruling government is subject to a kind of mad paranoia or obsession. Quickly arming an entire populace — at least half of which have never touched a firearm before — is a zany idea. And it’s one that only someone deeply (and probably irrationally) concerned with an invasion would implement.

But the urban legend gestures at a truth, and one worth reflecting on.

Singapore has come a long way. Just sixty years ago, Singapore was — the standard story goes — a sleepy fishing village that happened to host a historically important (but more or less sleepy) port. Now, Singapore is unquestionably one of the most developed nations in the world: wealthy, diverse, and cosmopolitan. Most wealthy, diverse, cosmopolitan, and highly-developed nations do not worry much about existential threats. But underneath Singapore’s shiny First World exterior, there are a host of Third World anxieties clustering around the threat of annihilation (or annexation, or invasion, or…). Consider:

  • Singapore is a young secular state populated mostly by ethnically Chinese people, flanked by Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim states populated mostly be ethnically Malay and Javanese people.
  • Singapore is overwhelmingly outmanned by its neighbors (5.3 million people in Singapore, compared to 29.2 million in Malaysia and 246.9 million in Indonesia).
  • There is virtually no agriculture on the island. Accordingly, for most of its history, Singapore has relied on Malaysia and Indonesia for most of its bare necessities —  food and water.
  • Worse, relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are often strained. Singapore feels bullied by its larger neighbors, and they feel snubbed by the tiny but rich city state that doesn’t even have the courtesy to speak a local language (neither Mandarin nor English, the dominant languages of Singapore, are native to Southeast Asia).
  • Should Malaysia and Indonesia integrate (an unlikely event, but not wholly off the radar), Singapore would be entirely at the mercy of that (comparatively) large and powerful Islamic state

These factors alone are enough to foster some real anxiety. Now add to the mix this historical context: more than once in its short history, Singapore has approached the brink of non-existence. In those early decades, things were touch-and-go. It wasn’t always obvious that Singapore would thrive or even survive. Older Singaporeans know this. They feel it in their bones. They remember what it was like when the island was ruled by gangs and loan sharks. They remember the dismay they felt when Singapore was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation and, more or less against its will, forced to become an independent city-state. They remember that sense that the brink of national disaster wasn’t too far off. And seeing the meteoric rise of Singapore’s economic fate only inspires in them a deep conviction that these matters are contingent and capricious; if a country can rise in a few decades, surely it can fall in that time too.

My hypothesis, then, is that anxieties in this neighborhood run fairly deep in Singapore. Existential threats and the like are present in the minds of Singaporeans. They are not endorsed in public, of course (that’s not how anxieties work). But they are nonetheless operative in both individual and collective action. There’s a vague sense of unease and vulnerability, especially amongst folks who were around for Singapore’s birth and early history.

In a previous post, I suggested that Singapore’s success is not explained by the industry of ethnically Chinese people. Rather, it’s a particular view about the value of work and what outcomes one can expect from hard labor (viz., good ones!) that prevails in Singapore. And these views about work and its consequences don’t operate in a vacuum. They combine potently with the anxieties I’ve outlined here, I think, to create an environment particularly conducive to development. Singaporeans (especially the older ones) are gifted both with a deep disposition to value labor and with a deep sense that a national disaster isn’t that far off the radar. No surprise, then, that so many Singaporeans place such a premium on economic development. One of the more obvious ways to acquire stability and peace is to buy them, after all — and that is, more or less, what Singapore has done.

Work

In my view, Singapore is in, but not of, Southeast Asia. One way to appreciate this — and to grasp Singapore’s staggering economic success, especially in contrast to the Malay peninsula and the rest of Southeast Asia and — is to think about prevailing attitudes regarding work. I’ll begin with a crude stereotype and then offer a competing but related explanation. The generalizations I’ll here peddle are, I hasten to add, subject to the usual qualifiers: they admit of exceptions, and they reflect only my limited experience.

The crude stereotype: Chinese people are hard-working. Malays, Thais, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Indonesians…, by contrast, are lazy. The crude stereotype applied: Singapore’s success is best explained by the industry of its largely Chinese population (roughly 75% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent). The crude stereotype is, I’d guess, fairly widely accepted here. Given Singapore’s ethnic makeup, this is both self-serving and totally unsurprising.

I think that in fact things are a little more complicated (no duh). In particular: I suspect that what makes Singapore distinct from the rest of Southeast Asia isn’t so much the industry of its people, but rather the attitudes Singaporeans take towards work and their fundamental anxieties. In this post, I’ll address those attitudes, and in the next post I’ll address those anxieties.

Consider two extreme views:

Extreme View 1: work is everything. One’s ultimate lot in life is determined entirely by how hard and how smart one works. No fate but what we make. If you want to live a happy life, it is up to you to build that life for yourself. And if you invest great effort and ingenuity into the project of building that happy life, you will most likely succeed. Honest, hard labor is the primary ingredient to success in life, and very few factors can either stand in the way of such industry or make up for its deficiency. Proponents of the so-called Protestant Work Ethic often endorse views in this neighborhood (see, e.g., the stories of Horatio Alger Jr.).

Extreme View 2: luck is everything. Whether one works hard or smart doesn’t have much to do with one’s ultimate lot in life. That is, instead, determined by the assets and capacities with which one has been endowed purely as a matter of luck (innate intelligence, loving parents, family wealth, timely investment opportunities, racial & sexual identity and the privileges that come with it, etc). Social justice advocates often endorse views in this neighborhood, emphasizing the pervasive inequalities that luck creates and how we might best correct them.

These views come in a continuum, and one’s views might fall anywhere on that spectrum. But  my hypothesis is that most Singaporeans accept something closer to Work is Everything. Many Americans like to think that they are self-made, that they have been lifted up by their own bootstraps. Similarly, Many Singaporeans like to think that Singapore is self-made, a country lifted up by its own bootstraps. Whether these self-conceptions are true isn’t the point; my claim is that they reflect an interesting attitude about the place of hard work in a successful life.

By contrast, many others in Southeast Asia accept something closer to Luck is Everything. Here’s just one small example. As a kid, I loved reading fairy tales, folk stories, and mythologies. One thing that always struck me about Cambodian folk stories (in contrast to, say, Western European folk stories) is that the characters who win (get the girl, get the money, get divine favor, get the food) almost always do so, not because of work, but because of luck. A typical story might involve three brothers: one  works hard in the fields, one makes regular and pious sacrifices to the spirits, and another sleeps all day. As things turn out, bad weather screws over the hard-working brother, an irate spirit screws over the pious brother, and the lazy guy (who spent the whole story in a hammock) inherits the estate of a long-lost uncle. Luck, not work, is everything. To be clear: this is just an example (and one I find vivid). I do not think it provides much evidence about how, in general, work is viewed in Southeast Asia. But I do think that the generalization holds. Outside of Singapore, something closer to the Luck view prevails.

The Singaporean attitude towards work, then, is one respect in which Singapore is in, but not of, Southeast Asia. And this isn’t just a matter of Chinese culture. I actually think this generalization transcends ethnic categories in Singapore; it holds true of the Chinese majority and of, e.g., Tamil and Malay minorities on this island. The fact of the matter is more subtle than the crude stereotype suggests. It’s not merely that Singaporeans work harder than do, say, Malaysian Malays; it’s that Singaporeans, in general, have different expectations about the results of hard labor. The origins of these attitudes towards work are, no doubt, complex. And they probably involve (as the crude stereotype above suggests) both Chinese elements and a powerful UK influence on Singapore (it is a former British colony, after all).

Next up: my take on the fundamental anxieties that combine with the Singaporean attitude towards work to create the Asian Tiger we know and love.

Food Culture

Some time ago, Chee Soon Juan (a prominent opposition politician) embarked on a hunger strike to protest his treatment at the hands of Singaporean academic authorities. Chee was here appropriating methods from a distinguished tradition of non-violent opposition (think Mahatma Gandhi and his ilk). Many Singaporeans reacted with indifference or confusion: “Chee, ah? Why that one no eat? Got to eat to live lah.” Some commentators attribute reactions like this up to woeful ignorance of non-violent opposition and its methods; others take those reactions to confirm the stereotype of Singaporeans as politically naive or apathetic or over-trusting of government (especially the PAP — the main political party). I think there’s actually a simpler and better explanation, though. Singaporeans just love eating. Eating is good. Eating is life. So there must be something wrong in the head with a grown man like Dr. Chee who voluntarily refuses to eat.

It’s hard to overstate just how important food is to Singaporeans. Indeed, I think that — though Singapore is composed of a bunch of interlocking and diverse tiles — appreciation of food is one of the few glue-like elements had in common across these diverse strata. For example: small talk here does not often concern the weather (understandably — the weather remains more or less the same all year ’round). But it does often revolve around food. So instead of “windy day, ah?” or “how was your weekend?”, one might instead ask: “so what did you eat this weekend?”. And then you’re off to the races, talking about your favorite hawker centre stalls and how no one serves good ginger with chicken rice anymore (except this one stall in Woodlands, I’ll take you there some day). In short, loving food opens lots of social doors. Loving food and sharing one’s love of food is a central mode of social interaction.

A few factors contribute to this happy situation. Among them: first, the food in Singapore really is great. World-class, in fact (I think I’ll be posting about this a lot as I continue to blog here). This is not just PR copy. It is easy to find really good food here, and downright difficult to find mediocre or bad food. Second, there’s little or no guilt attached to eating. Eating is not a wicked treat you earn by burning calories or by skipping meals. It is life. It’s something you’re allowed to think and talk about a lot, and places that sell food are the main places of social gathering (as opposed to, say, pub culture, where one gathers with friends to drink or watch sports). Third, the cheapest food here is the best. This is not a McDonalds nation. Hawker centres (open-air markets with food stalls — basically, street food that’s just a little bit removed from the street) offer amazing and diverse arrays of dishes at just 2-4 SGD a pop. It’s fast too; one will usually be served immediately or in a few minutes after ordering. Appreciating and regularly enjoying great food, then, is something that all Singaporeans can afford to do.

There’s a lot more to say about food in Singapore, even without talking about particular eateries or dishes. And that alone is evidence of my main point here, I think. To know and love Singapore is (in part) to know and love its food.

Dating in Singapore (part 1)

Singapore has a distinctive dating culture. A great many of the expectations and conventions here parallel those in a major USA city (pop culture and its depiction of dating — a major USA export — probably has something to do with this). But there are a few points of serious contrast between dating conventions and expectations here (as they have shown up in my own experience and that of my friends, at least) and those in the USA. For lack of a better word, the dating culture here is “conservative”. But let me be more specific:

Most single adults live with their parents. This is huge. Singapore is a small island; the supply of real estate is limited. Studio and one-bedroom flats are in the minority (to encourage family-building). And demand is high, with foreign money constantly creating upwards pressure on prices. So housing here is some of the most expensive in the world. Single Singaporeans, furthermore, are not generally eligible for government-subsidized housing until they reach the ripe old age of 35. Most single Singaporeans, accordingly, live with their parents. As one might imagine, this has fairly wide consequences for single living in Singapore. The most obvious upshot: there isn’t much of a hook-up culture amongst locals here (would you really want to take a man back home to your parents’ flat?). But there are more subtle consequences too. For example: those who live with their parents have to take their parents’ schedules and nosiness into account when crafting a social calendar.

Some young and single Singaporeans (especially those who’ve lived or studied abroad) are anxious to change this. They can’t wait to move out, if only they could afford to do so. But a great many, in my experience, are perfectly content to live with their parents. Filial piety is more talked about than embodied here, I think, but this is one way it actually takes shape on this island. You show respect to your parents by living with them well into adulthood. (More cynically: you mooch off of them as long as possible, extracting as much free food, laundry, and child care as you can).

By contrast: I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18. Since then, I’ve spent one summer at their place, and then a random week or so here or there (longest stay of three weeks). Living with my parents now seems unimaginable. I live alone with a hundred square meters to my name, and I prefer to do so. This is not the Singapore way!

PDA is frowned upon. Singapore is, again, a small island. Vigilant and nosey uncles and aunties loom around every corner. And there’s a fairly well-developed call-out culture (fostered especially by STOMP) that keeps smooching on the MRT well within PG bounds. It is, accordingly, rare to find couples feeling each other up in public, even after, say, a night of serious clubbing or drinking.

More generally: though Singapore is a metropolis of 5.3 million, it can feel quite small at times. It is not remotely unusual to take an MRT ride across the island and on that ride to see a handful of familiar faces. So if you don’t want folks to be talking about your dating life, you’d best be careful about what you’re seen doing in public (and with whom). A virtual ban on PDA, for sure, is one aspect of this; but the more general effect, I think, is pressure to be risk-averse and conservative in public behavior. You never know who might be taking a picture of you for STOMP or who might bring up your Sentosa hijinks at work next week.

Clearly delineated gender roles. Gender roles are largely “conservative”. Men are expected to initiate many or most interactions. Men are also expected to pay for everything. Those who breach these rules risk fairly strong disapproval. Women who initiate amorous conversation, for example, will be met with confusion or embarrassment. And men who go Dutch on dates may quickly find themselves without dates. Aberrations amongst younger Singaporeans largely stem from those who have lived abroad or who have spent a lot of time with foreigners (at, e.g., international schools).

One  convention I’ve observed (I don’t fully understand it) is this: when a heterosexual couple holds hands in public, it is often the woman whose hand is on top. It is unclear to me whether this body language has the same meaning here as it might in, say, NYC (there, the partner whose hand is on top is typically leading an outing and when walking stands slightly in front of the other).

Dating without alcohol. Despite Singapore’s liberal alcohol policies (there are virtually no open container laws, and booze is widely available, though expensive), many Singaporeans (especially those who are ethnically Chinese) don’t drink at all. Dates, accordingly, often lack one of the usual sources of social lubrication. Those sprawling and booze-fueled OKCupid first dates that creep into the early morning (common enough in, say, NYC) simply are not a fixture here. Getting to know someone while dating, accordingly, can be a slow and laborious process.

Online dating is frowned upon. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans populate dating sites like OKCupid. But most of them are at least mildly embarrassed to be on there. To resort to online dating is somehow a sign of being desperate (or something like that). And so, frank dialogue about online dating can be difficult to sustain, despite the fact that everyone’s doing it.

National Service. This deserves a post of its own. Every Singaporean man serves two years in the military. This has all sorts of consequences for life here, including an age-skew in the heterosexual dating pool and unique culture of machismo. But that is a topic for another day.

Wealth

mbs

To a visitor, Singapore’s most obvious feature may be its wealth. It is, per capita, the third richest country in the world, topped only by Qatar and Luxemburg. This money is not well-hidden. New construction is everywhere. Our airport is the best of its kind in the world: spotless, efficient, and constantly improving. New icons of prosperity and opulence (think Marina Bay Sands) are regularly added to the Singaporean skyline. And the city is fast becoming a sought-after playground for the rich. As a nightclub owner notes in this (characteristically breathless article on the topic), “Singapore is the most successful country of the past 40 years. We’ve gone from half a million people living in poverty to five million people living prosperous lives”.

New wealth and all its trappings are an important element in Singapore’s public image. Many Singaporeans are proud of their country’s economic success. All the nice things money can buy are on full display, especially for those who pass through Singapore (at Changi Airport) and for those who visit for a day or two (at Marina Bay Sands, Sentosa Island, and other touristy attractions). This is entirely by design, the result of a careful, ongoing, and systematic PR campaign that’s been underway since the mid-70s or so.

When thinking about Singapore’s wealth and its various consequences, there are two tempting mistakes. First, one might mistake Rich Singapore for Singapore. One might, in other words, conflate a sense of all the nice things that money can buy with a sense of what Singapore is (or worse, what life is like for many or most SIngaporeans). I’ve seen visitors and expats do this. They talk about how clean and safe and shiny Singapore is (Prada bags everywhere), and about the wonderful views over Marina Bay and about how the weather wasn’t too hot (of course you didn’t find things too hot; you were air-con’d the whole time, love). And it’s so easy to get around (of course it was, you just barked the name of a landmark to the taxi uncle and let him take care of the rest). What a modern, spiffy, technocratic city Singapore is! Why is this a mistake? Well, most people in Singapore don’t regularly hang out at the SkyPark of Marina Bay Sands and drink at 1-Altitude or the Tower Club and zip around only in taxis. Sure, 17% of Singaporeans are millionaires (in USD). But then again, 83% are not. Singapore is rich, but the riches enjoy a distribution that is far from egalitarian. So there’s that.

But there’s a second mistake in this neighborhood. One might also contrast Rich Singapore too strongly with Real Singapore. I’ve seen expats and visitors do this too. The idea here, I think, is that authentic means poor. So to get to know the Real Singapore, one must eschew aircon and the downtown area altogether and travel only by bus and MRT and eat only at hawker centres (ordering, of course, in Singlish or Mandarin). Nonsense. That PR campaign I mentioned above has been in action for a long time. And it’s not just about selling this little island to foreign businessmen; it’s also changed this island profoundly. The effects are pervasive; this place really is clean and safe (almost) throughout; those are products of wealth.

I conclude, then, that to understand Singapore’s wealth one must maintain a sort of mental tension between two extremes. On the one hand: Singapore is fabulously rich. There are pockets of astronomical wealth here, and that has profound consequences for life on the island. This is a rich and clean and shiny and cosmopolitan city, especially in contrast to the rest of Southeast Asia. On the other: many or most Singaporeans are not astronomically wealthy. Many work long and hard hours for very low pay (there is no mininum wage), living simple lives, blissfully uncosmopolitan and unglam.

Singapore’s Fusion Culture

The longer I live here, the more difficulties I find in answering the question of what Singapore’s culture and identity might be. It’s not always clear what it is to be a Singaporean, beyond toting a sturdy red passport or a pink IC.

The lion city is diverse along many important dimensions. It has four official languages, at least a small handful of dominant ethnic groups, countless food offerings, and regularly hosts foreigners from all around Asia and the globe (as workers in the short and long term, as tourists, and as passers-through). Indeed, as of 2013, over 40% of Singapore’s residents are foreign-born. A decent first pass at the question of what Singapore’s culture and identity might be, then, is this: they are a fusion of each of these diverse elements.

But Singapore is no melting pot. It is not as though the various diverse elements of Singaporean identity meld together to form a new and unique and homogenous substance. Instead, I think, the elements remain distinct, and their boundaries often resist penetration. As I think of things, then, though Singapore is a place of fusion and diversity, it is more like a pattern of non-permeable and interlocking tiles than a melting pot. The tiles of Singaporean culture are bound together by various glues but retain unique textures and color.

This is, at any rate, my best attempt to explain my take on Singaporean identity through analogy or metaphor. Two questions:

  1. What are the tiles that together fuse to make Singapore what it is?
  2. What unites or fuses or glues these diverse tiles together?

As I see things, understanding Singapore requires answers to both questions; one must grasp the tiles that compose Singapore (each unique), and one must see what glues them together (what is common). My current guess is that the glue-like elements of Singapore are vastly outnumbered by tiles.

In future posts, I’ll try to articulate what some of these glue-like elements and tiles are and how they fit together.