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:
- What are the tiles that together fuse to make Singapore what it is?
- 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.