The Intricate Tapestry of Singaporean Identity: Navigating Diversity and Belonging

According to the Malay chronicle of the Malay Chronicle, in the 13th century, a Sumatran prince was shipwrecked and drifted to an island. He beheld an enigmatic creature on the island, hitherto unseen. The indigenous inhabitants informed him of its identity as a lion. Convinced of the lion’s auspicious symbolism, the prince christened the land beneath his feet “Lion City”. In Malay, Singa signifies “lion” and pore denotes “town”. Together, they form Singapore.

I commence this discourse with such a tale to introduce a recent occurrence. Following a sojourn to Singapore, a fellow compatriot adorned her social media with a plethora of images. The eateries, beverage establishments, and apparel emporia depicted therein bore striking resemblance to numerous domestic brands. Moreover, while traversing the thoroughfares, many compatriots, resembling each other, bemoaned a sensation akin to estrangement, despite being within Singaporean confines. A Singaporean blogger, upon perusal of the post, expressed discontent, reproaching the compatriot for overlooking the distinctiveness of Singaporean traits and failing to discern the cultural disparities between China and Singapore. His rebuke was acerbic. This blogger commands a following exceeding 200,000. Swiftly, his articulation garnered widespread attention, spurring heated deliberations. The comments section teemed with diverse perspectives, with many concurring with the compatriots’ sentiments. Some even facetiously suggested renaming “Singapore” to “Chinapore”. Subsequently, the Singaporean blogger, recognizing the acrimony of his rhetoric, tendered an apology, advocating for the accord of respect to all viewpoints, in consonance with Singapore’s ethos as an inclusive society.

This discourse is unlikely to reach a definitive denouement, as the interlocutors espouse disparate stances. Yet, incontrovertibly, China and Singapore are intrinsically bound by kinship. However, in the hearts of Singaporean Chinese, their allegiance lies solely with their Chinese heritage, while their ethnic allegiance is unequivocally Singaporean. Singapore’s national ethos has perennially underscored interethnic collaboration and assimilation, affirming that those who settle in this land must recognize that their destiny lies not in ancestral homelands but in cultivating roots here.

In the yuletide of 2005, my spouse and I transplanted ourselves from California, USA, to Singapore. By a reckoning, I have resided in this insular realm for nearly two decades. Why Singapore, you may ask? I believe the allure of Singapore initially lay in its proximity to the motherland, coupled with the fact that over 70% of its populace shares Chinese lineage.

Upon my inaugural arrival in Singapore, I nursed a modicum of disappointment, a consequence of juxtaposition. Prior to my arrival, I had dwelled in Palo Alto, California, meandering amidst the edifices of Stanford University daily. The second largest campus in the United States sprawls openly, resembling a miniature township, replete with boutiques, apartments, buses, churches, cafes, and bistros. Notably, there are no fewer than nine libraries on its expanse. Within one such repository, replete with volumes chronicling Eastern culture, I encountered a compendium of acclaimed literary works and scholarly treatises on literary theory from China. The tomes of domestic bestsellers adorned the shelves, prompting a moment of introspection. At times, one could be forgiven for surmising oneself to be perusing the shelves of a library in China. My initiation into English and American cultures was facilitated by various volunteers on campus, who graciously imparted their knowledge to foreigners, either individually or in small groups. One such benefactor, a volunteer at the Catholic parish on campus, would adjourn to the verdant expanse outside the church post her ecclesiastical duties every Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock, where she would tutor me in English pronunciation amidst Biblical anecdotes. Learning of my vocation as a wordsmith, she extolled the Psalms of Solomon as the epitome of poetic beauty. Thus, my existence in the United States revolved around the campus, radiating outward. Analogously, life in Singapore revolves around Nanyang Technological University.

The expanse of Nanyang Technological University belies its modest dimensions, permitting traversal within the span of an hour. The verdant campus, bedecked with flora indigenous to tropical rainforests, flourishes perennially. One may encounter species akin to those in one’s hometown, such as myrtle, berries, raspberries, and phoenix flowers, which thrive luxuriantly, redolent of southern climes. The myriad dining establishments, both grandiose and diminutive, offer culinary delights reminiscent of my native culinary heritage, including cold noodles, fried rice noodles, roujiamo, Yangzhou fried rice, and spicy chicken. Gradually, my initial reluctance waned.

As we acclimated to our new abode and procured a vehicular conveyance, we were confronted with the exorbitant costs associated with car ownership in Singapore, which ranks foremost globally. Procuring a vehicle necessitates the acquisition of a certificate of entitlement, a prerequisite for vehicular ownership. The initial acquisition of our car ownership certificate incurred a nominal fee of less than 10,000 SGD. Subsequently, when procuring our second automobile, this fee skyrocketed to 50,000 SGD. Presently, it stands at a staggering 160,000 SGD, equivalent to over 800,000 RMB. The rationale behind this exorbitance is the Singaporean government’s contention that the privilege of private vehicular ownership warrants commensurate financial investment. Notwithstanding, the government evinces confidence in its public transit infrastructure, epitomized by the comprehensive bus network, which it actively encourages its denizens to patronize. The morning rush hour witnesses a surge in subway commuters, prompting the government to institute novel regulations wherein fares are discounted by 50 cents for journeys undertaken prior to 6:30 AM. The seemingly inconsequential saving thus accrued may defray commuting expenses. Families willingly adjust their schedules to avail themselves of this concession. Singapore’s regulatory landscape is characterized by meticulous precision, akin to a slender tome, easily comprehended yet infinitely expandable. Moreover, it exhibits a penchant for experimentation, readily rectifying oversights as they arise.

In the United States, we habitually availed ourselves of pre-owned vehicles; thus, the novelty of a new automobile proved exhilarating. Yet, our inaugural foray onto Singaporean thoroughfares proved chastening. Upon navigating our vehicle into an underground parking facility within a shopping mall, we encountered a labyrinth of cramped passageways, inducing a sensation of trepidation akin to navigating a narrow strait. The proximity of oncoming vehicles engendered an impression of imminent collision. Inadvertently, we grazed the wall on two successive occasions, leaving unsightly blemishes upon our vehicle’s gleaming exterior. This was but the initial skirmish in a protracted battle against the exigencies of navigating the Po Island parking lots, which demand a scrupulous utilization of every available inch. Some parking facilities, situated on the sixth or seventh floors, necessitate navigating a vertiginous ascent, akin to a rite of passage. Maneuvering into a vacant space within such confines rivals the rigors of a driving examination. Moreover, the unyielding regulations governing parking comportment mandate an exacting adherence to protocol; a minor lapse on the part of a neighboring driver may entail the unenviable task of extricating oneself from the vehicle akin to squeezing toothpaste from a tube. The exorbitant parking fees only exacerbate the ordeal, prompting the contemplation of alternative modes of transportation, such as utilizing taxis, given the attendant fatigue and expenditure of fuel associated with personal vehicular travel.

Singapore’s diminutive landmass belies its stature as a global hub, a transformation facilitated by extensive land reclamation efforts over the past half-century. Landmarks such as Changi Airport, Universal Studios Sentosa, Gardens by the Bay, and Raffles Place owe their existence to these endeavors, underscoring Singapore’s indomitable spirit of innovation and progress.

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