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  • Writer's pictureJT Singh

The Spirit of Singapore’s Diversity

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

Toronto-born “urban-geographic explorer” JT Singh has a passion for discovering what makes global cities tick. For a special Cities of Migration assignment, he visited Singapore and now shares his views on this multi-ethnic city-state, its success as well as the tensions that changing migration patterns bring.

ou describe city in terms of their unique ethos, or “city-ness.” Describe the ethos of Singapore:

The first thing you notice when arriving in Singapore is the unique Singaporean accent. It is the truly captivating tune of English known as “Singlish” — a crossroads of Indian and Malay with a Chinese-Hokkien inflection. When entering the subway stations, you will hear announcements and see signs translated into English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Across the city landscape are stunning Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist temples, mosques and churches. You’ll find a wide range of culturally diverse programming on the TV and radio, as well as the live performances you will inevitably stumble across while exploring the city. As every visitor will be quick to notice, the cuisine of Singapore is also an important source of pride and identity for Singaporeans. A multitude of smells emanate from restaurants in every corner of the city. In short, Singapore is a veritable living and breathing, culturally diverse ethnoscape.

So who makes up the diversity in Singapore’s ‘ethnoscape’?

Since national independence in 1965, Singapore has been constitutionally defined as a multiracial state. Unlike the mono-ethnic culture of many Asian nation-states continue, Singapore takes pride in being an immensely pluralistic one. Among the mix of local Singaporeans you’ll also find high-skilled foreign professionals and their families from all over the world as well as low-skilled workers drawn from neighboring countries. These include Malaysian factory workers, Chinese bus drivers, Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers, Thai and South Asian construction workers and so forth.

What’s the attraction? How do you explain this diversity?

Singapore has always been an economic magnet to migrants due to its strategic location at the crossroads of the main shipping routes of the world. It’s a major regional center for global shipping and trade activity. For many years, Singaporeans have openly accepted migrant-labour as a necessary means of fueling the economy. Clichéd as it may sound, “racial harmony” does, for the most part, exist amongst the various ethnic groups in this city-state.

Singapore’s strong state policies on grooming world-class local talent and for attracting foreign skills are all about maintaining a competitive economy. Concerted efforts are made to court and retain high-skilled internationally trained workers, including the benefit of permanent residence status. Nonetheless, the high-end professional labour force is typically a “flow through” population. Few of the foreign professionals you will meet in Singapore have taken up Singaporean citizenship and the vast majority have no plans to do so. While many expats are drawn to employment in Singapore because of attractive salaries or economic need at home, for most the destinations of choice for long-term settlement are Australia, Canada, USA and other Western countries.

A booming economy like Singapore’s depends on more than high-skilled workers. What about the ‘builders’ at the other end of the spectrum?

At the other end of the labour spectrum, you’ll find the far more numerous unskilled migrant workers performing 3D work (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) who are not permitted to take up Singaporean citizenship. Nevertheless, from a regional perspective, Singapore’s hardline bio-politics are preferred to tough immigration policies that prevent low-skilled labour from entering Singapore altogether. There are substantial benefits for migrants from the poorer, labour exporting countries in and around Asia. Temporary employment in Singapore provides massive flows of money in the form of remittances back to sending countries, a much welcomed source of transnational income.

How has the city succeeded in creating a diverse and multicultural mainstream?

Singapore’s complex multicultural and “migranthood” reality didn’t just happen. Immigrant integration is taken very seriously and is embedded in the deeper substance of Singapore. For example, spatial and social integration is implemented by the government through a program known as the HDB (Housing Development Board). Through a process of ‘squatter clearances’, older economically-deprived immigrant enclaves were broken up and residents were re-housed in public housing estates using a quota system that re-distributed the different ethnic groups proportionately into each housing estate and into each block of public housing. Today 82% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats and there are no ethnic “enclaves.” Hence, Singapore’s distinct ethnoscape, compared to many other multicultural world cities.

Another highly symbolic policy area are the measures adopted by the government to increase the political representation of minority groups. Again, it’s all part of Singapore’s singular agenda to promote the benefits of integration. Minority candidates are guaranteed a seat in multi-seat constituencies under a system termed the Group Representation Constituency (GRC). This dynamic and continuously evolving sense of Singaporean identity permeates city thinking and strategy.

Any last thoughts on Singapore’s multicultural spirit?

Singapore has worked tirelessly to maintain racial harmony and a sense of collective identity in Singapore’s multiethnic society. The watershed moment that catalyzed the government’s position was the 1964 riots between Chinese and Malays residents, which left thirty-six dead. Since the mid-60s, the Singaporean government has come down hard on any signs of “ethnic chauvinism” threatening to pull apart the hard-won cohesion of the social fabric.

Urban identities are continuously evolving. Many of Singapore’s new arrivals are mainland Chinese who don’t always share the multicultural ethos of the small nation. While many Singaporeans are anxious that the foundations of their young multicultural identity are challenged by Mainland “Chineseness,” the reality is that integration takes time. And many of these Chinese immigrants, particularly the younger generation, already show strong signs of integrating into Singaporean society. For example, within a year of settling in Singapore, the distinctive “Singlish” accent is already audible among newer Chinese migrants.

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