I have been intending to write on this for a while but I wanted enough time to have conversations with different people and reflect on this issue.
The Singapore government recently published a White Paper and in the White Paper, it was stated that Singapore population may reach a size of 6.9 million by 2030 according to our newly drawn out population plans. To bring our population size towards that number, we will also seek to take in 30 000 new Permanent Residents(PRs) every year. I like to use ‘we’ because I think it’s silly to make a distinction between the government and the citizens and that distinction hampers progress. This announcement has caused a commotion among the people in this small country ever since. Many people were against it and they were vocal about it both online as well as offline. There are two main concerns that people raised:1) it is too uncomfortable to live with so many people on this small piece of land. 2) having too many foreigners will dilute our Singaporean core and hence reduce our sense of belonging.
I am not an economist and I am certainly in no position to critically scrutinize and analyze the facts and figures on this White Paper. After all, these are just numbers, who knows what we will become in 2030? Who knows how it actually feels like to have 6.9 million people on this red dot? Who knows how it feels like to share this small plot of land with 30000 new PRs every year? Here are just my two cents worth on the people’s reactions and the Singapore identity.
Singaporeans always complain about overcrowding in the trains and on the roads. Yes I feel that almost everyday when I take the train and have to literally run across the platform at Jurong East MRT station during the peak hours. Uncomfortable as it is, isn’t this the very characteristic of a city? Look at big cities around the world like Tokyo, Beijing, Hongkong, London etc, there are many people moving in those cities everyday on the roads and the subways. If we want to enjoy the standard of living that we have right now and be among the big cities in the world, this crowded, at times overcrowded, situation is something that we have to put up with. So instead of complaining about something we can’t change, we should constructively start thinking of ways to make this travelling experience more pleasant for everyone. Personally, I think that travelling with SMRT would be more comfortable if the passengers queue instead of crowd around the doors and if the average train speed is increased.
The Singaporean identity issue is a lot trickier. Let’s consider our ‘pre-foreign talents’ cultural fabric comprising of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasians first. I am learning the Malay language this semester and when I told a friend of mine that knowing another of our 4 languages will make me more Singaporean, she said, “You don’t need to know that to be a Singaporean.” I find that it takes really very little to be a Singaporean. I do not need to know about the Chinese culture, literature and history in order to call myself a Singaporean Chinese. I also do not need to fully understand the Malay and Indian cultures and their festivals, let alone the languages, in order to call myself a Singaporean. Because of the Malay language class, I have also been watching Suria, our local Malay television channel, lately. Once when I was watching, it occurred to me that simply because people have different mother tongues, we watch different television programs and experience differently because of the different festivals we celebrate even though we grow up in the same country. There is nothing wrong with that, this result is inherent in a policy designed to bring people closer to their own heritage. What binds these diverse groups of people together? Apart from the mandated shared experiences such as education and National Service, it boils down to this idea that people, regardless of race, language or religion, can achieve their aspirations so long as they work hard enough for it and respect the different people around you. It is a demanding game to play but it definitely scores well on fairness.
Singapore is an immigrant country, we didn’t have the Chinese, Indian and Eurasian people at the very beginning. These immigrants didn’t see Singapore as home at the start. In a way, the ‘foreign talent’ that we have right now can also be regarded as the new immigrants in Singapore, maybe we perceive them as foreigners now but granted 10-20 years, this could become home to them. I was having a conversation with a PRC friend a while back on this and she asked just how many years does one have to stay in order to be regarded as a Singaporean? How many immigrants do we think should be taken in each year so as not to “dilute our Singaporean core”?
I am an idealist. I really like the melting pot of different cultures that we have here. I like how people respect other people even though they may not understand what they are doing. Prior to the big wave of globalization, Singapore already has a great diversity of people. Now more and more people, including Singaporeans, are moving around the world. What this means is that many countries are also taking in many new immigrants each year and coping with this question about national identity. In a way, because Singapore has already found some ways to somehow bind people of different cultures together, we should actually be at the forefront to show the world how to make a nation out of a population with so much diversity.
When I was in hongkong, I was often afraid that people would find out that I can’t quite speak Cantonese and assume that I am from China and treat me less kindly because of that. Here in Singapore, the situation is so much worse right now because as long as you speak without a Singaporean accent and aren’t a tourist, people are not generally fond of you as they see you as someone who has taken or is going to take away their jobs. I do not understand and I do not like the xenophobia going around, we could have done so much more with the existing diversity. If only I can convince everyone me not to think and act so childishly.
I am not being blindly optimistic, there are many challenges posed to us right now and in the near future. We have to rethink what home means to us and what being a Singaporean really means. There are a lot we could do in terms of integrating these new immigrants instead of simply dissing them.
I am not a PAP devotee, I am not saying that they are all correct, there are things that could have been done better and phrased better by our members of the Parliament. But it does us no good if we keep faulting them because of something that is in past tense. We can squander all the time to fault a government that we voted in or we can make this Singaporean experience more pleasant for everyone.
Year 2030 is still quite some time away. I see 2030 not as the landmark year that our population figures cross 6.9 million (I would like to see how many people at that time would still remember this number) but rather as the period of time when Singapore has marched into its next phase – we will have a melting pot of even more different cultures with people respecting each other and believing that whoever you are and wherever you originated from, you will achieve your aspirations so long as you work hard for it.