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Tuesday 19 February 2013

6.9 Million People and An Emotional Hump

The protests against the White Paper on Population at Hong Lim Park have been making headlines around the world. In the meantime, in between exhortations by Ministers and pro-Establishment commentators to get above the emotional angst and emotive rhetoric, one is witnessing an anger startling not in its intensity, but by the way it cuts across all demographics of society.

The truth is that even at the apex of its political strength, there was always a 25% anti-PAP core that would not vote PAP even if they fielded Mahatma Gandhi. Even during the discontent that caused the PAP to lose Aljunied GRC in 2011, there was also a different 25% who would vote PAP even if they fielded Mickey Mouse. This time it is different – the anger is widespread, even amongst some staunch PAP grassroots leaders. The question is: Is this really just an emotive issue that the PAP can ride out? Or are there genuine reasons for people to be angry?

The truth is that there is plenty to be upset about.

Firstly, on so many levels, one has to question the need to rush the White Paper through Parliament. To begin with, the timing was incomprehensible – what kind of political acumen leads a party to think that it is good idea to further piss off a population after it has suffered a stunning defeat at a by-election?  Even if the White Paper was slated to be debated during that period prior to the resignation of Michael Palmer, it is not good reason, nor good political timing to continue according to schedule as if Punggol had not happened. Any political party has to know that pushing through an unpopular policy requires huge political capital, and the PAP’s political capital is arguably at an all-time low, even if it still retains a vast majority in Parliament.

In addition, it is extremely odd that in the midst of a National Conversation, a policy that will impact the lives of generations of Singaporeans is off the agenda. Surely a more prolonged public discussion of scenarios and alternatives would have had a chance of creating more buy-in? Surely after years of falling TFR, another few months would not have made a difference to any disaster scenario? It seems that after years of political hegemony, the PAP has forgotten that policies have to be sold when people have power at the ballot box. Technocratic fait-accomplis are the luxury of genuine one-party states and contrary to skeptics, as recent elections have shown, Singapore is still a democracy.

Secondly, the fear of overcrowding cannot be dismissed as an emotional hump. Nobody likes to live like sardines packed in a can. The fear of being squeezed into ever smaller spaces is a real one.

What is irrational is the fear of the figure 6.9 million. This figure by itself is completely meaningless, as are the alternative figures thrown out by other people opposing the White Paper.

Whether the population is 3 million, or 5 million, or 6.9 million, the question of whether Singapore will be overcrowded will depend on whether enough infrastructure is built. Will 6.9 million be overcrowded? The honest answer, if we think about it, is that it depends. 6.9 million living in today’s infrastructure will of course mean overcrowding. But IF the Government is able to execute its land use plan THEN perhaps it does not have to be overcrowded.

And that is the crux of the issue. The people should be worried about 6.9 million people not because that number is the sign of the Devil, but when a Government has not been able to adequately handle a population increase from 3 million to 5 million, what faith do the people have that it can do so from 5 to 6.9? 

It is thus imperative for the Government to first solve the current issues that have arisen from the previous population increase – overcrowding, high prices, competition for jobs – and regain the people’s trust. This is because when one is selling a vision for the future, you are asking people to take a leap of faith. Nobody can realistically imagine 6.9 million people living in a futuristic city made possible with advanced city planning techniques. The people have to trust the Government can deliver and in order to gain this trust, it has to show it can solve the current issues. 

There is however one emotive issue that I feel Singaporeans have to get over – the fear of being a minority and the preservation of a Singaporean Core.

I have no idea what that means.

Singaporean is by definition a nationality, not an ethnicity nor a race. 

It makes some sense for the Japanese to fear immigration as they want to preserve their ethnic homogeneity. Recently, when Hong Kong’s leaders made similar remarks that Hong Kong’s ethnic homogeneity of Cantonese people will be threatened by more Mainland Chinese immigration, it made sense too, even if one argues they are all ethnic Chinese.

But Singaporean? What is that?

It is neither race nor ethnicity, neither a language group nor even a religious community. Singapore is Singapore precisely because of its diversity, not because of homogeneity. 

We seem to have forgotten the Singapore Story. It is a story of an island of immigrants forged from many races, many religions, many cultures. It is a story of a nation that welcomed different people who wanted to make a better life to find a new home. It is a story of a country whose descendants of these original people still celebrate various festivals, where Mosque meets Temple, where Christians live alongside Hindus, and even if most of us speak English or Singlish, we still preserve our ‘native’ tongues.

Therefore when politicians and commentators lament that we are surrounded by foreign faces and unfamiliar tongues, they strike at the heart of our own identity. We are a nation built by foreign faces – the faces of our forefathers. When modern Singaporeans look in the mirror, it is still the faces of their forefathers that stare back at them, and this is certainly not a homogeneous face.   What is Singlish if not a pidgin language that evolved from many unfamiliar tongues? What is the Singaporean accent if not English overlayed with Chinese, Malay and Indian intonations? What is Singaporean if not a ‘rojak’ nationality forged from various people from foreign shores?

If we deny this we deny ourselves. 

In preserving the Singaporean Core, we first have to define it. Like its critics, the White Paper failed to do so, which rendered the amendment itself emotive and ultimately meaningless.

So then - what is a Singaporean? What is this Singaporean Core we want to preserve?

In the end, like others, I feel nobody defined it more eloquently than one of our founding fathers and the author of the Singapore Pledge, S. Rajaratnam. 

He said, "Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice."

That is the Singapore Story. If we want to preserve something, let it be that.


  1. All our ancestors developed our nations homogeneity over a time period of 21 decades (210) years since the 1800s - for you to deny their efforts and work over the years in creating our sense of identity and instilling our sense of patriotism is as good as spitting on them and saying that you are now no different from a China born Chinese and that they achieved nothing.

    Shame on you.

    1. Patriotism is to a country. It is not the same as being homogenous. Identity is not created. It evolves and up till 1965, all the various ethnicities still held citizenship in their native countries. 210 years is a huge exaggeration.

  2. You don't get it do you? It's not about ancestry, it's about how fast and numerous immigrants are being given citizenship so much so that they easily stick amongst themselves and not blend in.

    To be fair to you, most of the article was good, except for the last part. An identity is made up of more than mere "genes" it is made up with a sense of shared time. And for us Singaporeans, this shared time does not start at 1965. It started at 1819.

    It took us nearly 200 years to come together to have this unique heritage and while things can get better, it has been great. With this white paper, our identity has been pushed back by a hundred years.

    1. Like the previous comment, the 200 years is a huge exaggeration. 1819 to 1965 Singapore was merely a colonial outpost.

      Our identity to me is about an immigrant society, a melting pot.

      It is true that 1st generation citizens find it harder to assimilate - this is true in Canada, US, in Australia also, the other developed immigrant societies.

      The failure on the Govt's part is not merely the speed but the lack of proper assimilation policies like America's Citizenship tests. New applicants have to even pay for classes to make sure they learn the history, constitution , culture and political system of the US.

      If we maintain that our identity is an immigrant society and a melting pot then the White Paper merely affirms it.

    2. Sure we were a colonial outpost from 1819 to 1965 but you have left out the fact that assimilation and integration happened during this period to create a cultural identity that was later solidified and subsumed into a Singaporean national identity post independence 1965. Because what you're saying is, simply because we were under the british, we had no cultural identity. This is far from true.

      So what is this cultural identity you've conveniently left out? For example, adoption of Malay words into Hokkien, adoption of Hokkien words into Malay. Place names around Singapore are a clear reflection of this, for example Tiong Bahru. Then there is also 牛车水, which is a direct translation of Kreta Ayer or vice versa. Then it comes to food. Early Singaporean migrants have borrowed each others cooking techniques and ingredients to form a cuisine that can only uniquely be found in our locality. Another rich example here is in the Peranakan culture that has resulted in the hybridisation of Chinese and Malay cultures. Things like this only happen with the small daily interactions of our forefathers be it in the marketplace to buy things or even living in the same kampongs.

      Most importantly, this creation of a cultural identity that forms part of our Singaporean identity took time, again from 1819. If you thought what we have today stemmed only from 1965, that view is regretfully myopic. While I agree that we are an immigrant society and that 1st generation citizens will find it harder to assimilate, this will be made even harder by the formation of nationality clubs, and enclaves.

      If immigrants here were to form such a huge number (i.e., 50% of our future population) it would reduce the incentives for them assimilate. The new filipino citizens can easily hang out with their fellow non citizens working here rather than mix around with us Singaporeans simply because it lets them retain their linguistic and cultural heritage, which of course is perfectly understandable. These new immigrants are unlike our forefathers, it was neither a conviction or a choice, it was because they had to.

      What I find regretful is that you have called the time it took to get this far an "exaggeration" simply because we were under different rulers. And in doing so, you have denied and conveniently forgotten about the importance of our cultural heritage and the efforts made to form one from the moment the first immigrants landed and interacted. Sure we were a colonial outpost - but that colonial outpost is the starting point of this melting pot where people have been living together more or less in harmony. Sadly, in your haste to support the white paper, you have conveniently bleached out and reduced Singapore history for your own political motives. I find that disappointing.

    3. 200 years is a huge exaggeration? lol

      The only exaggeration here is the extent in which you selectively choose which attributes of Singapore you wish to cut and paste to suit your argument and ignoring everything else. Your lack of knowledge in cultural history is astounding, your stubbornness to acknowledge it is shocking.

      First you say that the the failure "is not merely the speed" which means the failure includes the speed of immigration. This shows that you agree to immigration at a slower pace.

      Then you say that the White Paper affirms that ours is an immigrant society, so therefore, increasing immigration is a reflection of that identity. So why don't we indiscriminately bring in new immigrants at every level of our development beyond 2030? Because we're an immigrant society right? We can keep adding more and more and more people, and it makes so much sense just because we were once immigrants! So why stop there? Why not go on to 20 million, 30 million, 40 million? What's that? You say no? But we're an immigrant society, therefore to reinforce that we're all once immigrants, we can keep taking everyone in!

      If only the world is as simple as your line of thought.

    4. I guess I am dealing with the same poster as both are from the same account so will reply to both at once.

      I am afraid that it is you that do not know your history. Peranakan culture came way before Singapore was founded - they are the descendants of Chinese immigrants to the Malaya and Indonesia in the 15th and 16th century. Many of these Chinese intermarried with Malays. Most of the Pernankans in Singapore are themselves immigrants from Melaka and some from Penang.

      Kreta Ayer is a translation of Niu Che Shui and DEFINITELY not vice versa. The buffalo cart was known as 牛车。That area of Singapore was also CHINA-town where most Chinese lived. There was very little mixing with the Malays who lived mostly in the Geyland Serai area in the 19th Century.

      More importantly, each ethnic community was loyal to their ancestral home, not to Singapore. When the Japanese invaded, the Chinese were raising money for the defence of the homeland - China, not Singapore.

      Therefore yes. 200 years is a huge exaggeration.

      And to your other points, obviously if assimilation policies are poor then they cannot keep up with the speed of immigration. That's why I said 'not merely'

      And yes we should keep taking immigrants in as much as our physical size can take.

      It is you whose mind is simple if you think 20 30 or 40 are realistic numbers.

    5. You don't seem to have grasped my point at all.

      I said: "Then there is also 牛车水, which is a direct translation of Kreta Ayer or vice versa."

      Whether it is first named Kereta Ayer or Niu Che Shui is IMMATERIAL to my statement. Kereta Ayer simply means water cart by the way. My point which you have missed, was that both the Malay and Chinese community knew what it meant: A water cart pulled by a bull. This shows that it is a direct translation of each other's words for place names, it doesn't matter which name came from which because this shows interaction and consensus on what a place stands for.

      And you are profoundly mistaken that was no interaction between early Singapore communities. They did not live a simple life of segregation, and I would suggest you read more than your primary 4 social studies textbook for such information. Take a walk down Chinatown and you will see hindu temples standing nearly next to mosques next to Taoist and Buddhist temples. These were all built in the 1800s (you can read on wikipedia) This shows that Malays and Indians of that time had no qualms living within a Chinese enclave, and similarly the Chinese had no qualms accommodating to them. The name 'China-town' is an artificial name, otherwise I am an advocate of using what we locals called it: Niu Che Shui or even Gu Chia Chui. In Geylang Serai too, there is a Taoist temple in the vicinity. Places of worship are built where existing communities are living, for their service. Don't tell me you're silly enough to think that Malays and Indians walked all the way to Gu chia chui just to worship and then go all the way back again.

      Yes yes I thought everyone knew where Peranakan culture stemmed from and again, that wasn't my point. The early pre-independence Singapore was rich and diverse enough to support and bolster the development and sustenance of the unique culture. Today and after independence, peranakan culture is disappearing off our island, retained mostly in museums and channel 8 dramas

      So while early immigrants remained loyal to their homeland, clearly they were not loyal enough to return home.There is a difference between national identity and cultural identity. This cultural identity became part of our national identity which was forged from 1965 onwards. Today, we are all loyal to Singapore. We all did our national service, and while I still have normal Chinese food at home, I have no problems having prata on Saturday mornings with my army buddies and then ayam penyet for lunch. We swear using each other's words. This is the Singapore we built that I have come to know and love. This is our Singapore culture.

      I think you need to take your time to talk to the historians or Singapore studies professors and academics in our universities, or just take up a university-level book on cultural history. There are far too many gaps in what you know.

    6. It is hilarious the above commentator keeps stating that I need to talk to historians and I have gaps in my knowledge. His knowledge is patchy and puerile.

      I suggest everyone reads proper history books instead of listening to his nutcase drivel on Singaporean history

      The British planned Singapore according to the 'islands of settlements' principle. A survey by the Singapore Improvement Trust in 1950 (Hodder, 1953) showed that large degrees of segregation and ethnic isolation existed. Raffles himself issued an edict in 1822 that 'separate nationalities and provincial groups should inhabit distinct areas of town' (Castell 1990)

      (Chua 1991b 345) wrote that different areas of the river were used to house different ethnicities.

      Busch (1974) argued that interaction was limited to economic exchanges during colonial days.

      There you go - a proper statement with proper historical references.

      A proper summary of the above historical resource can also be found in this book

      Many early immigrants also returned home , even some founding fathers such as Tan Kah Kee.

    7. V - Try reading proper history books instead of Wikipedia :)

  3. I believe I am speaking to Fernando Colin Benedict? I will reply to your posts here rather than your duplicates on Facebook, if you don't mind.

    1. Hello Calvin, It's Fernandez Colin Benedict here. Am not sure who the second anonymous poster is but just know that ain't me, so i would appreciate if you don't jump to conclusions next time and yeah i don't mind replying here.

      If going by your statements and i do correct myself, isn't it still 145 years that our ancestors took to forged their identity and nationality? I linked patriotism because of our nationality - without a sense of identity and nationality, would one still feel or be patriotic to his country of birth?

      Then is it safe or even right to say in your words that since we are basically still a immigrant country and as such shouldn't feel a sense of belonging to the country? That as there is no identity to our nationality and as such we shouldn't be obliged by law or by self through patriotism to serve our country seeing how we are deemed as an immigrant country?

      I digressed.

      Point being is there is homogeneity that is forged in the past and even now,

      I quote this post (which you liked) and strongly disagree with his views.

      "Our forefathers came from many different backgrounds, but were united in building this nation upon hard work. Jokers who receive their citizenship by luck of birth and do nothing but sit around and complain have no right to be associated with them."

      Why? Because although we may have recieved our citizenship by birth but doesn't mean that we the people of today do not contribute to nation building - every year we hold Racial Harmony day - for what reason if not nation building?

      So would you really consider us as the "Jokers" still keeping hold of a multi-racial nation Which by right (if you really wish to break it down) consisted of four races that is the four main races of our settlers back in the days and not of more different types of immigrants coming in today.

      I digress here again to ask then, should we in future also expand our racial harmony to include this different races as we are pushing for more immigrants to become new citizens? Should our forms then include Thais or Philipino in future should they choose to settle here?

      *Note - i find it amusing that as i wrote this point, i remembered that the settlers back then came today and work as one nation for a better tomorrow for their next generation yet here we are today back at the same point where they left off. My senses begin to drift off to imagine the singaporean citizenship of tomorrow as nothing more then just a multi national label and i find myself questioning then "why should my son serve a multi-national label?"

      Anyway i digressed and i leave it as food for thought on your part.

      Back to the main point of nation building, aside of nation building via racial harmony, what about economics, am i and my family not indirectly contributing to the nation's economic by working? Is my son not contributing to the nation by serving the nation as i did?

      It's upsetting to say the least that you "liked" the post to which i assume (correct me if im wrong) that you actually agree that the minority that resented the white paper and your views on it as "Jokers who receive their citizenship by luck of birth and do nothing but sit around and complain have no right to be associated with them"

    2. Hi. My point is that prior to 1965, the immigrants did not come here to nation-build or work for the nation of Singapore. The nation of Singapore did not exist till 1965. Prior to that, the majority were still holding on to citizenships of their native nations, or were subjects of the British Empire. Many immigrants from China in fact went 'home' to die, including several of my own family (great-grandparents generation).

      The 4 main races is also a over-simplification as Indians included Ceylonese (Sri Lankans), the Chinese were divided amongst themselves (the Hokkiens and Cantonese used to live in segregated areas and has battle turfs - most importantly they could not even understand each other), the Malays included various Austronesian peoples like the Bugis, the Javanese, the Sundanese etc who are all different ethnic groups who spoke languages that were mutually unintelligible.

      We have always been a polyglot of people before post 1965 the govt made all Chinese people learn Mandarin (in itself a Northern Han language that was alien to our ancestors and in fact is the NATIVE language of the new Chinese immigrants), Tamil for Indian people (alien language to the Hindi and Sinhalese people), Malay for the 'Malay' people (even though this was unintelligible to the ancestors of the Sundanese, the Javanese) etc.

      Your son should serve because of the state of Singapore because we are a state of various people, various races, language groups, religions whose ancestors came and whose ancestors continue coming to build a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state that lives harmoniously together, and with shared values embodied within the national pledge.

      When the new Chinese come, they have to for the first time deal with non-Chinese people and live side by side with them harmoniously and they have to learn to live with it and inculcate these values in their children. When the new Indians come, for the first time they are not the majority and they have to let go of the old caste systems and assimilate with Singaporeans. Similarly with other immigrants.

      This is the beauty of Singapore. For many nations, one is forged. if we let go of this, we let go of something very precious.

    3. While i agree with you that the beauty of Singapore is that from many nations, one is forge. I have to emphasize that its not just beauty but an identity. One that may very well be diluted to represent a multi-national country instead if not handled properly.

      What do i mean by that? Even before the white paper was out, we have already been dealing with a influx of foreigners that have failed to assimilate. We see openly foreigners whose English (assuming you agree English is our main language here) are below par coming in causing them to rather stick with their own countryman whom speak the same tongue and accent with them.

      And by further allowing more to come in will only serve as a catalyst to those already here to maintain their own groups and roots instead of assimilating into the countries already residing citizens.

      Now wouldn't you agree that we are back at the same point where our ancestors were. Of getting the different race groups to work together to build the nation all over again. If this doesn't seem to you as a step down for our country, it sure does to me.

      It would be destructive to the current identity our ancestors built and we probably have to forge it all over again, this time with more races involved and this is already the optimistic outlook.

      Pessimistically - we may experience racial spats between the growing groups of immigrants against each other or even worse against its own citizens. Citizens not getting picked for jobs, people hiring base on their race and origins. It's like the 80s all over again.

      - Colin.

  4. In short, prior to 1965, there was no 'effort' to forge a nation. The state Singapore was founded only in 1965 and efforts to forge a nation in this state only started then.

    Before then, from 1963 to 1965 there were also efforts to forge a Malaysian identity.

  5. This is an excellent analysis of the situation.

    Nation-building efforts started about 50 years ago. And it will have to continue for many more decades, if not centuries.

    It is ridiculous for some people to yell, "Stop now! Freeze!" and claim that at this point in our history, this is exactly the Singapore that matters, that we have a Singapore core that cannot be changed. The truth is that countries evolve, sometimes very quickly and very extensively. The complaints in the UK and the US, and in Australia, are very similar to what we experience here: strange new faces, new languages, difficulty of assimilation. The anonymous commentators here need to have a sense of reality and history.


  6. I think two other issues that bother many people are the speed of the proposed population increase and also the integration problems currently experienced in the country now. For example, many of these new immigrants hardly speak any English, the language that unites all Singaporeans.

    So, it's not "Stop now! Freeze!" but rather "The house is already very crowded and you still want to invite more people? Can you expand the house (vertically perhaps) before you even consider doing that? Also, can you invite people that I can talk to at least?"

  7. Almost a year ago - I told you this things would happen but you like many of your PAP members failed to understand.

    As the year past, gradually I'm proven right - more and more case of racial hiring and even the case of a riot due to conclaves forming.

    What will it take for people like you to see that the path you are taking is wrong?

    - Colin