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Many foreigners and some Singaporeans may argue that there is no such thing as Singapore culture or Singapore's national identity. Or that Singapore culture is not rich enough and it is just a random mixture of traditions from the four ethnic groups. However, I beg to differ, Singapore does have its own unique culture even though it may not be as obvious or distinct as compared to other countries.
Being able to have a hybrid of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western traditions is already a culture in itself. How many other countries out there are struggling for the different ethnic groups to mix together while Singapore culture is able to have a hybrid of all four?
To understand how the traditions from the four ethnic groups are overlapped and embraced by the Singaporeans, we will first understand the four ethnic groups, then move on to the education system, the media and the Singapore government that encourage the collage of cultures. Lastly, we will look at the unique Singapore culture that has surfaced due to the hybrid of the traditions from the four ethnic groups.
The Four Ethnic Groups
The Singapore culture consists of four main ethnicities, namely the Chinese, Malays, Indians and the Others. As each ethnic group has its own distinctive religion, festivals, with the help of Singapore's census, let's take a look and have a deeper understanding of the four ethnicities before analyzing the Singapore culture.
The Chinese makes up the biggest resident population in Singapore. According to the latest Singapore census, the Chinese formed 74.1 percent of the resident population in 2010. The Chinese ethnic basically refers to persons of Chinese origin such as Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hainese, etc. Some of the main festivals that are celebrated by the Chinese are Chinese New Year, Qing Ming Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Hungry Ghost Festival and Mooncake Festival. Religion to the Chinese is about easing their passage through the difficult life and consists of three quite different religious philosophies namely, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucian Philosophy.
The Malays are the second largest resident population in Singapore, although in terms of large, not being able to compare to the Chinese. The Malays took up 13.4 percent of the resident population in 2010. Malays refers to persons of Malay or Indonesian origin, such as Javanese, Boyanese, Bugis, etc. For the Malays, festivals such as Hari Raya Puasa, Hari Raya Haji are celebrated. A huge majority of the Malays in Singapore are mostly Muslims, Islam being their religion, which teaches about the acceptance of and obedience to the word of God. Besides Islam, minority of the Malays also believe in Budi, which in some respects, similar to Confucianism.
The Indians make up 9.2 percent of the resident population in 2010 and Indians refers to persons of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan origin such as Tamils, Malayalis, Bengalis, etc. The Indians celebrate festivals such as Vesak Day, Thaipusam, Deepavali, Thimithi, etc. Unlike the Malays, Indians are not defined by one religion. Almost half of the Indians are Hindu, but some others are Muslim, some Sikh, others (especially those from Southern India) are Christian.
Others, including the Eurasians and other ethnicities make up 3.3 percent of the resident population in 2010. The Others comprises of all persons who do not fall into the category of Chinese, Malays and Indians such as the Eurasians, Europeans, Arabs, Japanese, etc. These other ethnicities which cannot be categorize under Chinese, Malays and Indians celebrates their own festivals. For example, the Japanese in Singapore will celebrate their å¤ç¥ã‚Š (Summer Festival) in August which is organized by The Japanese Association, Singapore. As the population in Others consists of ethnicities from all around the world, they basically follows and believe in their own religion.
Even though there is a mixture of ethnicities in Singapore where each group retains its strong individual religious, culture and beliefs, theoretically, the four main ethnic groups still live together in harmony and even celebrate and enjoy each other's festivals. In Singapore, there is still a special day, Racial Harmony Day, an event which is celebrated to commemorate the 1964 racial riots between the Malays and Chinese when Singapore was still under the Malay Federation. On this day, the different ethnic groups in schools (mostly primary and secondary) will come together to reflect on the importance of a racially harmonious country and a society build on a rich and diverse culture and heritage.
Education is viewed as a high priority for the government in Singapore where under the Compulsory Education Act developed in year 2000, all children in Singapore must attend primary school. It is made a criminal offence if the parents failed to enroll their children in school and also, ensuring their regular attendance. Through the education system, Singapore's government ensure that its citizens will maintain their own ethnic cultures by developing "mother tongue" for all students and at the same time bound the four main ethnic groups together through the promotion of Singapore "Shared Values".
Due to the population having a broad range of native languages, problems were encountered as to which one shall be the official language of Singapore. As a reflection of its collage of culture, the Singapore government adopted one representative language for each of the four ethnic groups thus Singapore has four official languages which are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. All students must study English and a "mother tongue": Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, base on their ethnicities (i.e., Chinese studying mandarin, Malays studying Malay and Indians studying Tamil). So theoretically, all Singaporeans know at least two languages, their "mother tongue" and English. According to the Ministry of Education, "mother tongue" was implemented so that Singaporeans will not forget their traditional cultures, values and moral concepts which are valuable and worth preserving.
Besides the four official languages, dialects are also spoken in Singapore especially by the older generations, but it is notably decreasing in current years. This is mainly due to the fact that Singapore's government intervention for Singaporeans to "speak good English", "speak good Chinese" and of course, the censoring of dialects in the media which will be discussed in later part of the essay.
As Singapore is a country which houses three cultures (Chinese, Malay and Indian), each of the ethnic groups has its own distinct values, the government came out with "Shared Values" in 1998 to bound Singapore together as a nation. It was developed so that the diverse ethnic groups of Singapore can have common values and also to help preserve their Asian identities in the period of globalization. Of course, the different ethnic groups can still practice their own values as long as it is not in conflict with the national ones. By having "Shared Values", the government hopes that Singaporeans can identify key common values that all ethnic groups and faiths can subscribe to live by, which basically emphasizes communitarian values.
These "Shared Values" are taught to Singaporean through the education system with subjects such as Civics and Moral Education (CME). The CME syllabus focuses on six core values, namely, Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, Care, Resilience and Harmony, and these values are to complement and reinforce the Singapore Shared Values, the Singapore Family Values, the Singapore 21 Vision and the National Education messages.
The core value that I would like to highlight out of the six will be Harmony, which, according to the CME syllabus, is defined as "A person who values harmony maintains good relationships and promotes social togetherness. He appreciates the unity and diversity of a multicultural society". The learning objective(s) of this core value is to encourage Singaporeans to take the initiative and 'make friends' with other ethnic groups to build a 'harmonious living environment' and to 'enhance peace and stability' and to 'appreciate the different cultures' in Singapore's 'multi-racial society'.
In theory, the news media in Singapore are able to freely express its views and opinions but in reality, it is far from the case. Singapore's media is monopolized by the giant Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) (which is in charge of all printed materials) and MediaCorp (which takes care of the television and radio). Both of the companies are state-owned thus the government is able to control what kind of information the Singaporeans are exposed to through self-censorship (example, censoring of dialects in broadcasted shows), preventing dissent and damaging stories away from local press.
Besides preventing negative information from spreading to the Singaporeans, media is also used for the government to portray and put forth what they want to its citizens. There are seven television channels which are all owned by MediaCorp, which is divided into English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil language stations, featuring a mixture of imported and locally produced dramas and soaps (which are sometimes censored).
Although Singapore does import dramas and soap opera, music, movies from other countries, majority of these imports are delivered through Singapore's cable network, to maintain the content that its citizens are exposed to.
To further enhance the cultural identification and Singapore's constructed values, the government show their full support for media such as locally produced dramas, which are broadcasted through the seven television channels. The dramas often depict how the four ethnic groups are living harmoniously in Singapore. According to the Ministry for Social Affairs, the main idea of these is to help in blending the four ethnic groups, and for Singaporeans to appreciate one another's culture and of course the promotion of the Singapore Shared Values.
As we can see in the previous few sections, it is not possible to talk about Singapore culture without bringing in the Singapore government, whom plays a huge role in 'interfering' with the Singapore culture such as implementing laws for all Singaporeans to study Civics and Moral Education, using media to portray how the four ethnic groups live together harmoniously and also the implementation of Racial Harmony Day. We shall now look at why, does the Singapore government interferes with the shaping of Singapore culture.
According to Kroeber and Kluckhohn, two eminent anthropologists, culture is defined in this way:
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, or an for behavior acquitted and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas [beliefs] and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, as conditioning elements of further action.
Humans are to culture as fish are to water and this is why what we have taken for granted as "natural", instinctive or genetic, is actually a product of culture and because of that there are no body motions or gestures having the same social meaning across all societies. Culture also acts as a conditioning element of further action because once a problem has been solved in a certain way; people tend to stick with that satisfactory solution.
As Singapore has been ruled under the British and then merged with Malaysia, its culture of being an individual country is not as long as compare to countries such as English or Britain. Thus, the Singapore government has to step in to shape a unique Singapore culture by selecting the essential core of culture which consists of traditional ideas and values.
This is important as shaping a Singapore culture, will in turn shape the actions and further actions of the Singaporeans. For example, by having Civics and Moral Education in the education curriculum allows the different ethnic groups to have a better understanding of one another. It may not be the most effective way but it serves as the basic platform to develop the Singapore "Shared Values". In this way, the government is able to shape an "identity" for the Singaporeans which will become stronger as it passes down the generations.
The Singapore Culture
In the previous parts, we have seen how the Education, Media and Government in Singapore have played a part in maintaining the four ethnic cultures and also integrating them. Now we shall look at some of the unique Singapore culture that has surfaced due to the collage of cultures.
Under the education section, we have seen how the Singapore government made it compulsory for Singaporeans to study English and their "mother tongue". Besides that, dialects are still spoken among Singaporeans, although not as widely. Due to the presence of other language, especially the varieties of Malay and Chinese, the English in Singapore has been influenced, resulting in a new "Singapore Langauge" which is commonly known as "Singlish". Singlish serves as a badge of identity for many Singaporeans as it is a hybrid form of the language including words from Malay, Chinese, Indian, the dialects and other languages.
The Singapore government was mortified when they realized that Singlish has become a patio for the Singaporeans, which conflict with their "Speak Good" campaigns. Efforts were placed to discourage the use of Singlish but were prove to be futile and so, the government gave up. Since then, it has become something that is unique to Singapore and a language that the tourists became curious about and wants to learn.
Kiasu (æ€•è¾“), which originated from Chinese, can be roughly translated to "scared to lose" and has been accepted as an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary with definition being, "noun: a grasping, selfish attitude, adjective: (of a person) very anxious not to miss an opportunity". Many Singaporeans will relate Kiasu to things such as queue-cutting, not moving to let people into MRTs, rudeness and thoughtless. However, I feel that this unique Singapore behavior has surfaced due to the practice of meritocracy, where theoretically, there are equal opportunities for all the ethnic groups, resulting in Singapore being a highly competitive society where its citizens are scared to "lose out". In this context, Kiasu is actually a drive for excellence of success in Singapore.
There is a huge variety of cuisines in Singapore and the Singapore Tourism Board even uses it to market the country. Of course the basics are "Chinese food", "Malay food", "Indian food" and "Others" such as French cuisine, America fast-food.
Due to the hybrid of the four ethnic groups, even the food in Singapore is hybridized for example, the "Chinese food" in Singapore has gone through 'Islamnisation'. It is widely known that the Chinese loves to use pork in their cooking but in Singapore, Malays are able to enjoy Chinese cuisines which are assured to not contain pork or lard.
Similarly, the "Malay food" in Singapore has been influenced by the "Chinese food". One good example will be Mee Rebus (Malay: quick-boiled noodles). This dish contains thick, yellow wheat noodles served in thick gravy made from tau cheo (fermented soy bean paste), garnished with tau kwa (fried bean curd), tau gey (bean sprouts), half of a boiled egg and topped with chopped Chinese coriander and sliced green chillies. Surprising as it may seems, this shows that nothing in Mee Rebus is of Malay origin.
I strongly believe that Singapore's culture is not as shallow as being merely a hybrid of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western traditions. It is due to the collage of these traditions that an entirely unique Singapore culture has been produced. We also cannot say that Singapore's culture is just a reflection of its immigrant history. Even though the Singapore culture may not be very obvious or distinct, we cannot deny that it is indeed, a culture.
Although the Singapore government may not encourage the current Singapore culture such as Singlish and its citizens being Kiasu, it is actually something that contributes to Singapore being unique and different from other countries, and this proves that Singapore culture is not just the melting pot of the four ethnic group's traditions.