Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.
When I first interviewed for a role here at RICE, one of the first concerns my now-manager expressed was: “We’re not sure if you’ll be able to write about local issues.”
I had grown up here, but I am after all a white boy with an American accent. Nothing about me said ‘local journalist’. We quickly moved on to discussing other topics, but in that moment I thought of only one thing: what does it mean to be Singaporean?
Is it race? Language? The school you went to? The experiences you had growing up?
How would I quantify the ‘Singaporeanness’ in me? I almost wished there was a checklist I could fill out and present in these situations, to spare both parties from having to ask awkward questions or give explanations-even though I’ve grown far too accustomed with the latter.
But there isn’t. And this may be because the discourse around national identity has stagnated for decades.
Close your eyes and picture a group of ‘Singaporeans’. What do you see?
Let me guess. A predominantly Chinese group, with a couple of Indian and Malay faces.
Statistically speaking, this would be generally reflective of the local demographic, and in line with the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other) model that the government uses, which has its roots in the 1800s.
Deemed separate but equal, the four racial categories are still used today for various policies relating to housing and education, amongst others. But it is worth asking if this model will stand the test of time, as there are indications that the Singaporeans are increasingly struggling to identify themselves with these confines.
Currently, the ‘Others’ category is the fastest growing ethnic category among Singapore citizens. Our Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities are also diversifying due to increasing openness to interracial marriages.
In 2017, 22.1% of marriages were between a bride and groom of different ethnicities, compared to 16.4% in 2007 and 7.6% in 1990. In 2015, more than a third of citizen marriages involved transnational couples, meaning the spouse was not Singaporean.
Despite growing in number, individuals that fall between or outside of CMI boundaries are still minorities in this country, meaning they often grow up having their ‘Singaporeanness’ questioned.
“You’re Singaporean? You don’t look like it. Where are you really from?”
“If you’re mixed, why does it say Malay on your IC? You should put ‘Other’.”
“How can you be Singaporean with that accent?”
These are just some of the questions non-majority Singaporeans get on a daily basis-if they are even given the opportunity to share their story.
“Sometimes, we don’t even get questions because there’s not even a dialogue there,” said Necia, a 27-year-old Black-Indian Singaporean.
Individuals like Necia have grown up having their local identity interrogated or dismissed because of their appearance. But as citizens, their experiences as Singaporeans are as real as everyone else’s, and in their own way, they have found a way to define ‘local pride’ by seeking comfort in commonalities outside of racial boundaries.
After all, ‘Singaporean’ is not a race, it’s an identity.
Here are the stories of 9 others, as told in their own words.
Noelle, 22, Chinese-Black
Singapore is so obsessed with categorising everything. So when you don’t fit into any box, people will pick the one that they are most familiar with. People cannot see I’m Chinese, so they’ll immediately say, “Oh, you’re Malay for sure”-just because I’m brown.
But my friends describe me as one of the most foreign looking Singaporeans. They say I’m a minah and ah lian mixed into one because sometimes I just burst out singing a Malay song I really love. They’ll be like, “Wah, you damn minah. I cannot take it.”
I’m labelled as Chinese on my IC. I am ok with that because I identify with Chinese people-I grew up in a Chinese family and I speak basic Mandarin. But I also relate to mixed race and Malay people, which is why I don’t feel like I can be put in …