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3 Influences On Singapore Chinese Culture

Language and dialect surnames

Chinese culture covers a wide spectrum, but the most important aspects include the core value of harmony, and the language, which has a history dating over 5,000 years.

Then there are Chinese surnames, at least 400 of them, used by Chinese both in mainland China and overseas, including those in Singapore. Li, Chen, Wang or Huang, and Zhang are the most common, even in Singapore.

But, interestingly, in multiracial Singapore where English is the dominant language, the use of Chinese surnames in dialect form written in English has become a unique feature. Hence we have surnames such as Lee, Tan, Chan, Ong, Ng or Teo, for example. They are used almost exclusively by Chinese Singaporeans, besides perhaps those in Malaysia.

At the recently concluded exhibition on Singapore Chinese culture at the Singapore Conference Hall, visitors could find out the surnames' origins, such as the province or county they came from, at the touch of a button.

For example, the surname Liang originated from the former Anping Prefecture, now Guyuan county in Gansu province. A printout showed not only the surname's Chinese character, but also its pronunciation in romanised hanyu pinyin.

Another aspect of the shared Chinese culture is the hierarchical structure of relationships in families, still evident in Chinese homes in Singapore after all these years.

Yet another is the concept of the clan, which is often associated with the native provinces, counties, towns and even villages one's ancestors hailed from. The clan can also be identified by surnames that members share.

The above basic elements of Chinese culture are also core attributes in Singapore Chinese culture, even as it evolves over the years.

Leong Weng Kam


Immigrant culture

The significant number of Chinese clan associations still in Singapore today is the result of what scholars call immigrant culture.

It is brought over by the early Chinese immigrants who came mainly from the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian since the early 19th century, and even earlier.

The first clan association was set up in 1819, the same year Sir Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore.

In the 1950s, there were as many as 500 of these clan associations set up by immigrants based on the provinces, counties, towns or even villages they came from in China, or the surnames they share.

Today, there are some 300 or fewer clan groupings, with over 220 now under the umbrella of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, which turned 30 last year.

The spirit of hard work, the ability to adapt and mutual help among clansmen were among the traits of the early immigrants.

Their emphasis on education, social welfare and the preservation of Chinese culture saw them building schools, hospitals and promoting the arts, especially from the early 20th century.

The immigrants started more than 500 schools, many of which have been merged into larger schools or no longer exist.

They ranged from primary schools in rural areas to premier secondary schools - such as the former Chinese High School, now part of Hwa Chong Institution - and played a key role in educating Singaporeans before Independence in 1965.

The clan associations now have an important role in helping the younger generation search for their roots and identity, and encouraging them to learn about their own culture.

Leong Weng Kam


National culture

The influence of Singapore's national culture on the development of Singapore Chinese culture started with Independence in 1965, when the Government wanted a common set of national values, education and social systems for all Singaporeans irrespective of their race or cultural background.

It started with the National Pledge, which was to be recited daily in schools spelling out national values such as striving for a harmonious nation with peace, progress and equality for all - necessary components of nation-building.

Bilingual education was introduced in the early 1960s and it resulted in the closing of vernacular-language schools for national stream schools where English became the main language of instruction, and the mother-tongue languages, including Chinese, were taught as second languages for most primary and secondary students.

Even with the Speak Mandarin Campaign started by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1979, more and more Chinese Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, are speaking better English than Mandarin.

This has become another unique feature of Singapore Chinese culture.

Defining experiences that brought Singaporeans of various races together also played a part. Chief among them was national service, which required young men who had turned 18 to serve for over two years as citizen soldiers alongside others of different races and backgrounds.

Together, these experiences shaped a unique Singapore Chinese culture that includes acceptance and understanding of being part of a multiracial society, bound by ties of citizenship and shared values.

Leong Weng Kam

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Language and dialect surnames 3 INFLUENCES ON SINGAPORE CHINESE CULTURE'. Print Edition | Subscribe