The Chinese Singaporean identity

Embracing our multiple identities

One's a reporter from The Straits Times, one writes for Lianhe Zaobao. These two millennials face-off on their first impressions of each other, and how the English and Chinese languages condition one's worldview.

Dear Yuen Sin,

My family spoke only Mandarin and dialects when I was young. It took me a long while to overcome that sense of inferiority I felt whenever I was surrounded by people who were used to English as their first language.

To some extent, despite the fact that many would think that I am effectively bilingual, I now still vaguely feel that sense of unease when a conversation is conducted in English. I would even describe it as feeling as if I were in a state of exile - although I recognise that saying this reeks of self-victimisation. It is a dangerous position to take.

I agree with you that in a multiracial society like Singapore, as ethnic Chinese, we sometimes forget that we are the majority and as such, enjoy certain natural advantages compared to minorities. It also means that it is easy for us to have blind spots.

But I'd also like to point out that, to the Chinese-speaking community, the term "Chinese privilege", in the context of Singapore, is an extremely unfamiliar one.

You would hardly find any mention of the phrase in past commentaries published in the Chinese-language newspapers like Lianhe Zaobao.

It might be due to generational differences. Before writing this letter, I had mentioned the concept of Chinese privilege to my older colleagues in the newsroom. Some instantly adopted a defensive posture, retorting: "What privilege?"

But I can understand how they feel.

I have noticed that this anxiety about the Chinese identity is felt among the younger Chinese-speaking crowd. Several of my younger colleagues said they find it hard to identify with what is commonly defined as "Chinese culture".

Setting aside how the merger of Nanyang University and the University of Singapore has left an indelible scar on the Nantah generation, one still cannot ignore the fact that there are also others in the Chinese-speaking community who have experienced setbacks due to educational policy changes.

Then there are those who rue the state of Chinese-language standards today. This common understanding that this tight-knit community has forged - to do all it can to defend what's left of Chinese language and culture - can distract from the serious discussion of Chinese privilege.

However, in the social media world that we're both familiar with, the situation seems completely different. I believe you would have noticed that for the past year, the issue of privilege has been much discussed. It could be that the election of American President Donald Trump has once again brought race to the forefront, or that in Singapore, a reserved presidential election has created more discussions and awareness about some of our differences.

Some of my Malay and Indian friends shared openly on Facebook about instances of casual racism. At the same time, whenever these issues were brought up, I saw how some Chinese reacted in an insensitive way, and was surprised by how they seem unaware that it was inappropriate.

It got me thinking about racial discrimination. I realised, too, that I have to be careful with my words and actions.

I am also reminded of something else I've read on Facebook. In 2016, the issues over the South China Sea arbitration case and the detention of Singapore's armoured vehicles in Hong Kong caused ties between Singapore and China to drop to a low point.

There were netizens who called for Singapore to take a more pro-China stance in its conduct of relations with the country, without realising that this could be a sensitive issue for racial minorities.

This prompted local playwright and poet Alfian Sa'at, in a Facebook post, to describe what he observed to be netizens siding with China, as a "comeback of a form of Chinese cultural and political identity that was suppressed". He questioned if some in the Chinese community should let their judgment be clouded by their bid to "reclaim overdue dignity".

Of course, Alfian's comment might not be representative of how most felt about the issue. Some people might also think that the accusation of "Chinese privilege" does not have sufficient basis, and that it might have been misused. But I think that this question that Alfian raises is worth thinking about: Will the rise of China affect social cohesion in Singapore or the exercise of our sovereignty?

It further exposes a problem that the Chinese community needs to address: How should we view our identity? Is the way we define "Chineseness" too exclusive?

I have noticed that this anxiety about the Chinese identity is felt among the younger Chinese-speaking crowd. Several of my younger colleagues said they find it hard to identify with what is commonly defined as "Chinese culture". One of them asked: "If the Chinese Singaporean identity is so vaguely defined, is it possible for me to feel a sense of belonging? Also, if there is no one 'Chineseness' we can speak of, can we look beyond race and language, when promoting Chinese culture?"

But if we look at the other side of the coin, such introspection may also mean that even if younger Chinese Singaporeans display a stronger sense of ethnic pride, they choose to adopt a more inclusive view in doing so. Some are starting to trace their identity, and adopt a more historical point of view.

The Singapore bicentennial commemoration next year would be a good time to take a closer look at this issue. Can we learn to embrace our multiple identities, as Chinese, as Singaporeans, and as South-east Asians, all at the same time, and accept such complexities and diversity? Wai Mun (Translated by Lim Ruey Yan)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'Embracing our multiple identities'. Print Edition | Subscribe