Singaporean or not? National identity in a foreign land

NOW residing in Australia, Leon Saw reflects on the Singaporean identity and what it means to be a citizen of the world. 

Graphic: Vera Lam

I don’t regard myself as Singaporean. But before you grab your torches and pitchforks, I’d like to share with you why.

Born into a society which zealously prides itself on being the absolute triumph of Asian Values over Western philosophy, it is possible to distinguish much of my life in Singapore by the insidious and subtle indoctrination of them, as well as the accompanying excess of fevered nationalistic sentiment.

The wise and benevolent central authority was championed over chaotic, lively democratic process. Fairy tales and impracticalities such as certain freedoms and rights are scoffed at in favour of the pragmatic pursuit of financial well-being. The individual is confrontational, selfish, and a vulgar affront to collective harmony.

In primary school, the magnificence and majesty of more than 4,000 glorious years of ancient Chinese history was relentlessly emphasised to our young, impressionable minds. We were also regularly exhorted to commit to memory, the names of each dynasty and their achievements in ascending order. Of all the stories about the many great and significant Chinese innovations, the most impassioned narration was reserved for the tale of gunpowder and how the Chinese were the first in the world to discover it, only for it to be perfected and successfully used against them by the “evil white barbarians” in the Opium Wars.

Photo: Tiffany Szerpicki

High school onwards, the history lessons ceased but I was already old enough to acquire more than a passing interest in social issues. During that period of time, a significant segment of the population had, for whatever reason, become disillusioned with the country and migrated. For exercising their rights as free people, they were branded “quitters” by the government, and vilified by the local media and the righteous horde of “stayers”.

And then there was the controversy surrounding Melvyn Tan. Since 1967, all male Singapore citizens, upon turning 18, have been required to serve two years in the country’s military. Mr Tan had left Singapore at the tender age of 12 to study music in England. He went on to become a successful pianist there, renouncing his Singapore citizenship. When he returned in 2005 for a concert, he was arrested at the airport and fined S$3,000 for dodging the draft, despite being a British citizen. As if that wasn’t absurd enough, public opinion erupted with insults and slurs aimed at him, and particularly incensed individuals howled for his incarceration.

So it was against this rather alarming variety of frenzied militant nationalism that I ventured forth to Brisbane, Australia for further tertiary education, not really sure what to expect.

How would people there view me? Would I be able to get along with them? How, if at all, would our nationalities play a part in answering those questions?

As it turned out, national identity, usually the most obvious point of difference in the initial exchanges, was often swiftly acknowledged, processed, and then compartmentalised, as more common ground was collaboratively strived for. I got along well with people from all over the world: some even well enough to count as a friend.

When the waters rose and the river burst its banks in the 2010-2011 Queensland floods, the looting and rioting, and general breakdown of civil order I had been (by virtue of where I grew up) subliminally nurtured to anticipate, was of course conspicuously absent. Instead, more than 55,000 volunteers were spotted all over the city cleaning up public streets and infrastructure (see video below).


I was one of hundreds, scrubbing dirt and mud off the roads in and around the University of Queensland. Soon, we were no longer Singaporean, Australian, Malaysian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Chinese, American, Finnish, German, Swedish, Fijian, Indian, Mauritian, French, Thai, or Zimbabwean.

We were all simply…brown.

I suppose I’ve always had an instinctive aversion to nationalistic tendencies. After all, it gave us Nazism and all its associated atrocities. But it wasn’t until I was asked here in Melbourne, whether I still considered myself a Singaporean after having spent almost five years in Australia and generally having such good experiences here, that I realised I no longer saw myself as one.

I still care dearly about what happens in Singapore because it’s where my formative years were. But I’m also deeply invested in anywhere else around the world I may have once upon a time called home, and where family or friends are residing currently.

Hence, I don’t regard myself as Singaporean.

I choose not to be defined by my nationality, but rather by my humanity.

I’m simply a person, one of you.

Do you agree with Leon? Do you think it’s important to preserve your national identity? Share your views with us in the comments section below. 

There are 4 comments

  1. Diane

    very very well put. personally, i often find myself struggling to be labelled “singaporean” or otherwise. but in the grand scheme of things, you are right – i’m just a person. (:

  2. Mae Yii

    Thanks for sharing that with us. We are citizens of the world. I find being labelled a citizen of a particular country limiting – people tend to stereotype citizens from specific countries and close their minds to the possibility that we are individuals !!

  3. Clar

    As much as I’d like to agree that being a “global citizen” is indeed a noble and admirable concept and aspiration, I fail to see the correlation between being a poster boy of global citizenship and nationalism.

    Firstly, as a fellow recipient of both Singaporean and Australian education, I would have to disagree that our (or rather, my) local education system has is based of the “insidious and subtle indoctrination” of “Asian values”. Even so, if this article is based on the premise of “global citizenship” and complete egalitarianism, Asian vs Western values shouldn’t be an issue.

    Although I do concede that Singapore is lacking in the liberty department – I’m sure you are acquainted with not just the economic, but socio-political reasons of why rights such as freedom of speech and media is limited in Singapore.

    Don’t get me wrong – I genuinely respect the fact that you’re all about “one love and world peace”, but I think your stand greatly discounts the people in Singapore who can be both nationalistic as well as altruistic at the same time. I have friends who are frequent volunteers to overseas missions and manage to love my country all the same.

Post Your Thoughts