Above: The author in 2010 when she was a primary school student at CHIJ Kellock.
As the plane slowly descended towards Singapore, I saw the island city unfold like an emerald green bloom below me. It was thick with green and rain – far from the dry yellow-brown desert in which I spent the formative years of my life. There it was in the middle of a pale blue expanse: Singapore, my home country.
After living abroad in the United Arab Emirates for nearly a decade, I had returned to Singapore, the country of my birth. I only knew Singapore through the trips we made home every few years, where we lived at my uncle’s house in Pasir Ris for a few weeks and explored the city before returning to Dubai.
When I finally returned to Singapore, it became a symbol of the identity I have always longed for. I’m a child of the third culture – I grew up in a different culture than the one my parents grew up in – so I’ve always felt deeply lost when it came to identity. I never felt particularly Pakistani or Emirati or even Singaporean.
After feeling disconnected from my cultural identity for so many years, I made a decision: I would become a “real” Singaporean. And while Singapore didn’t feel like home, I was determined to make it one. I was ready to do anything to feel I belonged somewhere.
Treated like an outsider
When I started the first day of secondary school, my class teacher had me stand in front of my classmates in secondary school and introduce myself. There I stood, in my tightly combed ponytail and navy blue knee-length skirt, and my heart beat with excitement. For a few minutes I looked and was treated like everyone else.
Until I started to speak and the air in that classroom instantly changed. From then on I was treated differently.
All the symbols of “being Singapore” that I thought were important – the bright red Singaporean passport, the fact that I was born in a Singaporean hospital, the pride I felt in Singapore – it all fell off like insignificant dust particles . None of that mattered because I was an outsider in the way I spoke.
I didn’t speak like the Singaporeans who had lived in the country all their lives. I did not understand the Singlish that was being spoken around me. I had to constantly search and memorize the meanings of Singlish words to keep up with my classmates. And no matter how many times I repeat that I’m Singaporean my classmates continued to refer to me as a foreigner.
The first time I felt like I belonged
A little more than two years later, I was standing in the thick heat of a Tai Seng chicken rice shop – the heat was only relieved by the creaking ceiling fans above me – and thoughtfully rattled off my lunch order from my uncle, who was standing behind the cash register.
“You want Dabao?” He asked.
I paused and racked my mind trying to remember the meaning of “dabao”. I vaguely remembered a food delivery website that had the word “Dabao” on it, and with that hint, I quickly concluded that the uncle asked if I would like to take the food away.
As I left the stand, armed with fragrant bags of chicken rice, it occurred to me that my uncle assumed – without my having to tell – that I was Singaporean. He spoke to me on Singlish! In just one conversation, he decided I was Singaporean! Without my knowledge before that moment, I had finally acquired the magical ability Speak Singish!
This was the first time since my return to Singapore that anyone assumed I was Singaporean without my having to tell them.
Single and belonging
My experience with Singlish made me realize how important language is to Singaporean identity.
In his book The Handbook on Sociolinguistics, writes Allan Bell on the social implications of the language in Paraguay:
Paraguay has two national languages - Spanish and the indigenous Guaraní. Guaraní turned out to be the language of intimacy, while Spanish is for acquaintances. Guaraní is the national language, in the city it is more Spanish. So what language do you speak to a barefoot woman? Guaraní, of course. With a stranger in a suit? Spanish. What about a woman who wears a long skirt and smokes a big black cigar? 89 out of 91 people said Guarani.
Similar to Guaraní, Singlish is the language of intimacy because it is a language that few outside the region can understand and speak. Singapore is a country populated by different races, religions and languages, and Singlish provides an interface where Singaporeans can put their differences aside and rest on a common linguistic identity. In a busy, globalized world, Singlish is a way for Singaporeans to identify with each other and feel a little more at home.
Nonetheless, it can be a double-edged sword that Singlish is such a significant part of Singaporean identity.
Language is such an integral part of society and culture – it’s the first step in connecting and communicating with one another. Nevertheless, the language should not be the only characteristic of a “real” Singaporean.
What happens to a Singaporean who cannot speak with a Singaporean accent or does not understand the nuances of Singlish? What happens to the foreigner who has lived in Singapore all his life? Are they less Singaporean if they don’t speak Singlish?
Why did I only feel accepted as a Singaporean if I spoke like everyone else?
Perhaps this is a product of Singapore’s famous obsession with order or its collectivist society, or perhaps our tendency to be suspicious of the unknown. I have observed that often when we come across people who do not act according to our preconceived notions of who a “real” Singaporean is, we knowingly or unknowingly treat them as outsiders.
The times of clean, clearly delimited identity boundaries quickly leave us behind. We need to work together to broaden our definition of what a Singaporean is, rather than just restricting it to specific races, religions, backgrounds, languages and accents. We have to accept our differences in language, behavior and beliefs instead of dividing us on who is “enough” Singaporean and who is not.
It is undoubtedly a nice feeling to be able to speak “traditionally Singaporean”. To this day, it gives me great pleasure to be able to converse with Singaporeans in a way that is both familiar and calming for both of us. I love to easily immerse myself in the fast, intrepid sounds of Singlish and no longer have to be so aware of how different I sound compared to others.
Even so, my identity as a Singaporean should have been accepted years ago – simply on the basis that I was war Singaporean by birth and that my mother’s family grew up here and that me loved Singapore – and not by my accent or where I grew up. I would not have treated me as an outsider or devalued my identity as a Singaporean just because I spoke differently.
The truth is, I was Singaporean when I lived in Singapore and I was Singaporean even after I left.
I was a Singaporean long before I had the ability to speak Singing.
And I was Singaporean long before anyone listened to me and finally decided I was worth accepting. That I was worth being part of.