Select Page

Scripting the Singapore Story

Constellations Issue 2


Nov 26, 2018 | Articles

What is Singapore Studies?

The question of what constitutes Singaporean-ness and what it means to be Singaporean is the underlying thread in our evolving identity as a nation. Singapore Studies is a cross-disciplinary effort within the School of Humanities to shed light on this nebulous yet undisputedly important field. Scholars engaged with Singapore Studies examine the historical, cultural, literary and linguistic landscape of Singapore in relation to the nation’s past in order to discern the ways in which our national identity shapes our future.

As we approach Singapore’s Bicentennial Celebrations in 2019, we speak to scholars in the field to glean some insight into their thoughts on this important topic and the complex relationship between our history, our rich language heritage and how we express ourselves as a nation.

What defines Singaporean Identity?

The Chair of the School of Humanities, Professor K.K Luke, stresses that Singaporean identity is not a simple, monolithic entity. For Prof. Luke, Singaporean-ness lives within the diverse and kaleidoscopic aspects of everyday life.

“Singaporean-ness is in the food that we eat, the writing that we produce and we read, in the everyday things that we do, in the values that we have, and in the many different creative ways that we use our language and produce our culture” elaborated Prof. Luke.

One of Prof. Luke’s ongoing research projects, “The Construction of National Identity in Multicultural Singapore” aims to peel back the interconnected layers of identity formation. “When we say Singapore identity and Singaporean-ness, what we mean is something that unites people”.

The diversity of culture, thought, and individual heritage ultimately converge in an overarching sense of belonging to a larger community.

Singaporean identity is also rooted in our ability to negotiate the unique challenges that have risen alongside Singapore’s meteoric rise as an economic success story. Finding unity through our commitment to diversity is imperative for the foundation of an authentic sense of national identity.

For Professor C. J. Wee Wan-ling, a prominent scholar in Singaporean literature and theatre, the cultural and artistic output that generations of Singaporean writers and dramatists have produced provides valuable insight into how this unity can be realised. Prof. Wee examines some of the issues that literary figures have articulated in their work and how Singapore’s rapid development has influenced and shaped our national sense of self. “Because Singapore is small, the question of who we are is a continuous question and modernisation impinges on this, even while we are trying to build an identity” said Prof. Wee.

The exercise of nation building is thus not restricted to material questions of physical and economic development, but seeks a core set of values that is the bedrock to our burgeoning sense of identity as a nation. As such, the stage and literary arts offer a platform for examining the challenges of negotiating change while maintaining a stable sense of self and this introspection ultimately serves to accentuate the core of our national principles and values that defines us as Singaporeans.

For Prof. Wee, our shared aspiration to live as one united people regardless of race, language or religion as exemplified in the national Pledge, resonates as the fundamental clarion call for Singaporean identity. “The ‘regardless’ confirms the equality of the people” Prof. Wee added. Amidst the breakneck pace of change in Singapore and the constant state of flux in global affairs, this egalitarian spirit anchors us as a people.

The work of playwright Kuo Pao Kun is one example of how, despite the multiplicity of our cultural heritage and expression, this spirit of egalitarianism shines through. He writes in both Mandarin and English and is able to capture an attentive audience in both languages. Alongside other literary giants in the Singaporean artistic landscape such as Arthur Yap and Edwin Thumboo, Kuo and his contemporaries embody a spirit of Singaporean national identity.

For Associate Professor Yow Cheun Hoe, Head of Chinese and the Director of the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture at NTU, Singaporean identity is exemplified in the works of Singaporean-Chinese literary figures. These writers reflect the challenges of negotiating one’s roots in Singapore together with the wider Chinese cultural heritage that Singaporean-Chinese writers inherit.

“It’s rather a mixed identity. In one way [Chinese authors] identify themselves with Chinese culture which has roots in China [but] they have some connection with the Chinese diaspora elsewhere. Over time, we also developed a unique national identity, which is Singaporean,” Assoc. Prof. Yow explained.

This identity draws from an inherited heritage that is distinctly Singaporean yet offers a model for multicultural societies all around the world. “We were the model of the successful Asian economy. Our progression from past to present makes us universally relevant and relatable” he added.

“Over time, we have grown from migrant literature, diasporic literature, into a form of ethnic literature within a national narrative. The process is not easy but ultimately it has been successful. Singapore will continue to be a highly migrant society.”

Assoc. Prof. Yow also notes that Singaporean literature provides healthy dialogue between the people and the state. “Over time, we have grown from migrant literature, diasporic literature, into a form of ethnic literature within a national narrative. The process is not easy but ultimately it has been successful. Singapore will continue to be a highly migrant society. And even in the future, we’ll keep on receiving migrants from elsewhere so I think we can look back at how we have been successful so far in order to continue to be successful in the future” he elaborates.

Associate Professor Sim Wai Chew (English) agrees with Assoc. Prof. Yow’s argument that we should look at at our identity through a wide and inclusive lens. He works together with Assoc. Prof. Yow on a project that seeks to build a compendium of vernacular literatures in Singapore in order to investigate the common themes that are expressed across the different languages.

Assoc. Prof. Sim believes that it helps to see things beyond one language community’s perspective. “If you start to look at material from different languages you can develop a much greater understanding of the specific challenges of each community and at the same time the issues that all Singaporeans face together in forging an identity. And it is with the inclusion of these other narratives that you can build a fuller picture and appreciate to the fullest extent our creative strengths as a national literature” he explains.

In negotiating the diverse cultural output that nestles within the larger Singaporean national narrative, the common link that binds us all as a nation still lies in our articulation of a shared aspiration founded upon the spirit of unity.

“Do we have the same universalist enlightenment aspirations towards the phrase, ‘regardless of race, language or religion’? I think we do. I think Singaporeans haven’t given up on that” Prof. Wee added.

Mother(land) Tongues

Assoc. Prof. Sim and Assoc. Prof. Yow’s project brings to mind another key aspect of our national identity, that of language. Debates about the status of Singlish as a national expression of Singaporean identity are not new, yet as Associate Professor Tan Ying Ying explains, any examination into Singaporean identity must include the study of our languages.

Singaporean identity, though rooted in an egalitarian spirit of common aspiration, is not static and the development of Singlish itself mirrors the constant reinvention and evolution of our national identity.

Singlish, when seen as a separate language system in its own right, organically reflects Singaporean culture and our role in defining it. “The language that some people refer to as ‘Singlish’ or colloquial Singaporean English is a distinct form of talk, speech and interaction and this is something that we’ve all made a contribution to” added Assoc. Prof. Tan.

Prof. Luke seconds her observations. He explains, “Society changes and develops and identities evolve over time. Obviously, it’s changing [even now] so in matters of language it’s changing too. The younger generation has developed a language of its own”. Lingua francas change and while it once took the form of Bazaar Malay or another tongue, Singlish is perhaps the lingua franca of today.

Echoing Assoc. Prof. Tan’s observation that Singapore English or Singlish may be seen as a language we are able to call our own, Prof. Luke further explains that this is likely due to how Singlish is perceived to be an emotive language. He elaborates, Singlish delivers “the direct empathy and the direct response you get… It speaks to the heart of our question about identity. As soon as you read it you know it’s written by a Singaporean [citizen] about Singapore. This form of language [is] quite different from other forms of language.”

A Green History of our little Red Dot in the deep Blue Sea

As a maritime trading nation, Singapore lies at the heart of major international sea-trade routes. Singapore’s history is therefore also a story of commerce, bounded by our relationship with the sea, that is both our economic and ecological lifeblood. Assistant Professor Miles Powell from the History department seeks to re-engage with Singapore’s history by looking into our maritime past and examining the confluence between trade and economic development, and the marine environment that sustains and facilitates our progress.

His research project “Red Dot, Blue Sea: A Marine Environmental History of Singapore’s Coastal Spaces from Precolonial Times to the Present” focuses on hybrid marine development whereby marine species are seen as expendable in the face of development needs. Asst. Prof. Powell’s investigation into Singapore’s marine heritage is an important contribution to the wider exploration of our Singaporean identity; the tangible links between our rich ecological heritage and the wider Singapore Story cannot be understated.

While the loss of species is often seen as a result of development and specifically the opening of major international sea trading routes, Asst. Prof. Powell hopes to reinforce the notion that foreign species are also introduced into the system as a result of trade. He notes, “in the case of rubber coming from South America and the great deal of research that went into figuring out how to cultivate these products in Southeast Asia and how to make them adapt to this environment, Singapore’s [environmental] history is not as simple”.

Whilst the national narrative of progress and development pits economic necessity against environmental concerns Asst. Prof. Powell is offers an alternative narrative of national development, wherein both ecological and economic priorities are not viewed as competing factors but as different aspects of a common and more inclusive idea of progress. He notes, “I want to move past the dualistic framework where we have humanity on one side and nature on the other; hopefully this project will help to highlight instances where the two coexist”.

Current Challenges Within the Field

The biggest challenge that scholars within Singapore Studies face is in growing the pool of scholars who can develop new directions for understanding Singapore. Prof Wee is one such scholar. “[Singapore Studies is] important, you must have younger people doing this” he remarked.

His views are supported by Asst. Prof. Powell, who recognizes the importance in continuing research in the subfield of Singapore Studies. He adds, “Singapore’s environments are relatively understudied but that’s changing very rapidly; Singapore’s interest in marine areas and their conservation seems to be surging”.

Despite Singlish’s status as an indelible aspect of our national culture and identity, it is still treated as a second rate expression of broken English. Assoc. Prof. Tan challenges this. “For me, Singlish is not English. Period. So [they are] just two different languages entirely. Just like French is a different language. So if someone were to ask me, is learning Singlish going to impede the learning of English, I would say no, because if you learn French will it affect your English? No.”

Assoc. Prof. Tan further notes that while Singlish exists as a common language and hence a common marker of identity among Singaporeans, the position of Singaporean English itself, separate from Singlish or indeed British or American variants offers another platform for the creation of a unique Singaporean identity.

“The English spoken here is different and I think it has the potential [to stand] on its own. This is the language that we have to own because it is ours.”

She explains, “English in Singapore, not Singlish, but the English spoken here, is different and it has gone through a whole cycle of stabilization, contact, and innovations that have come in and evolved into this thing that we scholars call Singapore English and I think it has the potential [to stand] on its own. This is the language that we have to own because it is ours”.

Nevertheless, Assoc. Prof. Tan believes that while Singapore English may be seen as the language that makes up an integral part of Singaporean identity, many [citizens] are not ready to attribute to it the same prestige as British or American varieties of English. “There is still the general perception that something from the outside is better… but this [is actually suggestive of] a lack of confidence and therefore a lack of ownership of the language. We are different but we are not abnormal, just different. And I’m trying to get the message out, that there is nothing wrong with it” she elaborates.

The challenges of owning a language and thus a shared identity also mirrors the renegotiation of Singaporean identity in literature and art. Whilst Assoc. Prof. Tan proposes a re-evaluation of Singaporean English as a gateway to achieving greater pride in our national heritage, Assoc. Prof. Sim adds that we cannot “assume that the only platform in which multiculturalism, interculturalism, cross cultural identification can work in Singapore is in English. I think understanding that diversity [in our vernacular literatures] can help people to move beyond a purist and prescriptivist notion of language [that] cloisters our identity”.

“By only looking at one language group’s literature, we neglect and forget the rest just like how sometimes people talk about Singapore’s success stories but forget what has been lost along the way. What are the things that we have given up?

Fostering local linguistic heritage and diversity is therefore an invaluable strategy for enabling a multifaceted outlook. “By only looking at one language group’s literature, we neglect and forget the rest just like how sometimes people talk about Singapore’s success stories [but] forget what has been lost along the way. What are the things that we have given up?” he asks.

Concluding Thoughts

As we approach Singapore’s Bicentenial Celebrations in 2019, Singapore Studies scholars shed light on our collective experience of Singapore’s linguistic heritage and history. While it is still a relatively small subfield, the research done in Singapore Studies paves the way for growing academic interest among the wider Singaporean academic community.

Given the varied and interesting research projects that Singapore Studies scholars have embarked on at NTU, we can only expect this field to become increasingly diverse and vibrant in the years to come.

This article was first published in the print edition of Constellations issue 2.