What makes Chinese culture in Singapore different from other Chinese communities around the world? These five aspects from Singapore’s history give Chinese Singaporean culture its distinctiveness.
“Singapore’s cultural genome is the result of its history, not just of the last two hundred years since Raffles, but also of the cultural genes which those who arrived on our shores brought with them from their ancestral homelands. We may be a small city-state but our genome is huge because of this infusion from all over the world.” – George Yeo, 2019
Singapore’s rich cultural genome can be traced back to when Singapore was a British colony. Due to economic interests, the British established Singapore as a free port for entrepot trade. This created a demand for labour that drew migrants of diverse backgrounds across the region. In order to escape economic and political turmoil in China caused by civil wars and overpopulation, many migrants left China for Singapore, forming a large part of the cheap labour that powered the colony.
Under the hands-off approach of governance by the British, many Chinese migrants were free to continue their way of life and they gathered to form their own clan associations and schools to assist people within their own communities.
Despite their hands-off approach, many legacies of the British government continue to have an impact on Singapore today. The British government emphasised the use of English language, now the working language of Singapore. They also introduced governing ideals such as the rule of law and the parliamentary democracy, all of which heavily influenced Singapore’s legal system.
Even Sir Stamford Raffles, the British founder of modern Singapore, left his personal mark on the colony. He saw Singapore’s potential as an intellectual hub and conceptualised a centre for “for the cultivation of Chinese and Malayan literature and for the moral and intellectual improvement of the Archipelago and the surrounding countries”. Eventually the foundation stone was laid on 5th June 1823 and this centre came to be known as Raffles Institution.
Where we are shapes much of how we live. The climate, natural resources and the indigenous cultures affect our architecture as well as how we have come to dress, eat and speak.
Located near the equator, Singapore has the climate and environment of a tropical rainforest. This means year-round high temperature and humidity, leading people to build houses with attap roofs to insulate themselves from the heat and shelter from rain. More permeable and thinner clothing is also favoured as they do not trap heat.
Within Singapore’s forested regions, one would have access to natural resources like tropical plants, spices, wood, minerals and animals. The plants and spices available in Singapore and the region like durian, coconut, pandan, torch ginger and nipa palm, have become staple ingredients in our cuisine.
Being in Southeast Asia, Singapore is also part of the Malay Archipelago and its indigenous people, the Malays, spoke various dialects of Malay, an Austronesian language. Malay was the lingua franca across the archipelago and became the basis for the national language of Singapore as well as countries in the region like Malaysia (Bahasa Malaysia), Brunei (Bahasa Kebangsaan ‘national language’), and Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia).
After Singapore was established as a British settlement in 1819, it attracted Chinese migrants who arrived in large numbers across subsequent decades. A census taken in 1824 by the British government showed that the Chinese made up 31% of a population of 10,683. This was also the year the British-Dutch skirmishes ended with the Treaty of London. The treaty encouraged the British to invest in Malaya’s labour-intensive tin and rubber industries which attracted labourers from China and India.
By the 1860s, Chinese migrants made up 65% of the population in Singapore, becoming the majority race. But where did Singapore’s early Chinese migrants come from? There were two main types of migrants, one that came from southern China (Fujian and Guangdong) and another from Southeast Asia.
The migrants from southern China made up the bulk of the influx of migrants. From coastal cities along southern China, these migrants were considered more adaptable and outward facing than the land-bound northern Chinese. Faced with the turmoils of the Taiping Rebellion (against the Manchu emperors) and natural disasters, many Chinese migrants left for Singapore in search of a better life. These migrants were mostly single males who were not well-educated, so they mostly worked as manual labourers.
Largely from the Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese dialect groups, these migrants spoke their own dialects and often relied on related clan associations for social support. Through these associations and communities, they were able to continue to uphold the values and practices from China.
Compared to migrants who came directly from southern China, the Chinese migrants who came from Southeast Asia (SEA) had already been in the region many generations earlier. Their ancestors, also originally from southern China, had settled in regional port cities like Malacca, Penanga, Semarang, Yangon and Manila from as early as the 14th century.
These migrants were mainly male traders who were part of a well-established trading network between China and SEA. They had long acclimatised to local customs and habits by marrying local women. For example, the Peranakan Chinese spoke Baba Malay, a hybrid of Malay and Hokkien, and were also often fluent in European languages. This multi-lingual edge allowed them to act as middlemen between Europeans and locals.
Out of reach of the Chinese government and under the hands-off approach of British governance, both types of southern Chinese migrants continued their own way of life in Singapore. The southern Chinese have continued to form the largest portion of Chinese who have migrated overseas, becoming the majority of Chinese in America and SEA by the 1950s.
However, the greater ease of travel has affected migration trends today. Singapore is now seeing a greater diversity of migrants who are just as likely to come from major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and rural regions like Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang.
In 1819, it was estimated that there were 120 Malays and 30 Chinese on the island. However, by 1871, the explosive growth of the colonial economy, led the local population to increase to just under 100,000 people made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Europeans, Arabs, Jews, Siamese and other minorities.
Despite having a Chinese-majority, Singapore has a relatively large proportion of non-Chinese (about 25%) compared to other Chinese-majority communities around the world (usually less than 10% non-Chinese). These non-Chinese came from diverse backgrounds and even the Malay communities were not homogenous. The community consisted of indigenous Malays as well as Malay migrants who came from the region including the Indonesian islands of Java and Bawean, as well as the Malayan peninsula.
Today, Singapore remains an immigrant society with a population that is more diverse than ever before. With the liberalisation of migration policies in the early 1990s till 2010, many new migrants are coming from Western countries and northern China.
Understanding the need to integrate and unify a diverse population, the Singapore government embraced multi-racialism as part of its official policy. And with that, Singapore has also embraced the multi-religious profile of its society. In fact, in 2014, Pew Research Survey found Singapore to be the country with highest religious diversity amongst the 232* surveyed countries.
*This number includes both countries and territories.
“In Singapore, you buy cheapest and sell dearest. We do not grow coffee in Singapore, yet we are a major supplier of coffee beans in the world. We produce no spices, but we are the centre of the Southeast Asian spice trade. We are also the biggest exporter of Swiss watches in the region. We have no oil, but we refine a lot of it and we are the trading centre for oil and other related products. Singapore’s trade is 2.5 times its GNP.” – George Yeo, 1998
As a small island, Singapore has always had few natural resources. Yet, it was the centre of trade in Southeast Asia since its early days as Temasek, and was well-known then for three local exports – hornbill casques, lakawood (incense wood) and cotton.
This is due to its deep harbour and convenient location on maritime trade routes between China and India. According to the Selden Map of China, an early 17th century map, Singapore was on the main southern sailing route, exposing it to many influences both from southern China and around the region.
Singapore’s government continues to build on its strategic location and history as a trade hub, welcoming a constant flow of ideas, peoples, goods and services.
How does Singapore maintain a unified identity (in a nation) across such a diverse population (in a global city)? Through various national policies that create common ground between people, while allowing them to maintain their own cultural roots.
Transcending ethnicities, all citizens enjoy the same rights and responsibilities, regardless of race, language or religion, and are all unified under the same national symbols and pledge. At the same time, people are free to practise their own religious and cultural beliefs.
English is chosen as Singapore’s working language, bridging the communication gaps between ethnic groups. With the Bilingual Policy, English is learnt alongside a respective mother tongue (Malay, Mandarin and Tamil for the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities respectively). Learning the mother tongue strengthens a sense of cultural belonging and imparts cultural values.
Finally, common spaces and experiences such as national schools, national service, public housing and hawker centres create even more opportunities for people of different ethnicities to interact and bond. Meanwhile, cultural spaces like Malay Heritage Centre, Indian Heritage Centre and Eurasian Heritage Centre promote mutual understanding amongst ethnic and cultural groups.
Through a careful balance of policies that encourage openness, and those that promote a unified identity, Singapore continues to stay competitive on the world stage.