What is a Singaporean?

Do Singaporeans have belly-buttons?

Not so long ago, there used to be a theorist of the nation, and his name was Ernest Gellner. He is said to have famously and provocatively asked the same question about nations: do nations have belly-buttons? By which he meant: do nations have a single, traceable origin? Are nations born? Where and how?

It seems almost circular to put that same question to Singaporeans. First of all because, you know, an overwhelming majority of us do have belly-buttons (abahden); but to be born within the geographical boundaries of Singapore almost certainly gifts you with citizenship by default. And even if we are not born Singaporean, there’s always the choice to apply for citizenship. You check the boxes; sometimes you serve two years in green, and then you get what you need to get.

Puerile Purity

But of course, the so-called purists (usually the children or grandchildren of migrants from other lands), will tell you that it takes more to be a Singaporean. More than just a matter of filling up some forms. More even than getting the documents.

No: for these people, you must act Singaporean, you must speak Singaporean; you may even have to think Singaporean. There are apparently other secret boxes to check, or offerings to make – otherwise what would be the point of drawing lines and having exclusive clubs to make you feel good about yourself?

What does it mean to be Singaporean?


There will probably be as many answers as there are Singaporeans. That’s the wonderful beauty of diversity and variation. Oh, I’m sure you could go into the universities, and they would try to give you some careful, balanced answer. Or pop over to the so-called “local markets”, where they sell overpriced exorbitant absurdly extortionate artisanal interpretations of “local heritage”; they’ll tell you how you can celebrate a Shared Past (for a price, of course). Or you could do a quick Google search, on what it means, legally, to be a citizen of this country.

What does it mean to be Singaporean?

What does it mean to be a nation? Do we really need to draw lines in the sand, in an age where technology has knit continents and cultures and civilisations together, where ideas from all one part of the planet can flash to another in the space of an instant? Isn’t it in bad taste to play the “us vs them” game in this time of apparent equality and political correctness?

Do Singaporeans have belly-buttons? By which I mean:  where do we come from? How are Singaporeans made (and no, I’m not referring to the deliciously provocative weird adorable ads on our MRT trains encouraging exhausted commuters to go home and make babies).

I’m asking: what makes a Singaporean?


I get it, we all need our criteria. We live in an impatient, industrial, assembly-line, check-box Age; have lived in it since the time of Henry Ford, and then further back. We live in a time where we go out into nature and take everything and put them into neat categories, because we think that all organisms can be as neatly delineated and separated as the bee larvae in their hexagonal honeycombs. So we generate lists, and categorize peoples and draw maps and order the world into gridlines, and decide who is a Malay, or who is not, even though Hang Tuah once remarked that “we are all playing relatives”.

I know, I know. After all, I too am, in part, a product of The Great Singaporean Plan, to produce predictable, orderly Singaporeans, tailor-made for efficiency, top-scoring and award-winning and all-rounding.

But only in part, because even the serried ranks of the homogeneous HDBs are vast container-boxes of stories; if you squint hard enough as you stare at them you will see a paragraph, a story: each grilled window, every shirt waving on a bamboo pole, every old head peering blankly out into the sky a word, a compressed character, a letter of a melancholy alphabet containing a myriad consonances and connotations.

The River’s Source

Do rivers have sources? Of course they do: but a river is the amalgamation of a million streams and rivulets, made from sky and sun and sea.

Do seeds have sources? Of course they do: but it depends how far back you want to look – at the fruit or the flower of the tree or the shoot or the seed that made the seed?

Do songs have sources? Of course they do: but it depends how widely you want to trace the veins and capillaries of verse and rhythm and jumbled chaos that comes into coherent signal in a mind, on a piano, in a voice.

The Singaporean’s Source

So do Singaporeans have belly-buttons?

Of course we do: but we are made of the amalgamation of a million streams and rivulets of time and personality and story and myth, blending and melding continually into each other. We are the myths and the stories we tell; we are the myths and stories we hear and believe and realize. We are the Men in White who rode the red tigers; the unlikely, impossible speck who insisted we would survive Separation. We are the impassive Authoritarians, crying vulnerability and silencing struggle; we are the silenced stories, locked under spectrums while others rode the rainbows; we are the exiles, staring at a serrated skyline only our children recognize.

Of course we do: but it depends how far back you want to look: to the gleaming towers of steel and glass, to the fierce determination to sink or swim, to the stinking slums of dream and despair; or the bold men who named this island after the animal of their ambitions.

Of course we do: but it depends how widely and how far you want to trace the far-flung capillaries of verse and rhythm and jumbled chaos that has come momentarily into coherent signal these few decades, on an island, in a people, collapsed into a tiny red dot.

The Boxes You Cannot Check

The passport the anthem the pledge the food the language: yes, yes, yes. Red and white and crescent and five stars arising. Onward Singapore, as one united people, made from a mongrel bricolage of other peoples.

All the boxes you can check, and then the others you cannot:  the dreams and the visions and the words and the songs that made a nation. The exhilaration of the Parade, as fireworks open like obscene, luminescent blooms in the night-sky. The torrent-clean petrichor scent beneath the titanic umbrellas of the raintrees. The aunties and the ahmas and the makciks chattering away by the corridor. Nasi Lemak laksa chilli crab roti prata chickenrice waferbiscuits.

Maybe there isn’t an answer. Or if there is, maybe the answer isn’t something you can find in a book, on a statute, on a checklist. Maybe the the answer is in the very act of grappling with what it means to be Singaporean: of living on this island, of arguing with its peoples, of tasting its air and its pungent accents, of peeling beneath its hegemonic narratives; of a growing awareness of this nation this land and this country’s complex dimensions and dualities.

Do Singaporeans have belly-buttons?

Of course we do. And some navel-gazing is necessary once in awhile, if we are to ever escape the tyranny of rigid checklists and crippling criteria. What does it mean to be Singaporean?

And perhaps the question is the answer itself.



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