What makes a Singaporean?

JANUARY 3 — The other day I watched a rerun of a TV episode where New York once again served as the backdrop for the adventures of a zany gang of friends. 

Part of the episode’s premise revolved around what makes someone a “New Yorker.” 

Of course the brand power of the Big Apple is quite extraordinary; virtually everyone everywhere including people who’ve never been to New York have some idea of what it is to be a New Yorker.  

Pushier, pluckier, used to living at a faster pace than other North Americans. 

People who have lived in New York city for even just a few months confidently call themselves New Yorkers.

But what about us here in Singapore? What makes someone a Singaporean? (It is important to note that I don’t mean Singaporean as a nationality.)

I am talking not just about citizens but also people who live in the city and may not be citizens: There are so many of these individuals. 

What do they call themselves and how do they feel like they belong? What are the urban social experiences that define the city?

I don’t think I have an answer but it is worth thinking about. It is creating and enumerating these sorts of rituals that give a city its cultural power. 

For New York city, you’re meant to have a favourite pizza place, know a shortcut across Central Park, be able to fight ruthlessly for a taxi, and ride crowded subways confidently — leaping from express to local trains. 

Television has made using crowded public transport a badge of honour. These separate tourists from residents.

So what are the Singapore equivalents? 

Well, there are the obvious clichés: You need to know how to chope (reserve) a table at a hawker centre — using a packet of tissues. You must be able to use “lah” confidently in a sentence (many sentences) and in fact be able to use at least a dozen Singlish expressions effortlessly. 

An astonishing familiarity with local acronyms and real estate prices is somehow another important element of fitting in — if you don’t know your HDB from your CPF, you’re definitely not part of this city. 

But there’s more to an urban identity than a simple checklist. Like any city I guess belonging is fundamentally a matter of attitude. 

To really be part of the Lion City, I think you need to be strangely both irreverent yet obedient. Deprecating about the city and at the same time immensely proud of it. 

You also need to really love food to the point where you will stand in line for hours for something new and delicious and always have your preferred list of hawkers ready... so you can insist that your favourite har cheong gai vendor is the best. 

Finally, well like the city itself, a true blue Lion is all about self-improvement, from morning jogs and tai qi to a hunger for classes and  travel with an urge to see and experience new things; we are all about getting better and getting more out of life.  

I think these traits or some version of them are applicable not just to citizens  but to everyone who lives in the city and chooses to be a part of it rather than someone passing through. 

It is hardly an exhaustive list and more thought should be given to the matter — especially as Singapore continues to grow into a key global city. 

And when we succeed we will have kids all over the world wanting to come here and ride the MRT from Jurong to Tampines — because that’s just what is done. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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