The Singapore Style

Cultures are learned, shared knowledge. In this short write up, we will be discussing on the issue of whether there is a Singaporean culture to speak about. Do Singaporeans have something that they can call uniquely theirs? Or are we just sponges absorbing foreign ideas in this increasingly globalised age?

In this debate, I hold firm that Singapore does have its own culture to speak off and we do have the agency to create what is uniquely ours.

Together yet different
From the very beginning, Singapore has always been a culturally diverse society, with our predecessors being migrants from various parts of the world, China, Europe, India and Malaysia, (thinkquest) each of these groups bringing their own sets of cultural ideas, practices and traditions to this little red dot. This separation of groups was further reinforced by the legislation, where all identity cards, passports and official documents would never fail to have the field of “race”. Diversification has also rapidly grown today with the spread of foreign ideas through the mass media resulting in the rise of many subcultures.

With such distinctions, one may question the possibility of a common culture being shared among this diverse group of individuals. I however, remain optimistic that a commonality can still be created and this can be established through two main mechanisms, hybridisation and governmental influence.

Hybridisation can be defined as the blending of cultures, generating new forms and making new connections with each other. (Wang and Yeh, 2005) This can be seen most prevalently in the colloquial Singaporean English, or commonly known as Singlish. Through anthropological linguists’ deeper analysis into the language they found that Singlish was actually evolved through the mixing of the various races’ native languages. (Platt, 1975) For example, terms such as “Kaypoh” (busybody) and “agak agak” (estimate) came from the Cantonese and Malay languages respectively. (Rebecca Yeo, 2010) Hence as we can see, Singaporeans do share a common culture through the mixing of their originally foreign cultures to form a hybrid form which can be classified as “Singaporean”.

Governmental Influences
Through the implementation of policies, the government too contributes their part to the creation of this cultural fabric of Singapore. For example, the electronic road pricing (ERP), could be seen as a unique system born of the government to manage traffic congestion in Singapore which worked effectively well that eventually even the London officials used the ERP as a reference for their traffic systems. Also the Certificate of entitlement (COE), which is an adaptation to assist us with the coping of limited land spaces, could possibly be a means necessary only for this country of 714.3 sq. km (Department of Statistics Singapore). These policies grant people living within this space, a common experience that is uniquely theirs.

The government also plays a role in setting up the tone of the Singapore society which has in itself given rise to its own culture and also manifestations that adds to the cultural identity of Singapore. From young, children are immersed into the education system which flags meritocracy as vital. This sets a highly competitive environment which could perhaps also account for the well-known Singapore value of “Kiasu-ism”. “Kiasu-ism” in direct translation means “the fear of losing” (Fuller, 1999). This national personality as identified by Fuller, can be visible through the actions of Singaporeans today, in the tissue chopping of seats and perhaps the news that have been in recent spotlight of highly anxious parents who send their children for numerous lessons before formal schooling begins (Refer to the video attached on the right. This was a song done for the children's day this year, illustrating parents "kanchiong"(overly anxious) which ties in with the concept of kiasu-ism among parents discussed in this section) . This “personality” is passed on from one generation to the next through the socialization of children by firstly their families, with parents constantly pressing their children to “study hard, if not cannot get into university” or even pushing them to walk faster, and later by the schools and education systems, which reinforce the “work hard and do not fall behind” value.

It is disappointing however to notice little attention have been paid to the study of the rich, unique Singapore culture. My analysis is but a small part of the bigger picture. There is so much more to discover of the culture of this small island that cannot be contained within these few words. Further researches could be done to dig deeper into this field. Perhaps this lack of attention in this field could be explained by the metaphor of culture. Culture is like the fresh water that a fish is living in, the fish would probably not be able to understand and appreciate what it is, as it tends to take it for granted. It’s only till the fish is immersed in seawater, a completely new environment, only then noticing the difference and learning that what it had previously experienced was unique. Similarly, most Singaporeans perhaps will find it difficult to pinpoint what Singapore culture exactly means, having being born here and socialised according to it, living and breathing in it every single day. But one should not doubt its existence. Just turn to a foreign friend and they can probably grant you great insights to “The Singapore Style”.

2. Georgette Wang and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh. Globalization and hybridization in cultural products : The cases of Mulan and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In International Journal of Cultural Studies 2005 8: 175.
3. John T. Platt. Singapore English Speech Continuum and Its Basilect 'Singlish' as a 'Creoloid'. In Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 17, No. 7 (Oct., 1975), pp. 366
4. Teresa Rebecca Yeo. Singlish. In Singapore Infopedia.
5. Department of Statistics Singapore:
6. Linda K. Fuller. Singapore’s Mr Kiasu, Kiasu Krossover, Kiasu Max, and Kiasu the xtra man: Comics reflecting a national personality and popular culture. In Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning Cute, Cheap, Mad, and Sexy by John A. Lent. 31 Dec, 1999, pp. 77.

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