The Identity of Young Chinese Singaporeans and State Policy - Papers & Essays



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The Identity of Young Chinese Singaporeans and State Policy


The Chinese constitute 74% of Singapore's population. In the past, the government, in order to build national identity, promoted English education and industrialization and did not pay much attention to the needs of individual ethnic groups. Now, Singapore has modified its policy by putting more emphasis on the language and culture of ethnic groups. This change will have an impact on the identity among young Chinese Singaporeans.

Sense of belonging, globalization, Singapore, China, Goda Miho, education, culture, race, English education, language
Japanese Chinese

Singapore is a multi-racial nation that consists of Chinese, Malays and Indians. Since its independence in 1965, building a common national identity and racial harmony has been a major national issue. The existence of different ethnic groups, languages, religions, customs and cultures posed a challenge for the new nation. In order to promote national identity, multi-racial and multi-cultural policy has been adopted.

The state policy on national identity established by the ruling People's Action Party has not been always consistent. It can be divided into two periods. The first period was from the 1960s to the 1970s. The characteristics of individual ethnic groups were not emphasized. The second period is from the 1990s to the present when the government catered to the needs of ethnic groups more than before.

One of the political slogans of Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s was "Singapore is a new country. Singaporeans must have the sense of belonging and join hands for the survival and development of the country." Although the Chinese were the majority, Singapore did not become a Chinese-dominant nation. The Chinese-speaking and English-speaking groups inside the ethnic Chinese were difficult to unite. The anti-Communist policies adopted by Malaysia and Indonesia also had an impact on Singapore. Hence, Singapore decided not to emphasis the particularity of individual ethnic groups. Instead, it aimed to build a common identity by launching English education and industrialization. Singapore became one of the most developed nations in Asia.

The success of English education and economic growth has paid a social cost. Young Chinese Singaporeans, under the English education policy, see themselves as Singaporean and not Chinese. Compared to the older generation, younger Chinese Singaporeans have lost their interest in Chinese cultural roots. Unlike Malay Singaporeans who can maintain their ethnic identity through Islam, Chinese Singaporeans are not interested in Chinese culture and have problem with their ethnic Chinese identity. Dick Lee, the Chinese Singapore musician, aired his distress over national identity in his music. His feelings have been shared by many young Chinese Singaporeans.

Having sensed the identity crisis among ethnic groups, the government changed its national identity policy in the 1980s by promoting the language and culture of individual ethnic groups. For instance, in the primary and secondary schools, English and one's own ethnic language became compulsory.*1 "Speak Mandarin Campaign" has been launched every October to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin at school and in the public. Both primary and secondary schools join this campaign. The government has admitted the value of preserving ethnic languages and cultures.

In the late 1990s, on the top of dual languages policy, the government introduced "The Outline for Education Plan" to launch full-fledged national education in the primary and secondary schools in 2000. Students learned the history of Singapore in order to find their roots. The government organized many activities, for instance, 21 July was named "Racial Harmony Day." Cultures of ethnical groups were introduced at school to promote racial harmony.

Besides, the government worked with territory and blood-based Chinese clan organizations.*2 Many events and activities are carried out to promote Chinese cultural heritage. "River Hongbao" is one such event. Held in the Chinese New Year, this event has performances related to Chinese New Year. Every year, Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations works with the Nanyang Technological University to hold a four-day Chinese cultural seminar. More than a hundred students from secondary schools and junior colleges participate. Lectures about Chinese dramas in different regions, calligraphy, sculpture, board game and tea ceremony are presented. Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations also works with community centre to organize the Chinese Culture Festival.*3

From the 1990s onwards, following the increase of various activities to promote Chinese identity, young Chinese Singaporean have more exposure to Chinese traditions. The ID of Singaporeans, admission form and CV show their ethnicity, indicating that understanding one's own ethnicity is encouraged among Singaporeans.

According to the survey I conducted on 265 Chinese students of secondary and tertiary schools, about 60% (62.3%, 165 persons) admitted that they have the Chinese identity. About 20% (18.9%, 50 persons) expressed that they are proud of being Chinese. About 80% (84.5%, 224 persons) showed some interest in Chinese culture and language. More than 30% (34.7%, 92 persons) said they have keen interest in Chinese culture and language. These figures show that the state policy has achieved considerable result.

Nowadays, the English education has played an important role in unifying the nation and in promoting Singapore to the world. At the same time, the policy to respect ethnic languages and cultures helps establish the Chinese identity and traditional Chinese values. In face of the rise of China and its economic development, knowing the Chinese language and culture can promote Singapore-China economic relations and make Singapore a part of the Chinese economic global network. The competitiveness of Singapore as an international city has been enhanced. Hence, the state policy to promote ethnical traditions not only cultivates national identity, but also promotes globalization of Singapore. Young Chinese Singaporeans are a key player. 



*1  Schools in Singapore are not based on races. Each school has students from different ethnic groups.
*2  Singapore has about 200 Chinese clan organizations. Following the state policy to promote ethnic traditions and Chinese culture, Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations was founded in 1986 as the headquarters of Chinese groups.
*3  The Chinese Culture Festival has been held since the 1980s biannually. Chinese martial art, lion dance, cuisine, costume are exhibited and Chinese temples are visited during the month of the Chinese Cultural Festival.


Miho Goda
Adjunct Assistant Professor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (2001 to date); Part-time Lecturer, Shizuoka Sangyo University (2010 to date)
Region of Research: Historical Sociology, Study of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong Society, Ethnic Identity, Comparative Studies of the Ethnic Group and the Special Education.
Research Experience: Studied at the Graduate School of Sociology, National University of Singapore by the expenses of the Japanese Goverment (1996 to 1998)
Teaching Experience: Part-time Lecturer, Konan Women's University, Sonoda Gakuen Women's University and National University of Singapore (1996 to 1998)
Education: Ph.D. in Sociology, Konan Women's University (1999)
Membership: The Japan Society for the Studies of Chinese Overseas, Japan-China Sociological Society
Publications: Goda Miho, Nihonjin to Chugokujin ga Tomo ni Tsukaeru Hattatsushogai Gaidobukku, Himawari, Hong Kong, 2011 etc.