One People, One Nation, One Singapore – As We Celebrate Our 47th National Day

On 1 Aug, Singapore received an early birthday gift for her National Day when Feng Tian Wei won Singapore’s first individual Olympics medal since Tan Howe Liang’s silver in 1960. I posted a simple “Congratulations Tianwei!” message on my Facebook. Not unsurprisingly, it garnered positive comments as well as a number of uncomplimentary remarks about our use of foreign talents.

I had read up about Tian Wei. I summarised a part of Wikipedia’s post of her as follow:

Feng Tianwei was born on 31 August 1986 in Harbin, PRC. She is the only daughter of Feng Qingzhi, a granary worker, and his wife Li Chunping, an employee of a department store. Feng’s parents, who were poor, lived frugally for years to pay for her table tennis training. Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis, but she was not told how severe his illness was. He died in 2002, weeks before Feng tried out for China’s national B squad. Although Feng topped the qualifying matches a month later and was called up for the national team in 2003, she suffered from a long illness; a source close to her said it was “because she missed her father too much”. Feng left China in 2005 to play in the Japanese professional league. While there, she was spotted by a coach with the Singapore Table Tennis Association, in 2006. In March 2007 she was invited to train in Singapore under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. She became a Singapore citizen in January 2008.

For Tianwei to be where she is today, she had to work hard and overcome many personal struggles. That’s great resilience and something worthy of celebrating in a human’s achievement. From what I have read of her in the media, she has so far been a good sports person and without any controversial news that I am aware of.

We also had Shanghai-born Jing Junhong who was the first to break into the semi-finals of an Olympic table tennis singles in Sydney 2000. She is now married to Singaporean former paddler and Table Tennis team manager Loy Soo Han. Junhong is a coach for Team Singapore as well. They have a son, Darren Loy who is now in Singapore’s junior Table Tennis team.

When I made a national day blog post last year, some netizens commented in unflattery tones that my parents came from Malaysia. It didn’t matter to them that I was born here or that my parents came when Singapore was part of Malaya and that they had long become Singapore citizens. We cannot choose where to be born in, nor can we choose our parents. From what I read, I would say Junhong has integrated well into Singapore, establishing her family here, producing a son who is now representing Singapore, and training our national team. Tianwei has been fighting for medals in Singapore’s name since 2008. She came to us as world no. 73 and is now world no. 6 and an Olympic individual medalist. Tao Li came to Singapore at age 13, speaking hardly any English at all. Today, she conducts her interviews regularly in English, with the occasional “lah”s in it.

That had me reflecting why each time a foreign-born sports person wins something for Singapore, we have such a large number of unhappy people. The problem may not lie in the athletes themselves. Having large number of foreigners injected into our midst over the past two decades has created many problems in society. Unfortunately, some people will project the problems we are facing with foreigners onto all non local-born. Irresponsible headlines by the media like “Feng Tianwei shows FT is the way” (The New Paper, 3 Aug) only serves to stir up more resentment amongst locals.

I recall when I was younger, foreigner means fair-skinned ‘ang mohs’ (the westerners), who did not get into the way of locals very much. We have always been having Malaysians and people from ASEAN in our midst, mostly as students and as workers, with some as professionals. We never complained so much then. Culturally, they are closer to us and live quite like Singaporeans. A fair number of Malaysians who study here regularly become PRs and citizens. Foreign domestic workers have also long been a feature in Singapore as well. They gather mainly at specific spots during the weekends. The jobs done by the workers and foreign domestic workers are also not the ones that Singaporeans aspire for.

In 1990, Singapore celebrated ’25 years of nationhood and another 25 years of achievements’. That was the slogan of the National Day parade of 1990. The theme of the parade that year was “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”. Back then, our population was 3.047 million, of which 2.634 million were citizens and 112,000 were permanent residents (PRs). Foreigners made up around 311,000, or 10.2%. Together, PRs and foreigners made up a total of only 13.9%. Singaporeans did not seem to have any major issues with foreigners then.

By 2011, our population grew to 5.184 million. Of these, there were 3.257 million citizens (including new citizens), 532,000 PRs, and 1.394 million foreigners. Foreigners constituted 26.9% while PRs and foreigners together formed 37.2%. When we combine this figure with another 15,000 – 20,000 foreign-born that are being added yearly as new citizens, the percentage of local-born citizens becomes even smaller. Source: (with rounding off).

In 1990, we had by then built the nation largely on Singaporeans. We were of different races, but we formed the vast majority of the population and we understood each other’s habits, religions and cultures. Sure, it didn’t happen naturally. It took some effort to constantly remind ourselves of the diversity amongst us. We could live with and adjust to one another. We were indeed one people, one nation, one Singapore.

I love to travel. I would mix around the locals when I travel, take their local transport, eat at their local eateries, buy at local joints and do things locals do. My travels were all self planned itineraries. You get to understand people better that way.

China has been quite an experience. In one of my early trips to China, I was once stuck in Pudong, Shanghai at night with three young children in the drizzle trying to catch a cab to Puxi across the river with our bags of shopping. There was no queuing bay. Many people were on the streets trying to grab a cab too. The locals were rough. I had people cut me off even though cabs alighted passengers in front of me. I nearly got into one after I had negotiated with the driver through his window where we wanted to go when suddenly, a young couple barged into the cab and the cab took off with them. Half an hour later, a taxi driver who had been parked on the side all this while drove over and told me that this is Shanghai. He said I would never get into a cab by being so mild, and that I should just jump into the first cab and demand to be taken to where I want. He said he was taking me on account of my three young kids, as he usually would not go across the river at that time of the night.

Another Singaporean friend who had been living for several years in China told me in a cab one day at a chaotic traffic junction in Shanghai that there is only one rule to follow at such junctions in the cities. The car whose head juts out first has the right of way. Forget about official traffic rules. Hence they drive aggressively. I noticed this too in some crowded Asian cities.

I watched a recent video that had gone viral on the Internet of a China woman scolding two elderly Singaporean ladies over the priorty seating on a bus. I have seen such scenes in China. People are conditioned to demand their rights, sometimes in loud and forceful ways because in their system, you will lose out if you are too gentle. I found out the hard way trying to get my cab.

We may be seen as sharing the same ethnicity. Our way of life has become very different though. China had gone through a traumatic cultural revolution and now a long economic boom. It is a big country where people may have grown used to roughing things out.

I do not wish to generalise that all from China behave badly, or that foreigners of other nationalities do not bring with them issues that also challenge the integration with Singaporeans. I have chinese friends who are cultured and who have decided to set roots in Singapore. But with so many foreigners of so many nationalities, each with their own deep-seated culture that had shaped their behaviours, our way of life is bound to become upset; from bus quarrels to spitting on roads to complaints about curry cooking. It does not help that in some areas, foreigners may even outnumber locals as the foreigners tend to be clustered together by their communities. It also does not help in our multi-cultured society that some of them work as service staff but speak no English at all.

When I was a student, I remember the many campaigns to teach us how we should behave as responsible Singaporeans. I remember the ‘Use Your Hands’, anti-littering and courtesy campaigns. I remember once a few of us did an overnight hike to a secluded part of Pulau Ubin while we were college students. The next morning, we packed up to leave. We had a few bags of rubbish. Our first tendency was to leave the rubbish there since the nearest dustbin was several kilometers away, past a plantation we had hiked through. Someone from the group picked up the rubbish bags and carried it along, together with his camping load. Another asked why he didn’t just leave it behind. He said, no, we should not litter the place. I still remember such lessons well to know that we should not litter. How do we tell that to 37.2% of the population (more if we count new citizens) who had not gone through our education system? How do we teach courtesy to those who grew up believing they need to demand aggressively to get what they want, and where spitting and littering are acceptable where they used to live? Will their way of life influence us instead and undo what we had learnt from young?

I am not anti-foreigner. I have spoken out before on such issues like foreign scholarships. That is because I feel the policy had spent to much, took in too many, failed to attract people of the right quality, and failed to get them to root themselves in Singapore. People like Junhong, Tianwei and Tao Li have done Singapore proud on the sports front. I wish all foreign-born sports person in Singapore can follow the example of Junhong and truly root themselves here even when their competing career is over. The issue of foreigners in our midst will continue to be hotly debated, even more so in the coming months with the recently publised paper on Population.

The call to be ‘One People, One Nation, One Singapore’ is even more urgent today than it was in 1990, when there were then fewer cracks in society. Today, the cracks are between the haves and a growing class of haves-not, between local born citizens and a sizeable pool of new citizens and between residents and a very large number of foreigners. We may have 47 years of economic progress as a nation, but do the newer citizens and permanent residents have the same understanding as other Singaporeans of ‘One People, One Nation, One Singapore’? That is the unenviable challenge that the PAP government has set for itself by its policy of liberal immigration.

As you mull over this, do enjoy this song which is one of my National Day’s favourites:


Happy 47th National Day.


7 comments on “One People, One Nation, One Singapore – As We Celebrate Our 47th National Day

  1. JJ, I live in China most of the time now. Difficult to generalise for a population of 1.3 billion. As you said, in an environment that is so competitive and still developing, it pays to be aggressive. Does not mean this is bad behaviour. Also would like to point out that we still have no spitting signs and 20 years ago, these signs were everywhere. Why? Because just a generation ago, maybe less, the Chinese in Singapore were spitting also. We are not as different as we think we are.

  2. @Calvin, it is indeed sad to read that your years of living in China have conditioned you to accept aggressive behaviour as “does not mean bad behaviour.” I too am living in China. The behaviours of the PRCs are so bad to the extend that even some of their more civilised ones find these behaviours unacceptable. I have witnessed how the rich PRCs yelled at the poor PRCs. I have seen even young emperors hit their ayis in public without batting an eyelid. Such behaviours are never corrected because they are viewed as “not bad behaviour”. I, too have been bullied by PRCs. They took my kindness as weakness. I am a born and bred Singaporean and I do not accept everything Singaporeans do eg. ill-treating their maids. However, there is one thing which I think Singaporeans can be proud of. When a grave need arise in our country such as SARS, we see Singaporeans rise up together to fight as one. During the financial crisis era, we accepted pay cut, pay freeze, did staycation to help our economy. Sadly, all these actions and sacrifices made by true blue Singaporeans have long been forgotten by our leaders. That, perhaps, explain the great dislike for foreigners!

  3. Thanks JJ for a balanced nuanced piece.
    Singapore my beloved country is reaching a pivot point. I cannot stress enough the importance for our leaders to pay attention to the ‘software’ part at this juncture.
    May there be love, wisdom and true understanding from all, and that we will rise up again.

  4. Thank JJ. It is never easy to settle into a foreign country and I have seen many top students go through painful withdrawal symptom when they are in a local school. To leave your parents at a early age to settle in a foreign land, is not easy. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Let God be the judge:)

  5. When China was snowed over, ordinary Chinese were also helping each other. Fighting for taxis, aggressive driving – all part of surviving now. When society gets richer and more developed, other social norms will prevail. As I said, a generation ago, our Chinese were not so different.

  6. The fundamental issue of foreign talent in our midst is primarily about managing the numbers (e.g. should not be overly large inflows), smooth integration (e.g. practising out cultural norms, contribution to nationhood (e.g. national service) and other vested interests concerning Singaporeans such as housing, overcrowding etc.

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