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Ethnicity, Identity, and Language in Singapore

“Hey, get in!” I heard a woman yell from the open side door of a van. The vehicle had crept up from behind me as I was walking on an empty jungle road on Pulau Ubin. The woman was hanging out of the door, beckoning me to join her. She looked like a cougar. I had nothing better to do, I was just walking around kicking stones and talking to my video camera, so I climbed in. We took off through the forest.

More on Vagabond Journey: Pulau Ubin: Singapore’s Final Frontier

The woman told me that her name was Shauna, she was in her late 40s, she worked in public relations and was on Pulau Ubin to set up activities for a team building trip for her company. Her plan was to take photos of things around the island and then her coworkers would need to go around and locate them, the one who finds the most wins. This meant a very jagged ride for me. Every two minutes she would screech at the driver to stop and she would jump out and take a picture of something. I tried to interview her but the interruptions proved too much — she had a job to do, and I was bugging her. “I can’t talk to you right now. I have to do this,” she finally said. Some cougar she turned out to be.

Soon, the driver mentioned in Chinese that we were driving by the island’s chief’s home. I figured I would try to meet him, so I called out for the van to stop, and I jumped out.

The island’s chief was nowhere to be found. I returned to walking down jungle roads, kicking rocks and talking to my video camera. A couple of hours later I decided to head back to the main island of Singapore, back to the city. Though as I walked down the road by the dock I saw a little, cheap restaurant, and stopped in for some lunch. I then looked up and saw Shauna sitting in front of me. She was waving. I went over to her table and sat down.

There were Chinese language banners and signs hanging in the restaurant, and the menu was written in Chinese. Logically, when the lady running the place waddled over to take my order I gave it to her in Chinese. My companion thought this was strange.

“What language do you use when you talk to people here?” I asked.

“English,” she replied.

She was half Hakka/ half Cantonese, her parents or grandparents migrated to Singapore from the Mainland. She could speak Mandarin.

“So when you approach a Chinese person here that you don’t know, what language do you use?”

“To respect them I will speak English,” she replied.

“What if you hear them speaking to someone else in Chinese?”

“If they speak Chinese with a Singapore accent I will still use English.”

It is not uncommon to hear two Singaporean-Chinese speaking English with each other, even when they know that the other speaks Chinese. In Singapore, English is the default language.

The linguistic terrain of this place was beginning to make itself evident. Approaching a stranger and addressing them in an ethnic language that you assume they speak is to call them a bumpkin, a faux pas akin go asking someone of Asian descent where they are from in the USA. To respect someone’s class and education you talk to them in English.

“Unless you are talking to a PRC,” Shauna then added. “When the PRCs come it is OK to talk to them in Chinese.”

The PRCs — that’s how she referred to Mainland Chinese.

“So you know PRCs just from looking at them?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” she exclaimed. “We can also tell them from how they talk. They speak Mandarin really harsh.”

She then proceeded to mimic a Mainland Chinese accent. I found it disproportionately humorous to hear an ethnically Chinese person do such an impression. “I’m really good at it,” she said. “One time when I was with a bunch of PRCs I starting speaking like they do and they thought I was one of them.”

Though her Chinese wasn’t exceptionally good. “I only speak at a grade school level,” she admitted. “A lot of us can’t speak Chinese well. But now it’s more popular because we all watch movies in Mandarin. It was only recently that it became important.”

She told me that when she was in school she only had 45 minutes of Chinese instruction per day.

“In school we weren’t supposed to speak Malay or Chinese,” she explained. “If we did we were fined.”

“What do you mean you were fined?”

“It was like a game. If you spoke in Chinese or Malay or something you had to go up to the front of the room and put money in a jar. It was fun.”

I asked her why the use of other languages was discouraged.

“Before, there was a lot of disharmony between cultures. So the government said that everyone was to speak English. They said that we could only speak English in the streets.”

Ethnicity, or race, as it’s generally referred to as here, has always been a key dividing and organizational criteria in Singapore. The CMIO — Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other — ethnic classification system has long been the rule. People here generally have a hyphenated identity: they are a Singaporean-something. Each person’s ethnicity is clearly printed on their identification card.

“Does this mean that there is a hierarchy between the cultures?” I then asked.

“Noooo,” she replied. “Everybody is the same. Well, maybe Indians have their own caste system, but that’s their thing. The government did a lot to raise the status of Malays. They gave them a lot of money so they could be equal with everyone else.”

Almost every Singaporean I asked this question to has answered the exact same way, though I am interested to find out how well this egalitarian ideology transpires in reality. We’re taught that we are all equal in the USA too . . .

What is for certain though is that in Singapore each of the different ethnicities are watered down renditions of their original versions. The Chinese in Singapore are nothing like the “PRCs,” the Indians still display telltale Indian traits but they are far less dynamic than in India, the Malays, Thais, and Indonesians here are likewise very different than they are in their respective countries. All the cultures here are a little duller, a little less vibrant and distinct, their sharp edges having been filed down long ago by a broader, over-arching identity known as Singaporean.

I watched as Shauna picked through her noodles. “I’m not eating meat for two weeks,” she said.

“Why?”

“I’m on a religious fast.”

“What religion?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t really know how to pray. I just say thank you a lot.”

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Singapore, Travel Diary, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 80 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3167 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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