City of Contrasts

Singapore's Diverse Charms

2019 / June

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan

The image that many people have of Singapore is of an economically prosperous international city. More charms can be found in its ethnically diverse population of Chinese, Malays and Indians, as well as its non-citizens of many nations, who work together in an atmosphere of cultural tolerance. Come with Taiwan Panorama as we explore Singapore and its close bonds and exchanges with Taiwan!

After a four-and-a-half-hour flight of more than 3000 kilometers, we finally reach Singa­pore’s ­Changi Airport. Its high-ceilinged, orderly and expansive arrival halls feature English signage everywhere, and people are speaking a great variety of different tongues. The scene is a fitting demonstration that although we’ve come to another nation in which Han Chinese are in the majority, it is nonetheless a place that is quite different from Taiwan.

Cultural diversity

Singapore’s population includes 4 million citizens, with ethnic Chinese comprising 75%, Malays 13%, and Indians 9%. There are also 1.64 million non-citizens who hail from many nations. In Taiwan, one only occasion­ally sees foreign features and thus one may be somewhat surprised upon encountering them. But in Singapore it’s an utterly unremarkable occurrence.

The city’s Chinatown is lined with Chinese apo­thec­aries, restaurants selling bak kut the (pork ribs simmered in a spicy broth), shrines, and temples. With the Chinese signs, the streets here seem altogether familiar to someone from Taiwan.

But Little India, with its colorful buildings, lies just three MRT stops away. There the Hindu Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple attracts many visitors.

Walking south from Little India, one comes to the Sultan Mosque with its golden dome. Nearby are many souvenir stores selling perfumes, where the air-­conditioned air has a heavy Middle-Eastern scent to it. In Singa­pore, turning a corner can seem like entering an entirely new country.

Bilingual education puts English first

English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil: Those are Singapore’s four official languages. So-called bilingual education is English-focused, with students adding the language of their ethnic group as their other language. Ethnic Chinese study Chinese, Malays Malay, and Indians Tamil.

Singapore declared its independence in 1965, and its bilingual language policy was launched in 1966. Although studying English was mandatory back then, you could pick the language of instruction for your other courses: Chinese schools instructed in Chinese and Malay schools in Malay. In 1979, the system was completely changed so that English became the language of instruction for everyone. With all Singaporeans using English from a young age, communication between ethnic groups has grown easier.

Tan Chee Lay, an associate professor of Asian languages and cultures at Nan­yang Technological University’s National Institute of Education, is an example of someone who is completely at ease in two languages. For university, he came to Taiwan and majored in Chinese, and for graduate school he returned to Singapore and studied English literature. “Language is a window through which you can develop your curiosity toward other cultures,” he explains. Reading Chinese and English from a young age has allowed him to float between both literatures.

There are many who support the government’s bi­lingual education policy, but there are also concerns about its effects on mother tongues. Singapore’s government has organized all manner of committees and arts councils to promote mother-language cultures, and it holds arts festivals for each of the ethnic groups. During the annual Singapore Writers Festival, there are always four separate programs of activities for English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. All these efforts are attempts to reduce the negative impacts of a mainstream education system with English as the language of instruction.

A base for the Southeast-Asian market

In Singapore, basic needs of life, such as transportation and medicine, can all be met using English. What’s more, there are clear laws, a low crime rate, cleanliness and good sanitation—all features that have attracted many multinational companies to set up operations.

In 2013 Taiwan signed a trade agreement with Singa­pore, and economic and trade ties have grown tighter ever since. The trade between the two nations now stands at about US$26 billion per year, surpassing even the trade between Singa­pore and its immediate neighbor Indonesia.

Industries from Taiwan that came to Singa­pore in previous decades included traditional industries, manu­factur­ing and electronics. More recently, financial and service industry firms from Taiwan have set up branches in Singapore. 

Francis ­Liang, who is the representative at the Tai­pei Representative Office in Singa­pore, takes this a step farther to say that Singa­pore’s ethnic diversity gives the city natural advantages in building bridges to other ASEAN nations. That has made it attractive to Taiwanese firms, which use the city as a base from which to serve the whole ASEAN market. For instance, Taiwan’s banks have established branch offices in Singapore, which engage in large-scale lending to Indonesia. That has reduced the challenges and risks that Taiwan banks encountered when lending directly to Indonesia. The ability to radiate out from Singapore into the ASEAN market is one of the main reasons that Singapore has attracted so many companies to set up their Asian headquarters there.

Study and friendship

Taiwan’s books, television and art have always found a market in Singapore and Malaysia, and Singaporeans are highly receptive to Taiwan’s culture. To cultivate Chinese language teachers, the Singaporean government back in the 1980s sent top students to study in Taiwan. Those students brought back literary training informed by Taiwan’s creative atmosphere. “In class, my teacher would recite Xu ­Zhimo’s poems, or quote Xi Mu­rong to say that my meeting the classmate sitting next to me was fated by something that happened 500 years ago....” Tan Chee Lay thus describes his impression of his junior-­high-school Chinese teacher Li Bai­yang, who had studied at National Taiwan University. Li ignited Tan’s interest in Chinese literature, and implanted in Tan a sense of longing for Taiwan.

Tan Chee Lay explains that Singaporean writers such as Quah Sy Ren, Yin Song Wei (pen name of Lim Song Hwee) and Chua Chim Kang all studied in Taiwan. They drew creative inspiration from their experiences of studying there, and their affection for Tai­pei is apparent in their writing.

In recent years Tan has rekindled his interest in calli­graphy, getting Nan­yang Technological University to reopen classes in the subject, which had not been offered for several years. After those semester-long courses, there are exhibitions of the students’ works. It is hard to believe their outstanding calligraphies are the works of beginners. There is no better proof of how Chinese culture is flourishing in Singapore.

Building bridges of friendship

Evita, who hails from Taiwan and works at the informa­tion desk at ­Singa­pore’s Changi International Airport, has discovered that Singaporeans have a remark­able under­standing of Taiwan. For instance, news about Taiwan is frequently reported in Singa­porean newspapers, and young people are very knowledge­able about Taiwan’s presidents. It really seems as if the entire country cares about Taiwan. Yet people in Taiwan have very little understanding of Singa­pore. In response, she has launched a YouTube channel.

Speaking in Taiwanese, Evita leads her fans on tours through Singaporean produce markets or delves into differences between the two nations’ customs. In other ­videos she conducts street interviews, quizzing Singa­porean college students on the multiple meanings of Chinese words, or asking them to vote for their favorite Taiwanese variety show. In still other videos she shares her experiences of working or renting a place in Singapore. Her lively manner has attracted many fans.

With its high salaries and cosmopolitanism, Singa­pore interests many Taiwanese, and many of Evita’s Inter­net fans ask her advice about coming to Singa­pore to work. Evita, who studied in Australia, notes that in this respect Singa­pore is different from easygoing Australia. Those thinking they can come and find a job for a working holiday often end up discouraged. Anyone coming to work in Singapore needs to have signed a contract with their employer. Evita advises these inquirers to clearly think about their employment goals and peruse Singa­porean employment websites to gain an understanding of prevailing salaries. Otherwise com­panies can use loopholes to exploit foreign workers.

Evita explains that her work at the airport’s traveler information center is a bit like doing public relations for the airport: She greets visitors and guides them around the airport. Every day in Singapore she meets people with different cultures, languages and backgrounds. Apart from strengthening her English, it has given her a broader, more international perspective.

The culture of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese, as well as the nation’s culinary diversity, cleanliness and safety, all make people from Taiwan feel at home. Taiwan and Singapore are similar in many ways, but each also has its own outstanding features. It’s no wonder that Francis ­Liang describes Singa­pore as a “home away from home.”

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