On Belonging in Singapore

On Belonging in Singapore

The clouds overhead formed turtles, a sea lion, the wrath of Poseidon. The grass beneath our shoulders tickled my ears in the gentle breeze. “Eh laowai, stop daydreaming!” barked a voice nearby, disrupting my trance. I glanced up to see a friend padding across the field to where some teammates and I had temporarily crashed.

“So much thinking cannot la! What time already?” he complained in Singlish, the term for English in Singapore that denotes local slang.

Despite the rough language, his tone wasn’t hostile: laowai, meaning “old outsider” in Chinese, usually does not intend to degrade so much as acknowledge someone as foreign, often white. Regardless of the implicit playfulness, casual banter like this had a way of undermining the 16 months I had already spent living in Singapore. It shook the turtles and sea lions from my mind and clouded it with a real wonder: Could I ever truly belong here?  

Predictably, identity issues manifest themselves most at the airport. When I present my U.S. passport to any customs officer, I occasionally have to justify why Singapore is listed as my permanent address.  “Studying there” is the easiest answer, and most people assume I’m an exchange student who has come to milk the city of its sunny afternoons and rooftop bars before returning “home.” But the category of “exchange student” feels entirely inaccurate. After all, it seems unlikely that a visiting student of three months would rely more on her local bank account than one abroad or, while in college, call those unaffiliated with a university some of her best friends. That's how my experience has been so far, at least.

Still, the notion of “exchange” is not entirely absent. Like many foreign students, I signed a contract upon admission to Yale-NUS that binds me to the Singaporean government — that is, the government pays part of my tuition fees so long as I work in Singapore for three years after graduation. The trade-off is fair: All students on such bonds return the knowledge this country has offered them via their contribution to the national economy. There are few countries worldwide, in fact, that pay so much for the education of foreign students and let graduates keep all of their paychecks, so long as their taxes benefit the whole state. But even though I will be a working adult with stake in property and a graduate degree from a local institution, will a few extra years make the difference in my identification as an outsider?

Legally, they will not. Recent graduates are still years away from permanent residency (PR) since approval would depend on their contribution to leading industries, usually technical or entrepreneurial. In the meantime, the consequences of being foreign range from paying a few extra dollars on entrance fees to being restricted to housing in selective areas. For example, 90 percent of the population lives in apartments established under the Housing Development Board, but HDB flats are not available for purchase to noncitizens and nonPRs. While most expatriates find private housing, young graduates can seldom afford the steep prices of private real estate.

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Adding to the limited employment options, companies pay a levy for employing foreign workers, since these workers do not contribute to the Central Provident Fund if they’ll be withdrawing a pension from elsewhere down the line.  So while the government has legally bound international students to their community, it makes it difficult to live here affordably in the long run. Registering for property reinforces such alienation. Legal documents in Singapore require subjects to select from one of four categorizations: Chinese, Indian, Malay or Other. All of these constant reminders of being the “other” make it hard to find any sense of belonging.

But legal alienation cannot taint the sense of belonging that comes from everyday interaction.  On Sundays, I often join church friends for lunch at a hallmark of Singaporean culture: the hawker center. The auntie waits impatiently as I order in broken Mandarin, turning to bark orders at her husband behind the counter.

Even without my foreign presence, the hawker center is already a diverse setting that permits the integration of orders like kopi o kosong — the name for black coffee without sugar in Malay — and xiao long bao — the name for steamed bun in Chinese. Likewise, Singlish employs a number of words from multiple surrounding regions, reflective of the many ethnicities scattered around these tables where the city comes to commune for lunch. Unlike in previous travels, my pale skin and blue eyes do not attract much attention here. To the average patron, I am merely one of the 1.6 million foreigners that share in the island. The friends beside me chat easily about junior college (high school) or National Service (compulsory military duty for men) as if I had shared their experiences. And the auntie at our favorite dim sum stall treats me like she would any other customer: There is no excuse for foreigners to not know how to order.

Growing up in rural Minnesota, my father and I used to frequent fresh produce stalls that are nothing like these metropolitan ones. I always cherished our bike rides through the neighboring farm fields, where we would stop to chat with vendors selling corn, squash, pumpkins and other delights. Perhaps it was the imperfection of homegrown stalks or amiable conversations that so deeply instilled within me the family values characteristic of small-town America. Prioritization of family is among the strongest values emphasized in Singapore and has helped me find familiarity where much else differs.

Other values, however, like democracy and independence, which surfaced in conversations about political views a talkative seller shared, are all but silenced here, where freedom of speech is not a basic right. This is to say that enough time in Singapore has inspired frustrations in light of my American upbringing. I dislike the numerous shopping malls that promote excess consumerism and how people disregard altogether the possibility of political change. However open-minded I strive to be, my insistence on voice and choice influences my judgment of Singaporean culture, perhaps to an extent that I, too, partake in rendering myself an outsider with this barrier of value bias.


Nonetheless, it is precisely the incompatibility of Singaporean values with my own that inspires me to invest in the community here all the more. Trying to understand where our differences originate and more importantly, how to bridge them, has drawn me “inside” alternative lifestyles. My peers lying on the quad may disagree with certain opinions, but they appreciate curiosity. Behind the term laowai is racial and ethnic prejudice, however lighthearted, but there is also a voice acknowledging my presence. A friend. Someone who cares that we are here, questioning our cultures together.