Multiracial and Multicultural Singapore
Singapore is a prime example of a melting pot of different races and cultures. There are four main ethnicities in Singapore are the Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians. However, recent times have witnessed an influx of foreigners who have taken up residence in Singapore, adding to the diversity of cultures. Racial riots are a thing of the past but there are still unspoken underlying racial differences but Singaporeans in general and the government in particular have largely tried to maintain religious and racial understanding.
Roughly 70 percent of the populace is occupied by a Chinese majority. Many of them are third, fourth or even fifth-generation Chinese, whose forefathers were the early Chinese migrants from mainland China, who came to Singapore in search of employment and stayed on ever since. Within the Chinese race, there are a variety of different dialect groups, the largest being the Hokkiens who constitute roughly 40 percent of the total Chinese population. The ancestors of the Hokkiens come from Fujian province in China. The other main dialect groups are the Teochews, who make up roughly 20 percent of the Chinese population and can trace their roots to Guangdong; the Cantonese, who account for roughly 15 percent of the Chinese population whose ancestry lies in Guangzhou; and the Hakka, who come fron central China and account for approximately 10 percent of the total Chinese population.
The Peranakans are another noteworthy group of Singaporean Chinese. They are descendents of Chinese merchants who married Malay women during the 18th century. The males are known as Babas while the females are known as Nonyas. Currently, less than one percent of the population of Singapore is Peranakan and though their numbers are small, the Peranakan culture is distinctive and has had a significant influence on Singapore.
Peranakans usually have Chinese names but observe certain Malay customs. Peranakan cuisine is a combination of traditional Chinese and Malay recipes, and the liberal usage of chilli is a common theme in Peranakan dishes. Although most Peranakans have Chinese names, their language is a Malay dialect that has intergrated a handful of Chinese Hokkien words. The Peranakan clothing is also distinctively Malay as the females are usually clad in Kebayas. Beaded slippers are also unique to the Peranakan culture and are traditionally hand-made. These slippers are a favourite collector's item due to their workmanship and elaborate designs. Many tourists leave Singapore with at least a pair of these beaded slippers.
Chinese dialect groups have their own specific cultures but most of the time, the cultures overlap. They have their own festivities but most are usually shared celebrations; pray to their favourite deities but most of these deities are also popular with the other dialect groups; and enjoy their own music, literature and cuisine. For example, the Teochews and Cantonese have their street operas that were extremely popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These operas were frequently attended by members of the different dialect communities as well. When it comes to cuisine, some dialect groups have their own distinct dishes such as the Hainanese Chicken Rice and Hokkien Mee, which is a noodle dish.
Making up around 14 percent of the Singapore population, the Malays are the second-largest racial group in Singapore. The Malays are either descendents of the indigenous people of Singapore or descendents of 200 years worth of Malay migrants from the surrounding areas. The Javanese, Boyanese and Bugis are examples of Malay ethnic groups. Despite being somewhat ethnically different, the Malays in Singapore are all Muslims.
The Malay enclaves that came about due to Raffles’ town plan have remained to a certain extent. Kampong Glam is still a popular Malay district and essentially the heart of the Malay community but other areas like Geylang Serai and Eunos are slowly becoming popular Malay districts as well.
Festivals are important occasions for the Malays and their celebrations are colourful and eye-catching. During Hari Raya Puasa, it is a common sight to see apartments owned by Malays colourfully decorated with bright decorative lights that add much colour to the otherwise drab HDB flats. The festivals are also the best time to see the Malays dressed up in their traditional costumes, such as the baju kurung and baju kebaya. Colourful Malay pastries and cakes known as kuehs are a common sight all year round. Do note that pork is never cooked in Malay food, as Islam forbids it.
Malays in Singapore also enjoy a special status as their historical origins are enshrined in the constitution. Malay is one of the official languages in Singapore and the national anthem is in Malay. The Malays also enjoy free education up to secondary school level.
Singaporean Indians make up roughly 9 percent of the population of Singapore. Like the Chinese, the Indians in Singapore are not a homogeneous racial group and there are different ethnic groups within this broad racial category. Think about all the different dialects and regions within India, and you'll get the idea. Their ancestors were typically young men who came to Singapore as workers, soldiers and convicts after the British colonized Singapore. Approximately 60 percent of the Indians in Singapore are Tamil-speaking. Other languages spoken include Malayalee, Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu and Hindi. Tamil is regarded by the government as the official language of the Indian community in spite of the existence of a variety of other languages spoken within the community.
The Singaporean Indian culture is unique and somewhat different from Indian cultures elsewhere. Their cuisine is spicy and flavourful. Curry is a common Indian dish in Singapore and a variety of different curries can be found. Most of the Indian cuisine available in Singapore originates from South India although Northern Indian cuisine is starting to become popular.
The best time to catch a glimpse of the traditional Indian culture would be during the Indian festivals such as Deepavali, Thimithi and Thaipusam. Each of these festivals are an insightful glimpse into the Indian culture. Thaipusam is particularly popular with tourists as it is quite a sight to witness devotees carrying kavadis pierced into their bodies. The heart of the Indian community is Little India, which is the place to go to experience Indian cuisine, purchase Indian products and textiles and catch a peek at the massive, colourful Hindu temples.
The Eurasian community is the smallest in Singapore, forming roughly 3 percent of the total population. Due to their small size, this community has struggled for years to find their place within Singaporean society which has been dominated by the larger communities. The Eurasians are descendents of Europeans who intermarried with local Chinese, Malays or Indians. Alienated despite being locals, some have chosen to migrate overseas to countries like Australia. However, this trend has slowly changed since the 1960s. Many more Eurasians are choosing to stay put and the community has slowly found its place.
As a consequence of their mixed ancestry, the Eurasian culture is a unique blend of Western and Asian cultures. The majority of Eurasians speak English as their first language but due to the education system in Singapore, many speak a second language as well. Some of the older Eurasians still speak a local Portuguese dialect known as Kristang. The Eurasian community is overwhelmingly Christian, with most being Roman Catholics, although there is an extremely small minority who follow Islam. The mixed ancestry of the community can be best appreciated through Eurasian cuisine, which includes Western roasts and pies such as Shepherd’s Pie but also exotic dishes like the Goan ‘devil curry’ which is a popular Eurasian dish.
The ‘Singaporean Culture’
Each race in multiracial Singapore has its own culture but there is still a uniquely Singaporean ‘culture’. A common thread that runs through most Singaporeans is the notion of being ‘kiasu’. The word comes from the Hokkien dialect and literally translates as "afraid to lose". Always looking for the best deals, haggling over the smallest details or competing amongst one another are some prime examples of kiasuism. Of course, we understand that this is a gross generalization and would not dare to suggest that it refers to every Singaporean.
There are other social norms that make up the Singaporean ‘culture’. It is not uncommon to see Singaporeans in their 30s still living with their parents This stems from two issues. One is that the cost of housing is extremely high and housing legislation makes it much easier for married couples to purchase or rent an apartment. Secondly (and this is connected to the first point), it is the result of the Confucian value espoused by the government of taking care of one’s ageing parents and being filial to them. However, there have been signs that this is practice is slowly changing. As younger Singaporeans are becoming increasingly affluent and influenced by western ideas, the number of young single Singaporeans owning houses or apartments has also been steadily rising.
Increasing affluence has also made Singaporeans frequent travellers. Weekend getaways are extremely common and it is a common sight to see Singaporeans packing their bags for a weekend shopping trip to places like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur only to be back by Monday. Longer holidays are also popular during the months of June and December which are coincidentally the school holidays as well.
Another less savoury aspect of the Singaporean ‘culture’ is the tendency to complain. By listening to the amount of complaints Singaporean have, it is easy to understand why many believe that complaining is a national hobby. Most Singaporeans can and will complain about anything under the sun, be it something serious like the somewhat lack of freedom of speech or something trivial like roads being unevenly paved. Again, this is another generalization, so take it with a pinch of salt.