Integration in Singapore: A two-way street
People & Society Articles

Integration in Singapore: A two-way street


It’s natural for locals to expect that newcomers subscribe to local norms and values, and Singapore is no different. In turn, locals can also widen their horizons by understanding the ethnic and cultural diversity that foreigners and immigrants bring with them. ‘Integration’, then, is not only the process of helping newcomers adjust to living in Singapore, but also the ways in which locals welcome and appreciate the foreigners in their midst.

Integration necessitates compromises and commitment. For an immigrant, integration can be a challenging process – adopting mannerisms, niceties, conventions and new rules of social interaction means that the newcomer has to relearn many ways of behaving that would otherwise come naturally to him or her. Simple things like how loudly one can speak in public (something that comes with habit) or how much personal space is expected between people can differ widely across cultures, and changing learned behaviours when moving countries requires time and effort.

For the locals on the other hand, being part of the integration process also requires a conscious effort, to welcome those who are different and to play a role in educating newcomers about our culture and norms. It sometimes requires putting aside biases and being patient as newcomers learn about our way of life.

Are Singaporeans anti-foreigner?

Many Singaporeans today have concerns when it comes to foreigners. Indeed, integration is a complex and nuanced issue, and many locals have mixed feelings.

James Tan (not his real name), a Singaporean in his 60s, feels that the country has become overpopulated, and says this inconveniences locals who have to share space in many ways. He feels that some foreigners “speak rather loudly wherever they are, especially in public buses, MRT trains and public areas.”

A variety of videos circulated on YouTube and other social media platforms explored the social perceptions surrounding foreigners. In one video series, Singaporeans were filmed reading tweets to migrant workers, which included comments like: “A group of Indian construction workers just started crowding next to me, I cannot breathe! Damn smelly! They don’t know how to shower is it?” The series also presented the foreign workers’ side of the story. On being called smelly, workers explained that manual work in Singapore’s tropical climate is a factor.

In another video, Singaporeans were quoted saying: “There’s a perception that sometimes they (foreign workers) cause crime and sometimes maybe they take away jobs…” However, the video also quoted Singaporeans who acknowledged the tough and essential work that these foreign workers do – building our roads and hospitals and keeping our streets clean.

These videos hint at changing attitudes towards foreigners who are here to do manual labour. Another gripe today is in relation to higher-skilled foreigners, the segment of foreigners Singaporeans socialise with more frequently.

Sylvia Yap, a 28-year old Singaporean feels that “There are some foreigners – not from any particular country – who seem arrogant. It’s frustrating when they think they are superior to locals and criticise us."

“Sometimes foreigners like to stick to their own communities. I think they should respect the locals by making an effort to get to know them,” says another young Singaporean, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Of course, our discomfort with those who are deemed as ‘the other’ may stem from not knowing the other culture or understanding how different social norms play out.

Juan Mendez, a Spanish citizen in his 40s, who has lived in Singapore for over 3 years, says: “In my country, when a foreigner is lost or needs help, he can ask anyone in the street and almost every local will be happy to help. But in Singapore, people are more reserved… not just with foreigners, but also with anyone they don't know.”

Integration is a two-way street

Marius Hartmann, a 27-year old Swiss engineer working in the city-state appreciates a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon – “I like the fact that people from different nationalities and religions live harmoniously with each other here.”

Is it possible to envision a society where mutual appreciation, trust, tolerance and respect are extended not only to the rojak of cultures that make up the Singaporean society we are used to, but also to newcomers in our midst?

Beyond complaints about Singaporeans’ frustrations with foreigners, there are also anecdotes of new friendships formed and enriching cross-cultural exchanges.

Sylvia has been a part of a Spanish language group in Singapore for more than three years now. A mix of Singaporeans and foreigners from Spain, South America, Malaysia, China, Korea, the UK and Germany, her group began meeting regularly regular with the aim of practising and studying Spanish. They soon started organising parties, exercise sessions, Sunday brunches, movie nights, travel activities and even go Pokémon hunting together.

Sylvia says: “I’m a person who is curious about cultures, and in Singapore it’s good that we have this diversity and the opportunity to know about different cultures and food even without travelling to a particular country.”

Even as Sylvia helps welcome her foreign friends to feel at home here, she enjoys their company. “The people are fun to hang out with, genuine, down-to-earth and open-minded. I love it!” she says.

Marius and Greg along their HDB corridor in Woodlands.

Greg Gomes, 66 year old Singaporean says that he enjoys having foreigners around, especially those who make an effort to understand local culture. He has become good friends with his neighbour, Marius (also interviewed above), despite their age difference.

Since Marius moved into a HDB flat in Woodlands, Greg has prepared many Singaporean meals for him and enjoys teaching him colloquialisms. Greg raves about how well Marius can now say “wah lau eh” and can take enough spice to rival any Singaporean.

“Marius is a very friendly person, and is very open to just about anything and everything,” says Greg.

Small stories, big successes

An important step to integration is negotiating conflicting feelings, looking beyond ‘the other’, expanding our worldview, and focusing on the commonalities.

The effort to integrate does not have to revolve around big initiatives. Integration ultimately boils down to what happens between people, and small day-to-day activities can have a big impact.

Marius talks about his experiences with Greg’s family. “Greg and his family sometimes use some Singlish expressions that I don’t get, but of course they explain it. They also say ‘you need to try this dish or that’, which are things I might have missed if they hadn’t mentioned it. They explain cultural behaviours to me, such as what to do at a Malay wedding, and what the paper burning is about during the (Hungry) Ghost Festival. That really helped me understand Singaporean culture and people a lot better.”

Marius has enjoyed “becoming a bit more Singaporean”, sharing that he is currently learning Malay through children’s books borrowed from the library.

On the question of how language can lead to a smoother integration, many foreigners share the view that learning the local way of speaking is an entry into local culture.

Juan Mendez says: “I enjoy learning Singlish, which is a very interesting language and represents the mix of cultures in Singapore. Integrating in Singapore is much easier when you understand Singlish and participate in local activities, weddings and festivals such as Chinese New Year and Deepavali.”

Jin Zhuoyan (fourth from right) at a gathering with her Singaporean friends.

Similarly, Jin Zhuoyan came to Singapore from China 11 years ago to study, and appreciates how welcoming her Singaporean schoolmates were and the effort they put in to help her settle into Singapore.

“In secondary school I was assigned a local guardian. I was invited to visit her family for Chinese New Year. On Racial Harmony Day, the whole class dressed up in Indian sarongs,” she says.

“When I went to university, there were even more interactions as I wanted to blend into the local environment. I have been invited for Hari Raya at my classmate’s house. I also celebrate Christmas with friends. One of my favourite memories is that of the senior batch in university organising a Joo Chiat food trail for me when I told them that I did not know what popiah was.” Today, Zhuoyan needs no encouragement to try different foods and enjoys going out to have local cuisine.

When asked about her favourite thing in Singapore, Zhuoyan, who is now a Singapore Permanent Resident, says: “The international and open environment in Singapore. (Also the fact that) at the same time I can still keep in touch with my Chinese heritage.”

The experiences of people such as Marius and Zhuoyan point to an important truth about Singaporean society – that Singaporeans take pride in our ability to respect others, live harmoniously, and thrive amidst differences.

Integration is always going to be a tough journey, both for foreigners adapting to new norms, and for locals adapting to the presence of foreigners in our community. Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge how challenging integration can be and begin a societal-wide dialogue on how we can progress. With some flexibility, the willingness to extend the hand of friendship and a lot of understanding, the journey can be made a lot smoother and more fun.

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