Side Views

New approaches to citizenship — Liew Kai Khiun

APRIL 19 — Citizenship is often associated with the contemporary nation-state. However, the question of belonging, allegiance and loyalty, and citizenship’s reciprocal status and privileges, has been an issue since British rule was established in Malaya. For example, colonial hegemony was founded upon a complex web of social hierarchies, comprised of constitutional Malay monarchs, Anglicised Asian and Eurasian compradors who were given the status of Crown subjects, and the masses of migrant coolies and indigenous peasants.

Even among the ethnic Chinese community, hierarchies distinguished the more privileged, Western-educated Straits Chinese (Peranakans) from the new arrivals (Sinkehs).

Since it came to power in 1959 under the premiership of Lee Kuan Yew, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s social contract, with a populace classified into four main races, has been defined along material terms — the provision of security, accessible housing, education and healthcare.

Lee was succeeded in 1991 by Goh Chok Tong, who described the fundamental social difference as one between the cosmopolitans and heartlanders with their differing world views and lifestyles.

Nonetheless, from our common experiences of hawker centres, schools and, most importantly, the Housing and Development Board flats housing about 90 per cent of the population, nation-building engendered shared memories and bonds. This sense of collective identity was buttressed by the provision of low-cost housing, education and healthcare that facilitated the promise of social mobility.


Accustomed for decades to defining citizenship materially according to legalities, provisions and entitlements, the government may now be faced with a new challenge in meeting the desire for a deeper, yet more amorphous, sense of belonging.

The past decade has changed the country’s social contours and, with it, ideas and ideals of citizenship. The new wealth and fluid population have produced three preliminary new classes.

At the top, the first category can be termed the “brought and bought” highly mobile elite and privileged core of both Singaporeans and expatriates. Closely networked via their alma maters of prestigious foreign universities, as well as along professional lines and even common pastimes, this increasingly closed circle is often parachuted or brought in to helm major organisations and projects.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I would describe as the “burdened and burdensome” bottom strata of migrant workers taking on the dangerous jobs, while low-income citizens have to be sustained by state financial assistance. Living in rental apartments, dormitories or shoebox rooms, this group is largely out of sight of the glitzy world of the “brought-and-boughts”.


Sandwiched in the middle are what I would call the “born-and-bred” average Singaporeans and some permanent residents who have dutifully lived the Singaporean way of life.

Comprising mostly the middle-income, middle-management and PMET (Professional, Managerial, Executive and Technical) crowd, the “born-and-bred” not only perceive their aspirations thwarted by the parachuting in of expatriates and overseas-educated scholars into senior positions; they also see their jobs as being threatened by the arrival of cheaper foreign workers on S Passes.

In such an environment, the collective networks, knowledge and memories built up by the formative experiences of schooling, national service and university become less valued in workplaces where the Singaporean is increasingly a minority.

Faced also with the escalating cost of living, the fruits of citizenship seem to be getting less sweet for these “born-and-bred” Singaporeans.

So far, the debate has been largely focused on the conferment of privileges and entitlements and the attendant provisions and benefits. Citizenship and residency as thus defined have established divisive social hierarchies.

On many occasions, the debates become ugly with parties denigrating and stereotyping one another. While the government is aware of these frustrations, its policies so far have been mostly economic in nature. Perhaps a fundamental recalibration of the whole concept of citizenship is in order — one that would give Singaporeans a sense of ownership and non-Singaporeans a sense of recognition of their contributions.


At the first level, there is an urgent need to restore the sense of ownership for the “born-and-bred” group, by making the local workplace more recognisably Singaporean, if not Singaporean-ising it.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Singaporeans were at the forefront of building brand names like Singapore Airlines, Changi Airport, Creative Technology and Tiger Beer.

Today, we seem to be more interested in paying top dollar to purchase brand names from the outside in order to appear world class. Here, whether it is the architect, engineer or CEO, it is time for Singaporeans to be given more opportunities to take charge of the land they call home.

While localising the workplace, one must not lose sight of non-Singaporeans’ contributions (beyond just financial indicators) if we are keen to have a more inclusive society.

We need a broader version of citizenship to encompass the more intangible aspects of social and cultural citizenship, measured in terms of “community capital”, “givings” and “living”.


While the investment banker may rake in millions, it is actually foreign domestic workers and nurses who have been directly shouldering the burdens of society; their efforts cannot be measured in mere dollars and cents.

In this respect, community capital should deserve equal consideration as financial capital, in terms of how long the individual has invested in the local community as much as in the stock markets.

Similarly, there are also many expatriates, especially their spouses, who have been involved in many charities and welfare organisations as volunteers, from museum docents to helpers at soup kitchens. For such non-Singaporean volunteers, the effort of “givings” rather than “earnings” should be given greater weightage in the assessment of their residency status.

Lastly, while certain foreign celebrities are given almost instant citizenships, there are cases of foreigners “born and bred” here who are made to leave the country due to issues of parentage. Rather than “living in Singapore”, perhaps the criteria for their residency and citizenship should be “living Singapore”.

For close to 50 years of nation-building as an independent Singapore, most of us enjoyed not just the rights and protection but also the trappings of being a Singaporean citizen in a prosperous city-state.

For the subsequent generations, I do hope that they transcend the boundaries of the “brought and bought”, “born and bred” and “burdened and burdensome” to achieve a more enduring and intangible sense of citizenry that is active, cultural and inclusive.

Only then would the sense of belonging and identity be organically Singaporean. — Today

* Liew Kai Khiun is an assistant professor from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.



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