Long-Distance Nationalism in Singapore: a Model for Open Identities

[This article was originally published in SIPA News]

By Priyam Saraf

Bhaskar still remembers the day when the phone rang in his old family home in the north of Kolkata. “We are pleased to offer you a tuition grant to come study in Singapore,” said the dean of Singapore Management University. The grant came with a contract to work in a Singapore-based company for three years after graduation.

The decision was not an easy one. India was the only home Bhaskar had ever known—Indian is his only national identity. No one in his family held a passport, had boarded an airplane, or traveled abroad. If he accepted the grant, he would commit to spending at least seven years in a very foreign country; if he rejected it, he might miss the opportunity of a lifetime. And Bhaskar doesn’t like missing opportunities.

For Bhaskar, and countless other Indian immigrants to Singapore, life in the city-state is an experiment in open identities. A person can be Indian in his cultural habits, cuisine preferences, and choice of partner, but still very Singaporean in how they approach a problem, their predisposition for efficiency, and their views on the government’s role in development. This is a place where long-distance nationalism thrives.

“Singapore opened doors for me, while letting me keep my links to India,” says Bhaskar, now a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy near Boston. “I remember celebrating the Indian Independence Day while working on a policy paper for a government agency in Singapore.”

But when asked where he considers home, Bhaskar pauses before answering. “I feel connected to Singapore where my friends are, but I go back to India often.” He discusses Singaporean politics with as much ease as he analyses the pros and cons of the education reservation system in India.

After years of liberal immigration policies, Singapore has emerged as a pioneer in both practicing and defining open identities. It is an interesting strain of nationalism that is a product of the city-state’s historical origins. With limited human and natural resources at independence in 1965, Singapore determined that economic success would hinge on its ability to attract the skilled labor necessary for multinational companies to consider relocating to the island. This in turn would boost employment, driving the city-state’s economy.

This is where talented immigrants like Bhaskar fit into Singapore’s impressive growth story from a Southeast Asian backwater to global financial powerhouse. A good part of that success can be attributed to Singapore’s open attitude toward what it means to be Singaporean. A long-time resident and taxpayer of Singapore, Bhaskar felt he could choose whether to take up Singaporean citizenship, or not. There was no pressure.

He preferred to retain his Indian nationality, which he views as a ticket to participate in Indian politics in the future, should he choose to do so. And he is hardly alone. According to the 2011 census, Singapore counts 62 percent of its population of approximately 5.1 million as citizens of other countries.

Some Indian immigrants have chosen different paths. Padmini came to Singapore to study engineering on a Singapore Airlines scholarship at the age of 17 and has lived there since. Unlike Bhaskar, Padmini decided to take Singaporean citizenship available to her. Her reasons were both personal and professional. “I really like Singapore, and my entire social network is in Singapore,” she says. “Plus, I want to work in development, and having a strong passport like Singapore helps.” She explains that as a Singaporean she does not face the same visa requirements that Indian nationals do for most countries.

Still, she retains firm ties to her native India. This past October, she married Abhishek, a PhD student in metaphysics from her hometown of Madurai in Southern India.

The stories of Bhaskar and Padmini demonstrate the interesting interplay between personal choice and the extent of affiliation to Singapore. Highly skilled immigrants who live and work in Singapore for years may or may not be inclined to become Singaporean citizens, which mandates two years of compulsory military service for their children. But this has not deterred Singapore from promoting an open door policy that continues to attract human capital from around the world to meet its own developmental ends.

The result of this policy has been a population that is overwhelmingly pluralistic in terms of the composition of its citizenships, and a decidedly 21st century view of national identity. Unlike in the past, where the state could assume the affiliation of those born within its borders, immigrants to Singapore, like Bhaskar and Padmini, are able to define new identities individually, which are characterized more by the sum of their parts than any accident of origin. As their stories attest—Indian upbringings and Singaporean educations, a Singaporean passport and an Indian husband, Singaporean profession and Indian political ambitions— multiple identities and long-distance nationalism are a reality they have selected for themselves.

In purely economic terms, Bhaskar and Padmini faced an unconstrained optimization problem: which national affiliation to choose while optimizing for multiple needs? How to define an identity while discounting factors of initial endowment, family status, ethnicity, race, religion, and, perhaps, even caste?

Singapore has been smart to let them answer these questions on their own. As an island of open identities, Singapore implicitly recognizes the weakness of geographic lock-in and the fickle nature of national affiliation stemming from this reality—especially among the small segment of highly skilled and mobile workers. Allowing those who arrive in Singapore to obtain work and residence permits easily and define their level of “Singaporean-ness” on their own terms makes immigrants feel at home—and prolong their stay in the city-state as productive contributors to the local economy. They become both inputs and outputs of the local culture and norms.

But not all Singaporean citizens are keen on keeping Singapore such an open place for immigrants, or a haven for long-distance nationalism. They feel this culture of open identities undermines the building of a unique Singaporean identity and cultivating patriotism. “Immigrants take away our jobs, but shy away from taking on responsibilities that come with citizenship,” complains Allen, a second-year Singaporean engineering student. ”Why is there a tradeoff between growth and patriotism for our country? It’s unfair,” says Allen decidedly.

Allen is not alone in his views. But while such concerns may yield political dividends, as evidenced by some of the anti-immigration sentiment surrounding the May 2011 general election, the emergence of an insular or exclusive nationalism in Singapore could prove not only damaging to the island’s growth model, but also create a distance from the city-state’s founding principles of meritocracy.

That fateful day Bhaskar received a phone call from the dean of Singapore Management University, he was faced with a choice. Would he enter into long-distance nationalism with India or not, even if for a measurable period of time? But as the experiences of both Bhaskar and Padmini show, this is a question many students in developing countries face today. By placing few burdens on students, Singapore makes answering this question easier. Singapore is a place where those who cross its path can feel a sense of belonging and affiliation, while retaining strong connections with where they originated.

The world has much to gain from Singapore’s pioneering example of open identities. By leaning toward a tried and turbulent form of ethnocentric nationalism, Singapore has much to lose.



NOTE: the names in this article have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

Priyam Saraf is a second-year MPA candidate concentrating in Economic and Public Development at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

[Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock]

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