5 M’sians working in S’pore answer your favourite question: Eh, why are you still M’sian?
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
“Eh, you’re still a Malaysian?”
We were asked by the Mothership editors to answer this question:
“Why are you still Malaysian (even though you have been living and working in Singapore for a long time)?”.
Here are our responses.
Jun Lem, 27, living & working in Singapore for 12 years
Every other conversation about the general elections, Mahathir, and the future will inevitably lead to me being asked the following question, in varying tones, volumes, and expressions:
“You’re not Singaporean yet?”
Occasionally, the flip-side of the question is raised instead, and is equally troubling:
“You’re planning to stay a Malaysian citizen?”
Cue the slight awkward silence, followed by a dismissive “haha see how” and the internal “faster change topic” monologue. Most of the time, the groups oblige, and we move on to talk about Malaysian food, rising living costs, and most recently, that auntie who forced the MRT doors open.
More seriously though, these inevitable questions demand inevitable answers. I have none. Culturally, I identify with both places and yet I belong to neither, as friends and relatives on both sides of the Causeway can testify. There are many Malaysians like me, stuck in the middle, who have eventually had the question answered for them by their own circumstances.
What’s curious is that the questions are always asked in such a matter-of-fact manner, as if this was a purely rational decision with only one outcome. For me, and for many people on the same boat in disputed waters, the question is more emotional than it is rational. The feelings of love and patriotism, optimism for the future, nostalgia and camaraderie, a desire to repay kindnesses that can never be fully repaid, and a sense of belonging… and many other factors left unpacked.
How frustrating. It’s like being told that in my 27 years of life shared almost equally across two countries, I can only pick one identity to carry with me, and the leftover is a façade for whenever I need to buy something at a third of the price across the border.
In time, I’ve come to realise that the best answer is no answer (it’s another matter altogether whether I’ve come to terms with it). After all, maybe it was a false dichotomy to begin with. As much as it sounds like a cliché, and regardless of my opinion on the matter, my heart already belongs to both Singapore and Malaysia, national boundaries be damned.
Ji En, 26, living & working in Singapore for 12 years
Love Singapore. Love Malaysia.
Years ago, I remember reading a Facebook post shared by a friend, where she shared how painful it was for her to give up her Malaysian citizenship to become a Singaporean.
My first thought was: “damn, I wouldn’t want to go through what she’s going through now”.
And I have been lucky to not have to experience that thus far, because I am privileged enough to not be hamstrung by my nationality.
Whenever people hear that I am a Malaysian who has been in Singapore for more than 11 years, they automatically assume that I would have converted to become a Singaporean. And when I tell them that I have not, they would be shocked, and advise me to quickly get it sorted out because it is getting harder and harder to become a citizen.
In response, I would ask them: so what if I become Singaporean today?
I don’t think it will change how much I love both countries.
I will still love the people in Malaysia. My family. My primary schoolmates, my fellow Bersih rally-goers, and the auntie who served me chap fan every day when I was a kid. I will still love the Petronas ads that conjure up all my feelings and nostalgia for Malaysia. I will still love going to my favourite mamak stall that randomly started under the big tree (I’m serious, no one knows what the stall’s name is, and we just call it the Big Tree Head mamak), and chatting with my friends over teh-tarik until 3am.
And so what if I am still a Malaysian? As long as I am alive, I will still care about Singapore and will always do my best to contribute to this beautiful place which helped shape who I am today. Also, I will forever love a messy plate of Hainanese curry rice with scissors-cut pork chop.
I am doing what I can by helping to build communities in Singapore (e.g. Legal Hackers Singapore) and helping to make Singapore a hub for legal innovation in the region with the upcoming Asia-Pacific Legal Innovation & Technology Association.
My housemate, who is also Malaysian, is always the first one in the estate to hang the Singapore flag during the National Day celebrations period.
My point is, asking Malaysians when they are going to convert, or asking them where their loyalty lies etc, is like your partner asking you:
“If your mother and I fall into the longkang at the same time, who would you save?”
Assuming you love both your mom and your partner, there will never be a right answer, and any answer to that question would be meaningless.
Ultimately, even if I do become a Singaporean someday, it will not be due to a change of heart. It would probably be driven by other circumstances in a world where rising nationalism forces one to take a side (or at least appear to take a side).
In the same vein, even if I do return to Malaysia someday, it will not stop me from caring about Singapore. It would probably be due to how I feel I might be more useful in contributing to a better Malaysia (and how Singapore seems to be in good hands). I am eternally grateful to Singapore, and I will forever remember that.
Love Malaysia. Love Singapore.
Xing Ji, 30, living & working in Singapore for 14 years
I came to Singapore when I was 17 and have been living here for almost half my life.
People ask, “Why are you still Malaysian even though you’ve lived and worked in Singapore for so long?”
I’m not surprised that people ask; historically, it is the most natural thing in the world for people born in Malaysia to come to Singapore, settle down, and eventually become Singaporeans.
- Fun fact #1: of the first Cabinet of Singapore, everyone but Lee Kuan Yew and S Rajaratnam was born in what is now Malaysia.
- Fun fact #2: the first 3 Chief Justices of independent Singapore were all born in Malaysia.
- Fun fact #3: there are more than half a million Malaysians working in Singapore.
Anyway, I digress.
On one level, I suppose I am grateful that Singapore welcomes Malaysians to become Singaporeans with such open arms.
The other way to read the question though is, “why haven’t you given up your Malaysian citizenship to become a Singaporean, when it is obvious that being Singaporean is the superior choice?”
I make that observation on the basis that people rarely ask the same question of Australians, Americans, or Europeans, and I suspect Singaporeans are just as welcoming of people of those nationalities (if not more).
The other funny thing about the question is that it assumes the only reason I am not a Singaporean is because I have not applied to become one. People cannot seem to fathom that my application could actually be rejected.
Jiin Joo, 39, living & working in Singapore for 22 years
We came here to build this city, but the city built us.
Someone’s always playing corporation games
Who cares they’re always changing corporation names
We just want to dance here, someone stole the stage
They call us irresponsible, write us off the page
Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio, don’t you remember
We built this city, we built this city on rock an’ roll
I was one of the lucky “foreign talent” who was awarded an undergraduate scholarship for my education. The name of the scholarship was “Singapore Inc Scholarship” (SIS) by EDB (no longer exists, this was circa Y2K). As the name suggests, Singapore operates as a coherent economic unit, like a corporation, and desired people like me to come build it up like a business without natural resources – rock and (pay)roll.
I think I did most of my part well. 7+ years bonded work life, tech startup that feeds 10+ families, arranged indigenous music to fill the concert halls, paid full price to upgrade my HDB’s lift, performed, exported and stood by our SME products, wrote minister speeches, brought people together for business, social causes, mentor, mentor, mentor, and of course, paid taxes.
Two years ago I tried to apply for Maju Camp SAFVC (SAF Volunteer Corps, in case you were wondering), didn’t get in, but it gave me a good chance to reflect on what matters. I decided to apply when I found out #2 would also be a girl. Since there would be no army boy in the family I thought I could be one, even if it’s not mandated by birth. I continue to find ways to give more than I take, to return the hospitality I have received in my adopted home.
Maybe the identity of being a Malaysian is exactly what I yearn for in my existence in Singapore. There’s a quiet pride in working in a foreign land, yet identifying deeply with local culture, showing interest in local issues, and participating in local foraging of money and meaning. By allowing myself to call two places home, I can choose to become a person who is kind to both countries, as both countries are kind to me – like the fast passport lanes I get to zoom through at both KLIA and Changi.
In helping to build Singapore Inc, I have become the enterprising Malaysian built by Singapore.
Suan, 32, living & working in Singapore for 9 years
The concept of identity, as tied to the imagined communities of nationhood, is complex, dynamic, and difficult to pin down.
Identity, as experienced by individuals and manifest in things like sense of belonging, community, and shared values and norms, can feel even more nebulous and woolly to explain.
These are the reasons why I have never quite been able to respond intelligently to questions about how ‘Malaysian vs. Singaporean’ I feel. While well-meaning and rooted in genuine curiosity, this dichotomy feels hollow and non-representative of my lived experiences and sentiments as a Malaysian in Singapore, and how the two have shaped each other over time.
What I do deeply recognise, however, is that I do not feel perfectly aligned with one ‘identity’ or another.
As such, instead of responding to the question of ‘Why I’m still Malaysian’, I raise some alternative questions that may shed more light on our experiences.
What do we think makes us Malaysian?
What facets of our identities do we consider integral to our ‘Malaysianness’?
How do these manifest themselves in our lives and experiences in Singapore?
What facets of identity do we feel are uniquely Singaporean?
How have we grown to adopt and embody these facets of ‘Singaporeanness’ as our own?
What values and norms do we share?
What have we learned from our experiences in each place?
How do these learnings come together to create a sense of identity that is more nuanced and interesting than the sum of its parts?
Regardless of logic, argument, persuasion, or reason, in the end, both Sudirman’s ‘Balik Kampung’ and Kit Chan’s ‘Home’ elicit the same quiet warmth in my chest because Malaysia has given me roots and Singapore has given me wings. And in my heart of hearts, I am proud and grateful to belong to and be a child of both places.
It’s not the right question to ask
If there is one consistent thread across these five different views, it would be that “why are you still Malaysian (even though you have been living and working in Singapore for a long time)?” may not be the right question to ask.
There may be a thousand and one reasons why people may convince you to think that this question is important, but it really is not. Who we are, what we do, whom we love, these are the things which truly matter at the end of the day — and they are not defined by our nationality.
In a world that increasingly sees every interaction between nations as a competition in a zero sum game, perhaps we should be more embracing of those who can call multiple places home with all sincerity.
Top photo courtesy of all the wonderful Malaysians who contributed to this piece.