Many tourists come to Singapore for the shopping or the sights, but I love the people. Most often, when you travel in foreign lands, the people you meet are other international travelers. In Singapore, however, the friends you make are many times Singaporean -- perhaps it's because of the common language or perhaps because Singaporeans are very open to Western culture.
The median age of the population is around 37, with most Singaporeans struggling to juggle work and family responsibilities the same as in any other post-industrialized country. While most Singaporeans of both sexes tend to focus on educational and career goals, most also marry later and have children later, a trend that has left the government worried about a declining birth rate. Yet even with these demands, your average Singaporean never loses sight of "Asian family values" that encourage children to live with and care for their aging parents -- many households are multigenerational.
There's an ever-present image consciousness fuelled by heavy consumerism. Fashion, cars, and social scenes are "in." Money is in. Success is in. Young Singaporeans strive for what they call the 5Cs -- career, condo, car, cash, and credit cards -- and it sometimes seems they'll stop at nothing to achieve them.
As with any modern culture, while the younger generations are busy finding their niche in the world, it is the older generations who keep traditional cultures alive. In 2010, Singapore's total population measured 5.08 million; of that number, 3.77 million are residents, while the rest are foreigners. The resident population is a mix of Chinese (74%), Malay (13%), Indians (9.4%), and others (3.6%), including Eurasians. Though the country is overwhelmingly Chinese, the government has embraced all local heritage, recognizing religious holidays and festivals and promoting racial harmony in its policies as part of its plan to foster a single national identity molded from the disparate cultural backgrounds of the Singaporean populace.
Unfortunately, this government social planning may have contributed to one of the common problems that plague Singapore's younger generations today: a lack of identity. No longer solely immersed in the traditions of their own ethnic groups and with traditional values being rapidly replaced by commercialism, it's not surprising to hear so many young people ask, "Who am I?"
In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles established a port in Singapore for the British East India Company, junkloads of Chinese immigrated to find their fortunes. Most were poor workers from China's southern regions who brought with them different cultures and dialects from their respective places of origin. Of the mix, the Hokkiens from Fujian Province are the largest percentage of Chinese in Singapore, at 42%, followed by the Teochews, of Guangdong province, the Cantonese, also from Guangdong; the Hakkas, from central China; and finally the Hainanese, from Hainan island (near Hong Kong), at 6%.
Most Chinese consider themselves Buddhist, following the dharma of the Buddha, who taught that all life is suffering and the only way to relieve suffering is to dispel desire. Early immigrants brought Buddhism from China with them, of a sect called Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle, the branch of Buddhism that also claims Tibetan and Zen Buddhist traditions.
Almost every Chinese is Taoist to some degree. Tao is as much a philosophy as a religion. Tao, meaning "the way," follows the belief in an energy source that permeates all living and nonliving creatures and objects in the universe. Followers strive to live a life of simplicity that is in harmony with "the way"; many Taoist rituals involve superstition and magic.
Tao is the philosophy behind feng shui, or Chinese geomancy, laws of nature that dictate how buildings and spaces should be situated and the furnishings placed inside, as well as the reasoning behind Chinese traditional medicine that uses herbs and natural remedies to keep good "chi," or energy, flowing throughout the body.
Chinese tradition is also filled with rich tales of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, who watch over the physical world. In Singapore you find statues in temples for Ma Cho Po, the Mother of Heavenly Sages, who protects sailors and other travelers, and Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy -- these are only two of a number of gods and goddesses of Chinese legend who still play important roles in the everyday lives of local Singaporeans.
Characteristically, the Chinese are very superstitious, with numbers playing a critical role in everyday decisions, preferring auspicious numbers for automobile license plates and choosing dates that contain lucky numbers for business openings and wedding dates. Here's another superstition -- don't leave your chopsticks sticking up in your rice bowl; it invites hungry ghosts.
Good Vibrations -- Chinese geomancy, also known as feng shui, has made a mark on the Singapore landscape. Nowhere is this practice more evident than at Suntec City. The combined convention center, shopping mall, and office space occupies five towers. Placed in a semicircle, the towers represent the five digits of an open hand. In the center, an unusual round fountain, the largest fountain in the world, sprays water inward. As water means wealth, the fountain is a symbol of money flowing into a hand.
When Raffles arrived, Malays had already inhabited the island, fishing the waters and trading with other local seafaring people, and many more were to migrate from the mainland in the decades to follow.
Although Singapore's Malay population is very low in numbers today, the language on the street is Malay, some of the best-loved local dishes are Malay, and even the national anthem is sung in Malay. The shame is that while Malays are recognized as the original inhabitants, they constantly feel marginalized by the dominant Chinese culture and policy. In addition, this group represents an unbalanced percentage of the lower-income classes, with the lowest levels of education and the highest number of criminal offenders. The government prides itself on policies to promote racial harmony, but it is widely accepted that Malays occupy jobs on the low end of the pay scale. Even in the military, while there are many Malays in the enlisted troops, there are almost none in the officer ranks.
However, Singaporeans acknowledge that the Malays have the greatest sense of community in Singapore. Families still congregate around the neighborhood mosque, and there's a greater sense of charity and commitment to helping those less fortunate.
Virtually every Malay is Muslim, either practicing or nonpracticing, following the teachings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Singaporean Muslims tend to be moderate in their beliefs and very open toward those of other faiths. You will, however, notice that quite a few eat only halal food, prepared according to strict Islamic dietary laws. And while some women choose to wear a tudung, a scarf to cover their heads, it is purely by choice. Traditional Malay women have a great sense of style; their kurau baju, long, flowing tunics, often show off lively colors. But don't be surprised if you see younger Malays in the clubs drinking alcohol.
Until recently, the Peranakans, also called Straits Chinese, were a little-known subculture of the colonial era that grew out of intermarriage between the Chinese and the Malays. But recent trends to embrace Singapore's heritage has rekindled interest in this small yet influential group who are unique to Singapore and Malaysia.
In the early days of Singapore, immigration of Chinese women was forbidden, so many Chinese men found wives within the native Malay population. The resultant ethnic group combined characteristics of each culture but found a middle ground in language and religion, which tended to be English and Christianity, respectively. This mixed heritage allowed them to become strong economic and political players, often serving as middlemen with Chinese, Europeans, and other locals. Singapore's early towkays (big bosses) were mostly Peranakan -- in fact, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself is of this cultural background.
Peranakan literally means "Straits-born," so technically speaking, all people born in Singapore and Malaysia can argue they are Peranakan, and in a lot of literature you may see the term used broadly. Today, though, with many Singaporeans able to trace their heritage to this ethnic group, a heritage society has developed to support their interests and keep their culture alive.
Many Indians were aboard Raffles's ship when it first landed on the banks of the Singapore River, making this group some of Singapore's earliest recorded immigrants. In the following decades, many more Indians would follow to find work and wealth. Some found positions in the government as clerks, teachers, policemen, and administrators, following the English colonial administration set by the British Raj in India. Others were moneylenders and financiers. Still more were laborers who came to make a buck.
In 1825, hundreds of Indians who had been imprisoned in Bencoolen (in Sumatra) were transferred to Singapore, where they worked as laborers. These convicts built many of the government buildings and cathedrals -- for instance, St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sri Mariamman Temple, and the Istana -- and worked on heavy-duty municipal projects. Eventually, they served their sentences and assimilated into society, many remaining in Singapore.
While most Indian immigrants were from the southern regions of India, there is still great diversity within the community. The largest group by far is the Tamils, but you'll also find Malayalis, Punjabis, and Gujaratis. So despite Little India's reputation as an Indian enclave, the Indian population is actually split into groups based on social divisions and settled in pockets all over the city. The Indians were also divided by religious affiliation, with factions split between Islam and Hinduism, which revolves around the holy trinity of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, but includes many, many other deities; other groups include Sihks and Christians as well.
The Indians tend to be an informal and warm people, adding their own brand of casual ease to Singapore life. But any Singaporean will tell you that one of the most precious contributions the Indians made is their cuisine. Indian restaurants are well patronized by all ethnic groups because the southern Indian vegetarian cooking is the only food that can be enjoyed by all Singaporeans, no matter what cultural or religious dietary laws they may have.
Indians tend to be some of the most open critics of Singapore, feeling overwhelmed by a Chinese government many feel promotes Chinese culture.
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