Tuesday, 8 September 2009

‘New’ Singaporeans: Only Chinese, Malay or Indians Allowed?

No Singaporean ever believes I am a Singaporean. My statement is as accurate as stating night follows day.
In the past, I have written about being a Singaporean.  Now I write about being a Pakistani.

My memory bank does not contain any images of developing Singapore - only the modern, developed city-state
A few days ago a close friend of mine suggested that, despite my protestations, I remained a Pakistani first and a Singaporean second. Is it really worthwhile to argue about such a deeply subjective and emotional question?
It is difficult to say. But, it is hard to deny that on occasion I will be more Pakistani than Singaporean. At other times the opposite will be the case.
Personally, I see nothing wrong with such a duality. It's my own personal form of Yin and Yang and not necessarily an early warning sign of schizophrenia.
Despite the heat and humidity, I do enjoy aimlessly wandering the streets of Singapore. When I do walk the streets phenomena occur.
Being a Pakistani in Singapore brings with it some unique experiences.

Pakistani schoolgirls celebrate at the August 14 Independence Day celebrations, an occasion similar to Singapore's National Day Parade (NDP)
Pakistanis are possibly the only people ever to have their belongings checked at the Admiralty MRT station! Does the highly trained 9 am to 5 pm MRT security staff ever check anyone else at these stations, or am I the only one?
It seems the sweet, old Chinese security 'Aunties' are trained by the US Department of Homeland Security. Hence people of Pakistani origin are automatically singled out as potential security threats. (Is paranoia another symptom of schizophrenia?)
No doubt, I am routinely a victim of racial profiling while travelling by air but the experience at a Singapore subway station left me just a little irritated and slightly puzzled.
Pakistan – where's that - isn't it part of India? Well, yes, like Singapore is part of Malaysia.  How come you don't look Pakistani? Please tell me, what exactly are we supposed to look like - a few extra ears or eyes maybe?
Imran – ah so you are a Muslim. But you don't look Malay? In Singapore, being Muslim is tantamount to being Malay.
There are no generic Muslims in Singapore, only Malay-Muslims. It is also understood that all Muslims speak Malay. I frequently receive requests for money from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (or MUIS) in Malay.
Maybe if I understood what MUIS was saying I would send them money one day.

Lahore's Badshahi Masjid was completed by Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb in 1673 and can accommodate over 100,000 worshippers
Because I am a Muslim, Malay customs, including the mysterious ritual of burying a new born baby's placenta and the (un-Islamic) tradition of female circumcision become part of my culture.
Absolutely wrong.
A Pashtun will threaten you just for looking at his daughter but imagine what he will do if you try and circumcise her. And the idea of burying a placenta sounds more like Scientology than Islam to me.
Of course, I am no learned Mufti.
Chinese girls, and there is an abundance of pretty girls here, hesitate to go out with Muslims because of a perception that Muslims are 'off limits.' The Malay-Muslim men seem to have (selfishly) scared off all the non-Muslim girls through their constant talk of conversions!
Singapore law is mixed (or just confused) in its dealing with Malays.
The Administration of Muslim Law Act places some unusual guidelines  (restrictions?) on the civil rights of Singaporean Muslims. These guidelines, which are often based on Malay tradition, apply to all Singaporean Muslims.
Like the Western media's notion of a monolithic Islamic world, Singapore's micro version of monolithic Islam is to see all Muslims as Malay (and vice versa).
Singapore likes organization and structure, especially where the sensitive topic of race and ethnicity is concerned. But Singaporeans do sometimes get confused about whether I am Malay or Indian.
When in doubt prudence dictates that the truth is legislated. Thus, in order to avoid any confusion Singapore law classifies me unambiguously as an Indian.
Singapore defines Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sinhalese Sri Lankans as Indians. Consequently, all 'Indians,' including me are automatically enrolled into a monthly donation programme operated by state sponsored Singapore Indian Development Institution (Sinda).
Never mind that Pakistan and India are frequently close to war with each other.

In the final analysis, does it really does matter whether I see myself as a Singaporean, a Pakistani, a Pakistani-Singaporean or a Singaporean-Pakistani. Others will always see me through the prism of their own experiences.
However, I must confess that I enjoy painting an exotic and often exaggerated picture of myself for my Singaporean friends.


  1. I think.. You being a Pakistani (non chinese).. Can be one of the reason why the security officer check on you (is it always? ).. Will it make you feel better if I say that the MRT security staff check anyone else and not only you just because you are a Pakistani.. I saw in various MRT stations.. They will do random checking (not based on their race).. and they will mostly check people with luggage or backpack..

    For the Singaporeans' mindset.. about Muslims are Malays and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Srilankans are Indians looks the same for them.. The same way Caucasians look the same to Asians and vice versa...

    To be honest.. If I dun have lots of Indians friend.. Some Bangladeshis, Srilankan and Pakistani.. I wont be able to differentiate them.. and I wouldnt know that there are South Indian and North Indian.. So it depend on who you make friends with and how much u interested in different race..

    For the chinese girls.. I will say most of them.. but not all.. Its not about the way you think muslims man are "off-limit".. but most of the chinese parents will mind if their children went date with muslim.. like I said earlier.. its people's mindset..

  2. Hello Ordinary Me.

    Thanks for your visit and taking the time to write a comment.

    Singapore is a fairly mixed society so I am not sure that being a non-Chinese is the real reason. Possibly the only reason maybe that I did not avoid eye contact with the lady and gave her a nice smile. She must have thought, 'here's a pliable victim; he probably won't object so why not?'

    I do understand it is their job and I have no real reason to object (I guess). Perhaps if I saw them checking other people (I have only ever seen 2 other people being checked at an MRT station)then I will not have felt singled out?

    The Malay-Muslim thing is more about the notion that being a Muslim does not mean one is Malay. It is symptomatic of the 'Muslim equals Malay' mind set that even MUIS sends out its detailed communications in Malay with only the main bits translated into English.

    If anything, given that English is the primary language in Singapore, the communications should be in English with Malay translations of relevant sections.

    Chinese girls - whether it is due to parental pressure or societal pressure, there is an (invisible?) barrier that comes up quite quickly. It is difficult to break it down. Imagine how difficult it would be if I didn't have hair?!

    Thanks again for stopping by and for your comments. Please do keep them coming ...

    Kind regards,


  3. "There are no generic Muslims in Singapore, only Malay-Muslims. It is also understood that all Muslims speak Malay. I frequently receive requests for money from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (or MUIS) in Malay.
    Maybe if I understood what MUIS was saying I would send them money one day."

    Loved that line, somehow. Haha.

  4. Hello.

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment.

    I am really happy you enjoyed the line - I guess sometimes it is nice to be 'generic' and not unique?!

    I hope you will continue to visit and I will hear from you more often.

    Kind regards,


  5. Hey Imran,
    The Malay Muslim "dilemma" is very true for us as you know. When I tell people that my wife, whose surname is Ismail, does not speak any Malay, is a born Catholic and speaks only Teochew & mandarin besides English, I get a ridiculous stare. Usually with an open mouth.

    I suppose Singaporeans should realise that our society has evolved into a blend of races. Its time to change those mindsets that Muslims are Malays or Buddhists are Chinese etc. Why should it matter what our races are and even more so why should it be printed on our identity cards?

    My father is Eurasian and my mother is Chinese. I was born here. What's my ethnicity? Eurasian? but I'm half chinese, quarter Portuguese & quarter Spanish. So maybe I'm Chinese then but but I look Malay!! I'm saying that it does NOT matter...I am a true Singaporean.

    You on the other hand are a new Singaporean. But a Singaporean nevertheless

  6. Hi Melvin,

    It's great to hear from you again and thanks for the comment.

    Your own personal experiences show how misleading (at times) it can be to try to profile individuals based on race.

    Even in the reasonably short time of the last 15 years I myself have seen Singapore grow and evolve into a different society. The old 'race based' political structure is slowly breaking down and giving way to a more 'Singaporean' outlook.

    You are preaching to the converted as far as removing race from ID cards is concerned. After all, my race is 'Pakistani' and I really don't think there is such a race!

    However, given your 'unique' (and distinguished?!) dna maybe it is easier for me to categorize my race than yours??

    As you rightly suggest, maybe it is time to create a new race: Singaporean ...

    Your comments about your personal experiences always add so much color to the discussion and I hope you will keep them coming.

    Kind regards,


  7. Hi Imran,

    As a newly minted Indian-Singaporean who has spent some time in the US, I do find that SG needs to figure out how to address long-held issues of race, religion and language, given the tide of immigration and new citizens. I guess it will be people like us who will have to frame these discussions.

  8. Hi ... Welcome to the fold!

    I agree that new citizens like us have a role to play in framing the discussions. However, I also believe that we must be gracious and sensitive to the feelings of 'true-blue' Singaporeans, many of whom feel threatened by the recent wave of immigrants.

    I hope you will continue to visit my blog and look forward to seeing more comments from you in the future.

    Kind regards,


  9. Singaporeans needs to learn to smile and be more friendly to others, especially foreigners. These people need to improve their way of speaking english and learn to respect others.
    I have seen Singaporeans are not at all friendly and shopping here is a nightmare, due to the language not being spoken properly.
    I generally have observed that Singaporeans keep their attitude very high, which seems to be very much faked one. You must go and learn good manners from countries such as England and India.

  10. Hi. Thank you for your comment. I do not completely agree with your sentiments about Singaporean English, or singlish. I believe singlish sounds rude to 'proper' English speakers because it is short on words and reduces sentence structure to bare basics, but Singaporeans are not being rude. That is just the way of speaking.

    Singlish is a part of local culture - it took me some years to appreciate that fact.

  11. Anonymous: In the future, I will appreciate it if you use more mature language to express your opinion. I do not like to delete comments from my blog.

    Below is the edited comment - the meaning is still abundantly clear:

    Anonymous said (19 December, 2010 23:48): I am also a Pakistani living in Singapore. And so far I had a lovely time living here. Chinese gals may not like to hang around with you because possibly you may too ugly for them.

    If you got problem living in Singapore, then rather then spreading disinformation, ask the ICA to deport you back to Peshawar, where you can open up butchery shop and sell chickens.

  12. Try to use your right half of mind Imran. Logic has obsessed you a lot, overwhelming your ability to feel!

  13. Hello ... Thanks for the tip. I will try to feel more and think less in the future!

  14. Hello Imran,

    I read your post (a few years late) and I know exactly how you feel. Here's the funny part: I'm a 3rd generation Singaporean. All four of my grandparents moved here from North India and both my parents were born and raised here.

    Most Singaporeans (including many local Indians) don't believe it when I tell them I am Indian, mostly because my skin colour is a little fairer than the majority of local Indians here in Singapore who have South Indian origins, and also because I cannot speak Tamil.

    I grew up in a Singapore where the only Indians were South Indians and the only Indian language was Tamil. Things are changing slightly now, but when I was going through school, Hindi was not even a recognized "mother tongue" language. The choices were limited to Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. I took Malay through primary school and had to explain numerous times to my fellow students and teachers why I'm taking Malay (language) despite being neither Malay nor Muslim.

    For better or for worse, Bollywood and the vast number of Indian expats who are moving here have seem to changed most of that. But every now and then, I still get people who try to convince me that I am not Indian and am probably of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean origin.

    1. Hello!

      Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog and post a comment.

      I am glad my experiences are not unusual - at least there is nothing wrong with me! :)

      Yes, the Bollywood films and the large influx of Indians over the last decade or so have made a difference. The 'boxes' defined by the CMIO system are slowly eroding - to the benefit of those of us who do not cleanly fit into any one box.

      I imagine the next generation will also have more choices with language.

      I hope you will continue to regularly visit my blog and share your experiences.

      Kind regards,


  15. With all due respect, I think that your comment:

    "Singapore defines Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sinhalese Sri Lankans as Indians. Consequently, all 'Indians,' including me are automatically enrolled into a monthly donation programme operated by state sponsored Singapore Indian Development Institution (Sinda).
    Never mind that Pakistan and India are frequently close to war with each other" -- is very arrogant, and is simply uncalled for. It also demonstrates a lack of understanding about how this country functions.

    All you are doing is contributing to anti-foreign sentiment in Singapore, which is already stratospherically high to begin with, by assuming that a country that you recently moved to should accommodate your preferences. You are obliged to assimilate into this country. This country doesn't change simply because you're unhappy with the way things are done here. If you're not happy, and if you 'feel more Pakistani than Singaporean', then no-one forced you to take up citizenship here. You made that decision for yourself. It is simply beyond my understanding why people move to other countries, sign the citizenship papers, and then lament about preferring their previous identity. Singapore does not tolerate this.

    But first, some clarification.

    The 'Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans' quip isn't relevant to new citizens. Non-Indian foreigners who decide to take up citizenship here aren't necessarily called 'Indian'. That quote relates to native *Singaporean* Indians. It was made in the context of the colonial era, when India was a single entity, and Singapore and India were governed under the same colonial empire. Indians have been in Singapore for hundreds of years, and the definition of Indian therefore relates to the definition at the point of their entry, aka those who were from united India, which includes Singapore's Tamils, Malayalees, Bengalis (eg. President Nathan's wife), Punjabi Sikhs, and so on.

    But forget about that. There are issues with your reasoning. You're saying that you'd prefer it if the Singapore government decided to categorise up all the separate groups differently simply because you're opposed to the idea of 'Pakistanis' being considered 'Indian'. You even went as far as to say that 'the two countries are at war'. How is that even relevant here? How is that subcontinental squabble relevant here? This is exactly a prime example of 'foreigners importing their differences here', which is exactly what anti-immigration political parties all over the world talk about. Should we now bring in issue of the Chinese Communist Party and the Republic of China and then categorise Singaporean Chinese according to the government they support?

    And regarding the issue of Pakistanis with Singapore citizenship, they're all new citizens. There are technically no 'Pakistanis' in the Singaporean Indian community, because all Muslims in the Singaporean Indian community are of Tamil descent. There are no ethnic Punjabi Muslims or Pashtuns or anything, they've never been a part of our national fabric. Even if there were any, they'd be 4th, 5th gen, and would be Indian in the Singaporean context. You're acting as if Singaporean Indians of various linguistic backgrounds have some kind of affinity for their places of ethnic origin. That's just you extrapolating your own experiences as a foreigner to their country.

    Long story short, things aren't going to change. Not that they should change either, there's nothing wrong with it. I frankly don't see what problem you're talking about here.