Sunday, 11 August 2013

Singapore’s NDP and the limits to integrating foreigners

Singapore's annual National Day Parade (NDP) is a unique event. The NDP contains enough songs and pageantry to make even the hardest heart melt. Failing the songs and skits, demonstrations of brute military strength and prowess by the Home Team will evoke pride in any armchair general. Though most of all, it is the nostalgia of a Singapore long gone which appears to bind together local hearts and minds – particularly when described through the local Singlish 'dialect.'

All that and more ... but only for 'genuine' Singaporeans.

Yes, I am a Singaporean. Not only did I attend NDP 2013, I also enjoyed it ... to an extent.

A photo taken at Singapore's National Day Parade in 1968
Sure, I could answer most of the NDP's 'pop quiz' questions relating to Singapore's history. Who designed City Hall? What is the oldest building standing in Singapore? In fact, dare I say it, I probably know at least as much about Singapore's history as most of the 27,000 other NDP attendees seated at the Marina Bay Float. (Not surprising, as I regularly relate the 'Singapore Story' to visitors to the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) in my capacity as an NMS volunteer guide.)

Still, something was missing at the NDP.

It starts with the Singlish. I admit I don't speak Singlish. So many humorous references in the NDP skits left me scratching my head. Secondly, my theoretical or factual knowledge about Singapore cannot replace the experiential familiarity 'born and bred' Singaporeans have gained over a lifetime of living – despite my having lived in our fine city for almost fifteen years.

So, yes, 'true-blue' Singaporeans you are right: first generation foreigners cannot completely immerse themselves in Singaporean culture (however we define the city's culture). I will never relate to Kuehs, Ice Kacang, Laksa or the many other 'Singaporean' things the way you do. It's an honest to goodness fact. No denying it.

However, that simply brings me to the point where most Singaporeans' historically started the 'Singaporean Journey.' That is, as foreigners arriving in Singapore aspiring for a better life and to support families back home.

Over time, 'back home' became a slowly fading memory as roots were sunk on this island. With each passing generation, it became clearer that no person actually intended to return to the 'homeland,' ever. Be that China, India, other islands in the Malay Archipelago, or, as in my case, Pakistan.

Result: the birth of the second or third generation (or more) Singaporean – the so called 'true blue' Singaporean.

I am a Singaporean too - a Pakistani-Singaporean (or a Singaporean-Pakistani if you prefer). Asking me to shed my 'Pakistaniness' is like asking a Singaporean to shed her 'Singaporeanness.'

Can a Singaporean give up Singlish, laksa, roti pratas, and all else 'Singaporean' simply because they migrate to Australia? Unlikely.  So please don't ask me to achieve the impossible.

I cannot be exactly like you. Nor do I aim to be exactly like you. We do not share the same history, though we certainly share many similar values.  

Leave the 'real' integration for the next generation. Until then, please humor me and respect my history.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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