So, what is a Singaporean?


Let me begin with a paradox. I know that I am a Singaporean. But I do not know what a Singaporean is.

The best way to explain this paradox is to compare Singapore with other nations.

There are three categories of nations with a clear sense of national identity. The first category is the old nation.

Take France as an example. The French have zero doubts about their national identity. It is based on a common language, history, culture, relative ethnic homogeneity and deep attachment to key political concepts, like secularism.

A Frenchman can recognise a fellow Frenchman in an instant. The bond is powerful and deep.

This is equally true of other old nations, such as Japan and Korea, Russia and China, Spain and Sweden.

The second category is the new nation. The United States exemplifies this category best. It has no distinctive ethnic roots. It is an immigrant nation whose forefathers came from a variety of old nations.

Yet somehow, within a generation (and often within less than a generation), their new citizens would lose their old national identities and be absorbed into the American melting pot.

Even though America declared its independence in 1776, it actually faced the danger of splitting into two nation states until the American Civil War of 1860-1865.

Hence, the modern unified American nation is only about 150 years old.

Yet, there is absolutely no doubt that an American can recognise a fellow American when he walks the streets of Paris or Tokyo. When the fellow American opens his mouth, he knows that he is talking to a countryman.

A shared history, common historical myths, deep attachment to values like freedom and democracy are some of the elements that define the strong sense of American national identity.

It also helps to belong to the most successful nation in human history. A deep sense of national pride accompanies the sense of national identity.

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