Trees in a forest: Becoming Chinese Singaporean in multicultural Singapore

A metaphor used by playwright Kuo Pao Kun and recently mentioned by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong says that different cultural communities are trees in the forest, each separated at the trunk, but nourished by the same soil and cross-pollinating high in the sky at the leaves and branches. Low Sze Wee, CEO of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, extends the metaphor, noting that Chinese Singaporeans have developed distinct cultural identities from Chinese elsewhere. Their way of life is a combination of what they brought with them, their interactions with others, and the policies they live under with their fellow citizens.
The Chinese community in Singapore has developed in a way that is unique to its time and place. (SPH)
The Chinese community in Singapore has developed in a way that is unique to its time and place. (SPH)

The recent spate of racial and religious incidents in Singapore have caused much soul-searching amongst Singaporeans, including calls for removing racial categorisations in public policies (commonly known as the Chinese Malay Indian Others “CMIO” model) and advocating for a post-racial Singapore. 

Kuo Pao Kun’s metaphor for multiculturalism

This prompted Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong to elaborate on Singapore's model of multiculturalism at a forum on 25 June. Whilst acknowledging the ideals of a race-blind society, he highlighted: “We did not set out to achieve racial harmony by creating a monolithic society. Our multiracialism does not require any community to give up its heritage or traditions. Ours is not the French way, insisting on assimilation into one master language and culture: speak French, accept French ways and assimilate into French society. Instead, we decided to preserve, protect and celebrate our diversity.” 

In particular, he drew attention to a quote on multiculturalism by the late multilingual local playwright Kuo Pao Kun. In an interview in 1996, Kuo had likened the different cultural communities to trees in a forest. Although trees remain separate at the trunk, cross-pollination takes place in the sky where their branches and leaves touch, and nutrients are drawn from the ground where their roots entwine. Hence, Minister Wong held that it was important for Singaporeans to realise the beauty of this pluralism by going deeper to strengthen cultural roots and reaching higher to cross-pollinate with other cultures and develop a stronger shared Singapore identity.

Kuo Pao Kun. (SPH)
Late multilingual local playwright, Kuo Pao Kun. (SPH)

The beauty about a metaphor is that it can be interpreted in many ways. For instance, if we liken the different ethnic communities in Singapore to separate trees, each trunk then represents the collective heritage of that community. This includes distinctive elements such as the values, belief systems, languages, customs, and food dishes that originated from that community’s place of ancestral origins, be it China. India or elsewhere.

Living in Singapore means that all ethnic groups need to interact with one another. These cultural interactions could range from the casual (such as attending to daily chores) to deeper engagement (such as inter-marriages). Over time, these interactions would lead to rich cross-pollination, as each community adapts to, or embraces aspects of its neighbour’s way of life.

Moreover, being rooted in the same place means that all ethnic communities are subject to the same laws of the land. Whether during the colonial period or post-independence, all governments seek to shape society to achieve certain objectives through public policies. The latter would have an impact on how each community develops and interacts with other communities in the country.

Whilst Chinese Singaporeans and Chinese elsewhere may share the same cultural heritage, the Chinese community in Singapore has developed in a way that is unique to its time and place.

Examining the Chinese Singaporean cultural identity

Extending Kuo’s metaphor, it seems reasonable to assume that these trees would evolve differently, in tandem with the diverse ground nutrients and cross-pollination taking place over time. A tree from a particular species grown in a tropical forest full of diverse species would eventually look very different from one grown in a temperate forest with trees of the same kind. In examining Chinese cultural identity in multicultural Singapore, the same analogy may be drawn.

Whilst Chinese Singaporeans and Chinese elsewhere may share the same cultural heritage, the Chinese community in Singapore has developed in a way that is unique to its time and place. The Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre’s permanent exhibition SINGAPO人  highlights five key socio-geographical factors which have led the local Chinese to evolve differently, compared to other Chinese communities around the world. They are Singapore’s British colonial legacies, its Southeast Asian location, the makeup of its early migrant society, and its reliance on global connectivity.

Firstly, for about 150 years, Singapore was a British colony. To develop Singapore into a port city, the colonial authorities imported cheap labour from Asia, particularly China. Within about 100 years, the local population expanded by more than 40 times, and the proportion of Chinese residents grew from about 30% in 1824 to 75% of the total population in 1921. However, as the British had little concern about the social welfare of such migrants, the local Chinese community had to fend for themselves by setting up clan associations, schools, and temples.

Customers buy fruits at a market in Singapore. (SPH)
Customers buy fruits at a market in Singapore. (SPH)

Due to such British indifference, the Chinese in Singapore could carry on with their traditions and practices from home without much interference. Paradoxically, this meant that some traditions like the Zhong Yuan Festival (also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival) continued to be practised in places like Singapore, long after they had faded out in China for various reasons. Moreover, the Chinese government (both during the Qing and Republican periods) also had little interest in these impoverished migrants. Or even if there was interest, it had little means to influence such overseas communities. 

In addition, British colonialism entrenched several key institutions such as their legal and education systems. These had a deep impact on Singapore’s first-generation national leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee, some of whom had furthered their studies in the UK. In the area of language, the use of English during the colonial period led to the “borrowing” of certain English words by the local Chinese such as deshi (德士, taxi) and baxian (巴仙, percent). This was later reinforced by the continuing use of English as the main working language in independent Singapore. 

Adapting ways of life to local conditions

Secondly, living in a tropical region like Southeast Asia meant that the local Chinese had to make changes to their way of life. The hot and humid climate affected the design of their homes and clothing. For instance, the early Chinese used to live in attap dwellings, like the indigenous peoples. These houses had roofs lined with the leaves of attap palms to keep homes cool in the tropics.

Located far from China also meant that the local Chinese did not have easy access to traditional ingredients for their home cuisine. Hence, they started using more locally found spices, fruits, vegetables, and meat products in their cooking such as the native pandan, nutmeg, torch ginger, coconut, and banana. For example, popiah (springroll) was originally from Fujian and Chaoshan in China, but the version in Singapore has bangkuang or jicama (Mexican turnip) instead of bamboo shoots as the latter was not readily available in Singapore.

Living in the Malay archipelago also meant that the local Chinese had to interact with the indigenous peoples who tended to use Malay as a common regional language. This explains the prevalence of Malay words in the daily language of the early Chinese in Singapore. For instance, the Hokkiens borrowed Malay words like suka (like), kawin (marry), pasat (market) and kopi (coffee). Likewise, the Malays also came to use certain Hokkien terms like mee (noodles), teh (tea), and tauhu (beancurd).

A generic shot of a hawker centre in Singapore. (SPH)
People enjoying hawker fare at a hawker centre in Singapore. (SPH)

Ancestors mainly from Southern China 

Thirdly, up until the late 20th century, most Chinese migrants to Singapore came from the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong in China. Hence, Chinese Singaporean culture has greater influence from southern China, and less from places like Henan or Sichuan. The five main dialects groups in Singapore (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese) are southern Chinese. Over time, the Hokkiens became the largest dialect group. This explains why the Hokkien dialect (Minnan) played such an important role in the evolution of daily language in Singapore, such as the popularisation of Hokkien words like kueh and kiasu, and the use of Hokkien syntax in Singlish.

The southern Chinese migrants came mainly in two waves. The first wave (smaller in numbers) comprised largely Chinese traders who travelled to the region from as early as the 12th century. Those who settled down here married local women and these formed the genesis of the early Peranakan Chinese communities in port cities such as Malacca and Java. Their descendants tended to adopt more local habits and customs due to longer periods of settlement in Southeast Asia. For instance, the Peranakan Chinese spoke Baba Malay (a hybrid language of Malay and Hokkien). Some also became fluent in European languages and acted as middlemen between the Europeans and locals (both ethnic Chinese and indigenous groups) in the region.

The second wave (in much larger numbers) occurred in the 19th century when many poor men left China in search of a better livelihood. Cheap labour was needed to develop the new British port of Singapore. Later, the rise of the tin (1820s) and rubber industries (1870s) in British Malaya further increased the demand for workers. Apart from better employment prospects in Singapore, the Chinese were also fleeing from the famines and unrest in China during this period such as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) which claimed the lives of about 20 million people. Initially, these migrants intended to return to China after they had made enough money and the situation in China improved. However, with the outbreak of World War Two and Singapore’s independence, many migrants chose to settle down in Singapore by marrying local Chinese women. Hence, unlike the Peranakan Chinese, this group tended to maintain more values and practices from China. 

Most of the early Chinese migrants spoke southern Chinese dialects like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese. Unlike in China where such dialect groups might live far apart from one another, they had many opportunities in Singapore to interact with one another, given the island’s small size. Therefore, the various dialect groups here had access to one another’s cuisines and customs such as the different types of mooncakes and dumplings enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Duanwu Festival, respectively. Intermarriages between dialect groups were also more common in Singapore, compared to China in the early days. Over time, many Chinese temples, schools, and charities started by the different clans, became open to all Chinese, regardless of dialect origins, to encourage everyone to work together for the common good.

A customer poses for a photo with a stall owner at a market in Singapore. (SPH)
A customer poses for a photo with a stall owner at a market in Singapore. (SPH)

Beginnings of a multiracial society

Fourthly, due to modern Singapore’s origins as a colonial port city, its local population has long been very diverse. Adding to the indigenous Malays, the British colonial government imported cheap labour from India and China. It also encouraged traders from around the world such as the Arabs, Javanese, and Armenians to use Singapore as a base for their operations. In 1819, it was estimated that there were 120 Malays and 30 Chinese on the island. By 1871, the first census revealed that the population had grown to about 100,000 and was made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Europeans, Arabs, Jews, Siamese, and other minorities

Over time, the local population became predominantly Chinese due to the large number of workers from China. However, there is still a large group of non-Chinese minorities. Singapore’s proportion of non-Chinese (25%) is relatively large, compared to other Chinese communities where the non-ethnic Chinese groups account for less than 10% of their total population. For instance, in terms of non-ethnic Chinese groups, Hong Kong has 8%, Beijing has 4% and Taipei has 5%. This means that the Chinese in Singapore have relatively more opportunities to interact with and be influenced by other ethnic communities.

In the early days, although ethnic and dialect groups often lived apart, they still crossed paths frequently. A Hokkien housewife might buy something from a Cantonese shopkeeper. A Teochew trader might need the services of a Malay policeman or a British government officer. Hence, learning to live with diversity became a way of life. Due to the colonial government’s hands-off attitude towards the locals, all ethnic groups were free to continue with their own ways of life in Singapore. This situation continued into the post-colonial era when the national government adopted various public policies based on multiracialism and multiculturalism. These days, new migrants bring in much-needed talent to support Singapore’s globalised economy and make up for the declining birth rate. Such migrants now come from a broader range of backgrounds. This has created a Singapore that is even more diverse than ever before. 

...what the Chinese brought with them (ethnic heritage), whom they encountered (cultural interactions) and how they were governed (public policies). These have an impact on the development of Chinese culture in Singapore.

Open to the world

Lastly, Singapore is a small island with no natural resources. However, it has a deep harbour and sits on the crossroads of major shipping trade routes. Hence, Singapore has always relied on trade for its survival and prosperity. Back in the 14th century, Temasek (as Singapore was known then) was at the centre of Southeast Asia, exporting sought-after goods such as hornbill casques, incense wood and cotton. Today, Singapore is the busiest port in the world in terms of shipping tonnage, with more than 130,000 vessel calls annually. Since antiquity, Singapore has been a port city. This means that its inhabitants have always been exposed to a constant flow of goods, people, and ideas from around the world. This has been hastened by the rise of modern telecommunications, and greater Internet connectivity.

In fact, Singapore’s small size means that it is always affected by larger external developments, and less likely to be insular or resistant to change. Singapore’s economic survival depends on it continuing to be a hub for the trading of goods and services, one which is open to inflows of different ideas, beliefs, and ways of working. Hence, many Singaporeans today are receptive to global trends, influences and ideas. As a result, individuals like local musician JJ Lin and filmmaker Anthony Chen have been able to make an impact on the international stage because of the distinctive perspectives which they bring to Chinese culture and heritage.

A young couple taking a selfie at the River Hongbao 2021 festival held at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, on 13 February 2021. (SPH)
A young couple taking a selfie at the River Hongbao 2021 festival held at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, on 13 February 2021. (SPH)

These five aspects may then be distilled into the three key driving forces of Chinese Singaporean culture: what the Chinese brought with them (ethnic heritage), whom they encountered (cultural interactions) and how they were governed (public policies). These have an impact on the development of Chinese culture in Singapore. For instance, this is reflected in the way Chinese New Year is celebrated in Singapore.

The Chinese New Year festival is a tradition that originated in China, and as such, is part of Chinese heritage. Although Chinese New Year does not coincide with the new year of the Gregorian calendar used in Singapore, it is nevertheless a public holiday and held in high regard by the local Chinese as a festival that emphasises family togetherness. Singaporeans love to eat pineapple tarts and love letters (crispy egg rolls) for Chinese New Year. However, these snacks did not originate from China. Rather, they were made popular by the Peranakan Chinese who often adopted Western techniques (like the baking oven) and ingredients (like butter) in their cuisine. Such hybrid food is an example of cultural interaction at work. Lastly, during Chinese New Year, Singaporeans often attend the Chingay parade or River Hongbao. These events did not originate in China. They are large-scale public events organised by the state or state-sponsored organisations. This is an example of public policies shaping the way in which Chinese New Year is celebrated in Singapore.

These three driving forces were present in the past, and continue to have an impact on the different ethnic communities in Singapore today, resulting in distinctive variations of ethnic cultures. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed at the opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre in 2017: “Over time, each race has retained and evolved its own culture and heritage; but each has also allowed itself to be influenced by the customs and traditions of other races. The result has been distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share, suffusing and linking up our distinct individual identities and ethnic cultures.”

For more information on the permanent exhibition SINGAPO人, please visit:

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