I’ve just spent 10 days in Singapore. At the tip of the Malay peninsula and the crossing point between India, Australia and China, it has been a meeting point for for many years. Everywhere you walk you can see and feel the these influences. So what impact can a combination of cultures have?
My daughter is a foreigner. Her current methods of communication are certainly unintelligible. The favourites are a sort of bubbly buzzing noise produced from pressing her lips together and blowing, or a loud ‘aah,’ accompanied with a full stretch of the tongue. Both seem to indicate general pleasure.
But the thing is, when her babbling grows into language, there are sounds she’ll make that will remain unintelligible to me. With a French father, she is lucky enough to have the opportunity to grow up with two languages at her disposal. While I hope my lessons and practice mean that I can somewhat keep pace with her, she will have a natives-speaker knowledge that will always be inaccessible to me. Of course, to a certain extent, this is true of all children. Half the time I have absolutely no idea what my teenage nieces are talking about, although apparently they’re speaking English. Each generation reinvents its own slang and reference points, keeping the boring old people at bay.
Languages are more than different ways of speaking. They change the way you think, act, and have their own baggage – history, art, cuisine, religion. When I’m in France with the other half of her family I don’t feel like the same person. I become more reserved, less funny, a passive observer of things happening – mostly because it takes me so long to catch up with what is being said and then formulate a response that the conversation has already moved on. I worry that they won’t ever get to really know me, and by extension, that I won’t have the same close connection with my daughter as I have with my mother, or the rest of my family. We will have the added barrier of words, to go along with the generational gap.
The mural at Little India station
So how does Singapore manage to resolve its cultural amalgamation? We stayed in Little India, a bustling place with beautiful street art, dotted with bright temples and markets. Under 10% of the population is Indian, and their ‘territory’ was marked out back when Stamford Raffles decided to plan a trading hub of a city back in 1819. Tailors ply their trade out on the street, temples buzz with activity as visitors place their offerings and receive blessings, the air hums with spices and colourful fruit lines the streets. Shops are topped with colonial-style shutters painted in vivid hues, none more striking than ‘Tan house,’ the former resident of Tan Yeok Nee, that has been psychedelically restored. Shopping in the Mustafa centre (a cavernous building that never seems to end) you can find anything from perfume to spices, but it does feel as though you are cut off from other elements of the city.
More dazzling street art in Kampong Glam
Kampong Glam is the area mapped out for the slightly smaller Malay population, and Chinatown, well, you can figure that one out. It certainly exhales its cultural heritage in a way that seems lacking from Chinatown in London. Garish lamps in the shape of dogs, huge paper pineapples, oranges and lanterns hang over the street, sizzling chicken scents the air and stall after stall of fans, lucky charms, fluffy dogs, clothes, phone cases and hats. It was like I was back in the Hangzhou night market.
Even before Raffles landed here and chalked out his plans, Singapore was a hodgepodge of different people, so typical for a port city. But for all its divisions, there are numerous signs of fusion. We saw a mosque with Victorian architecture, a Buddhist temple, a temple to Shiva and a methodist church, all within five minutes walk of each other. There are also places where you feel as if you are in truly international waters. The incredibly cheap and delicious hawker centres offer food from all of the local cultures, as well as a few items that have grown from a variety of influences but are truly Singaporean. The fried carrot cake, which is something between an omelette and a cake; a delicious snack served with spicy sauce and sprinkled with spring onions. Or chilli crab, or laksa, for some spicy coconut-infused seafood. There’s also fish head curry, which seems to have a variety of influences. Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so disparate after all.
The Singapore skyline
In the glitzy area of Marina Bay, there seems to be so much modernity it’s hard to pick out origins and difference. The towering Skytrees and the enormous Singapore Flyer (which dwarfs the London Eye) make the city seem more of a playground for all things shiny. Nowhere is this more true than on the island of Sentosa, that feels more like a giant theme park than anything else – in between hanging off a giant zipwire, hurtling round a roller coaster or gazing at enormous rays in the aquarium. Here is something for everyone. Likewise further out of the city, the various zoos and safaris are world class experiences, wherever you’re from. Nowhere have I seen monkeys swinging overhead as I walk by, or lizards and lemurs crossing the path in front of me. I’m pretty sure the appreciation of a baby orang-utan is universal.
A close-up animal encounter
Of course, there are elements of tension. As with any area with immigration, there are fears touted around issues of housing, jobs and preferential treatment. Most announcements are in English and Mandarin only, which must make other local language speakers feel isolated. Despite its status as a cosmopolitan haven, it is far behind in its legislation and attitudes towards LGBTQ+.
Integration is pitched as the key aim for many in our modern world. With so much suspicion and hatred lurking underneath the most tolerant of cultures, finding ways to live harmoniously has never been more important. But it doesn’t have to mean a flat amalgamation, a weakening or abandonment of traditions, in order for it to be successful.
Something for everyone?
In Singapore, it feels as though certain parts are kept separate, and special, but there is an overall sense of shared identity. Each person has the opportunity to stretch their cultural legs (although with a population density of nearly 8000 per square kilometre, not very far) while still taking a stroll over to see how others are doing things. This, surely, is what successful integration looks like.
As for my daughter, only time will tell. She will have a much broader experience of language and cultural background than I had growing up. How she decides to navigate that, and where she wants to locate herself in the world, will be her decision. But that doesn’t mean she has to be a stranger to me. We can find our own points of contact, our own version of integration within the city state of our home.