26 October 2016
Joseph Schooling has become a hero in Singapore after he took the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter butterfly. Photo: AP
Joseph Schooling has become a hero in Singapore after he took the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter butterfly. Photo: AP

Caucasians in Singapore and their identity issue

Singaporeans were electrified after their US-trained swimmer, Joseph Schooling, had beaten world champion Michael Phelps in the men’s 100-meter butterfly and won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in the recent Rio Olympics.

The fact that Joseph Schooling himself is half Chinese and half European has also thrown an interesting light on the identity issue of the tiny but influential white community in the city state.

Ethnic Chinese account for 75 percent of the population of Singapore. But since the country gained its independence in 1965, its founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party had adopted a pluralistic approach to racial policy and had taken great pains to promote racial diversity in order to maintain social harmony.

Among all the ethnic minorities in Singapore, Caucasians from Europe and North America account for only 3.2 percent of the total population, but they have remained at the top of the social pyramid of the city state and have been highly influential in the country’s economy over the years.

It is because Singapore’s economy has been relying heavily on foreign trade and international finance, and the country is home to the regional headquarters of many western multinational corporations, which have recruited a lot of trade, financial and management talent from the West to run their offices and oversee their business operations there.

On the other hand, the Singaporean government has been working aggressively to attract western talent in order to boost the local work force.

As a result, though small in numbers, Caucasians in Singapore often hold top positions in big local and foreign businesses in the country, and are therefore often considered social elites.

However, many of them hardly consider Singapore as their second home, nor do most Singaporean natives consider them compatriots either.

It is because many western people often see their jobs in Singapore as a stepping stone to further career progress back home, and most of them will return to their home countries after they have served out their contracts in Singapore.

As a result, the majority of them don’t even bother to integrate into the Singaporean society, and hence their low sense of belonging.

However, their mindset has begun to change in recent years, as their socio-economic advantage over other ethnic groups has continued to erode.

It is because the rise of nativism in Singapore over the past decade has prompted the government to give priority to locals in the job market, while the influx of overseas-educated elites from mainland China is also threatening their established social status.

As a result, many westerners in Singapore are now becoming more pro-active in integrating into the local community and seeking recognition from local Singaporeans in order to secure their socio-economic position.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 24.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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