Attitudes of New Chinese Immigrants toward Integration
Despite being a country where most people are of Chinese ethnicity, Singapore has acquired a unique cultural blend as a result of its multicultural ethos. For new Chinese immigrants, this means understanding not only the history and culture of the country but also the social characteristics that guide people’s cultural interactions, or participating in activities with “elements of Singaporean culture” (Zhong, male, naturalized citizen). The new Chinese immigrants interviewed saw integration as a process of adaptation to “avoid conflicts with the local culture” (Li Li, female, naturalized citizen) or in “getting along with the locals” (Heather, female, naturalized citizen). Several said that immigrating to Singapore means accepting the values and norms of multiculturalism and meritocracy, seen as founding tenets of Singaporean identity. Both values are tied to the national narrative of how the plural cultural groups found in the country are to be treated equally. Historically, the emphasis on these values has to be understood in the context of the bumiputra policy in neighboring Malaysia, which privileges the indigenous Malays and others. It was the difference in political approaches upheld by the Singaporean and Malaysian leadership toward ethnic diversity that led to the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaya in 1965. Values of meritocracy and multiculturalism espoused in Singapore resonated with the new Chinese immigrants. As Ma Ning (female, permanent resident), who has lived in Singapore since 1991, put it, “I am a Chinese national; I am not born in Singapore nor did I grow up here. Yet when I step[ped] into society, the place that offered me all the [opportunities] is Singapore.”
Some interviewees said that when they first arrived they sought entry into Singaporean society by participating in the activities ofChinese associations, and several remain active in the new Chinese associations formed by new Chinese immigrants like themselves. Inadvertently, this channels them into narrowly defined and predominantly Chinese social networks, even though Singapore is a country characterized by ethnic diversity. The new Chinese associations are closely associated with emigration from mainland China since 1979, whereas the established or pioneer Chinese clan associations trace their historical emergence to an earlier wave of immigration during colonial times. The new Chinese immigrants come from a more diverse range of provinces in mainland China than the earlier wave. As Montsion
(2014) suggests, the temporal qualities of Chineseness differ across these different types of Chinese association. The pioneer Chinese clan associations, such as the Hokkien Huay Kuan, seek to preserve their dialect roots among a younger generation of Westernized Chinese-Singaporeans. Like the PA, the significance of the pioneer clan associations as a tool of social cohesion waned as Singaporean society matured, but, through the renewed immigration from mainland China, some associations seek a new role—one of helping to integrate the newcomers (see also Yeoh and Lin 2013; Montsion 2014).
Meanwhile, the new clan associations formed by post-1979 Chinese immigrants aspire to build links to Singaporean society by partnering the pioneer Chinese clan associations and other Singaporean organizations or institutions through their activities. Their mandate is to provide a platform for members to interact with one another and get to know Singaporean society better. The route toward integration taken by both types of association arguably chimes with government-led integration. Both types of clan association work closely with Singaporean government agencies or members of the political elite to aid integration. Such associations facilitate the entry of Singaporean businesses into the mainland Chinese market. Reflecting on her participation in one of the new associations, An Ni (female, naturalized citizen) said:
Why we come together in this association is different from the motivation of early immigrants when they joined the clan associations back then. These early immigrants they may face difficulties in their lives, and when they first came to a new place they [...] needed to seek help. As for today’s new Chinese immigrants, these people they have good background, they are well educated, equipped with professional skills so [...] their motivation to join a social organisation is beyond issues of bread and butter, they seek to have emotional and social interaction with others, yes. [Our association] is part of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Association, which has joined multiple talks organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and even hosted Chinese officials from the PRC Qiaoban. It also introduces and links up entrepreneurs from both China and Singapore. It serves its role as a bridge (qiaoliang) between the two countries.
The interviews suggest that several of the new Chinese clan associations seek to forge close links with the Singaporean political elites, and to channel integration efforts through government-led initiatives such as the activities of the PA or by inviting ministers and members of parliament as guests of honor at their events. However, the close links between new Chinese immigrants and the ruling political party have triggered speculation in
Singaporean social media that the pro-immigration policy gives the PAP an electoral advantage since new citizens are more likely to cast their votes in its favor (e.g. TR Emeritus 12 September 2015). The predominance of new Chinese immigrants in Singapore compared with other immigrant groups has also led to claims that the government uses this policy to retain the Chinese majority in the Singaporean population, thus entrenching Chinese privilege over that of the minority groups. This argument, however, overlooks the intraethnic distinction between coethnics, who consider themselves locally born and bred Chinese-Singaporeans, and the post-1979 new Chinese immigrants. Another distinction is between new Chinese immigrants who arrived in the 1990s as skilled workers (emphasizing educational levels and skills) and the later cohort whose members entered as entrepreneurs or investors. This periodization corresponds with changes in mainland China, from a low-income developing country before and during the 1990s to a middle-income developing country from early 2000 onward.
Seeking entry into Singaporean society through the Chinese clan associations limits the extent to which new Chinese immigrants socialize with wider Singaporean society. Singaporeans who participate in Chinese clan associations, even pioneer associations, are a minority. Young Chinese- Singaporeans, in particular, communicate in English or Singlish and are socially distant from the Chinese traditions and customs through which the pioneer clan associations tend to organize their activities. Although they learn Mandarin as a second language as a result of the bilingual educational policy, English or Singlish is still the lingua franca. This also means that their ability to communicate or socialize with new Chinese immigrants is limited. New Chinese immigrants said that they had very few social interactions with non-Chinese Singaporeans, such as Malays, Indians and Eurasians.