By Carmen Denia, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
I miss Singapore.
Wow, what a loaded statement. Okay, it’s not that loaded – some might even argue it’s not loaded at all, but when I say it, there’s usually a lot of questions that come along either from myself or the people I express this feeling to.
I mean, what does it mean to miss a place? When can you consider a place home? Is home even a place? If I took everything I liked out of Singapore and transported it to this fictional new island, would it be the same? What happens if you consider a country other than that of your birth your home? Why do people react so vocally against that? Why is deciding to live overseas sometimes depicted as some form of betrayal? How does nationality and our place of residence figure into our identity? (If you’re wondering if I know the answers, I don’t, pumpkin.)
Anyway, I’ve been back in the Philippines for a bit more than half a year now, but friends have kept me updated with what’s happening over there: the Lawrence Khong controversy, new restaurants opening, MRT breakdowns, friends doing well in the army and yes, the much-discussed Population White Paper.
I’m not going to fully flesh out my opinion on the Population White Paper – it’s an emotional minefield and my perspective is only one of many – but I will note that it seems strange that a report on building more infrastructure, helping residents afford child-raising, helping elderly workers stay in the workforce, determining long-term land allocation, and ensuring continuous economic development has garnered attention mostly for its suggestion that Singapore continue to take in immigrants to ensure a stable population. It’s like focusing on a tiny comma on a blank sheet, but I suppose it’s because questions of identity and home are important. I mean, it’s what I started writing this post about, right?
I will say, however, that it hurts. It hurts that people are rallying against my presence in Singapore. I mean, not directly, no, but I think people should remember that when you distill the idea of immigration or Permanent Residents to the most basic level, these are individuals we’re talking about, not statistics. This reminds me of a time when I was talking with a classmate about foreign scholars in Singapore and he mentioned that he was against it. I asked him then if he was against me being his classmate and studying in Singapore and he said no. He admitted that it’s a bias he has difficulty overcoming when he’s faced with the big concept of foreigners as a whole, but it’s not a problem when he’s thinking of specific people. We left the topic at that and we remain good friends until today – fascinating isn’t it, how that can be?
If you’re wondering, this isn’t the first time that I’ve felt like this. There was that student I had whose elder sister wondered if he was learning enough in class from “that Filipino maid”, there was a peer who posted on Facebook that foreigners don’t have the right to express their opinions on local politics (he referred to me because I had countered him on something earlier that day), there was that taxi operator who ranted for my entire ride on how foreigners were to blame for his daughter not getting a spot in a local university (he thought I was Singaporean and I didn’t have the heart to break it to him that I’m not), there’s Michelle Chong’s Leticia persona (which I really think is inappropriate for television, but that might just be me being sensitive), and of course, the 2011 General Election with all the anti-foreigner sentiments that cropped up.
It might be tempting to say then that Singaporeans are xenophobic, but I wouldn’t and I don’t think so. I think it’s important that people fight the urge to pigeonhole others based on our limited experiences. I’m sure you’re wondering why I still like Singapore. Well for every local who’s not been too welcoming, there has been a Singaporean who has opened his heart and home to me. There was my peer who invited the Filipino scholars in our class over to her house for our first Chinese New Year in Singapore; her family treated us like family. There’s another friend who let me keep all my things in her house since I couldn’t take these back with me to the Philippines during this gap year. There was that friend who helped me get through a rough patch when I was jobless and fed me. There are several schoolmates whose parents have offered to drive me back to the boarding school after school events. There are the teachers who helped me transition into the O-Level style of studying by offering extra consultation after school.
If there’s anything living in Singapore has shown me, it’s that no nationality has a monopoly on good or bad characteristics. There are xenophobic Singaporeans and xenophobic Filipinos. There are generous Singaporeans, generous Americans, generous Vietnamese, generous Indonesians just as there are selfish people from all these countries too; there are mean Indians, kind Indians, funny Malaysians, unfriendly Malaysians. Name a nationality and name a trait and there’s going to be someone like that so there’s no use generalising.
Besides, no matter what people say, I still miss Singapore. I miss my friends who now grumble to me on Facebook about their funky bald heads in National Service or share with me how their internships or first years in university are going. I miss the farms at Kranji with the goats and frogs and organic food. I miss the random spaces you can discover like the wooden playground behind the Peranakan museum in the middle of a street filled with houses that look like they came from another era. I miss going for milk tea and waffles after school at the hawker center across the road. I miss the feeling of walking out of Bugis MRT because the food in the mall smells so good and you know that you’re so close to great books in a huge library. I miss being home.
I moved around a lot in my youth so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all these things I just wrote down. I don’t think I’m going to stop thinking about them since identity, citizenship, and home are all things that matter. True, I don’t have any answers yet after all this time, but I have figured out why these are so important: I think we’re all just trying to find that place where we belong.