Coexistence in Singapore: Shared spaces are spaces of hope


Dr Chang Yau Hoon (Assistant Professor of Asian Studies, School of Social Sciences)

Dr Chang Yau Hoon
(Assistant Professor of Asian Studies, School of Social Sciences)

Issues related to race, multiculturalism, and coexistence are not extinct in any country, and it’s of paramount importance to keep dialogues open about these touchy topics. Singapore can be considered, if anything, an extremely multi-cultural country, and it’s always refreshing to see concerns which arise from such a diverse culture not being swept under the rug, but instead embraced and brought out into the open for honest and concise discussion.

This last Friday, a small group of students, professors, and other interested individuals gathered in a seminar room at the SMU School of Social Sciences to participate and learn about just that: coexistence in Singaporean culture. Dr. Ye Junjia was the eloquent speaker who presented the results of her research under the title of: “Coexistence: Understanding Social Encounters between Migrants and Locals in Jurong West.” A variety of interesting commentaries and questions arose as a result of her presentation.

As one of the most densely populated areas in Singapore, Jurong West appears, for all intents and purposes, to be the ideal location for an intense study of how migrants and locals coexist in condensed spaces.  Foreigners make up about a quarter of the work force in Singapore and come here from a diverse set of countries, ranging from Asia all the way to Europe and North America. With such a complex mix of different cultures, interactions seem inevitable and, as Dr. Ye Junjia explained, there are small flashes of encounters in Jurong West, as well as all of over Singapore, which connect people from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

Dr. Junjia Ye (postdoctoral research fellow in urban geography, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity)

Dr. Junjia Ye (postdoctoral research fellow in urban geography, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity)

Here emerges the concept of the ‘familiar stranger’. With so much shared space, it seems that people in Singapore have developed a principle of coexistence that doesn’t require personal recognition. In other words, one doesn’t need to have any knowledge of another individual or even necessarily like them in order to carry on civil encounters. It is cohabitation without rancor and therefore a civility of indifference. The notion of the ‘familiar stranger’ shows that people can come together in order to accomplish the task at hand, and yet remain apart and slightly divided by differences in culture and ethnicity.

One of the things that make Singapore such a fascinating country when it comes to coexistence and multiculturalism is the idea that such a diverse society is centered on the concept that migrants should indeed adapt and conform to Singaporean norms and values. Here emerges the term ‘Gui Ju’ (規矩) – a Mandarin phrase which encompasses the concept of localized forms of civility. Having ‘Gui Ju’ means that people are civil and behave in a certain way, but this is a localized social norm which many migrants don’t know about upon initially arriving in Singapore. Therefore, many experience issues before adapting. Finding employment, for instance, can prove challenging at first, but ultimately it is the security of employment that opens people up to welcome others. Without it, these ‘familiar strangers’ become direct competition. So while there is a tolerance related to ‘Gui Ju’, there is certainly also a sensitivity, and this can cause a greater divide among certain groups of locals and migrants when foreigners fail to fully acclimate to this way of living.

Perhaps as someone who has spent the majority of her life in foreign countries, I can associate strongly with this impression of not quite belonging and assimilating into certain cultures. But, it never ceases to amaze me how, out of all the countries I’ve visited so far, Singapore is one of the few where I’ve seen a colorful and assorted set of cultures successfully coexist and continue to merge on a daily basis. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Singapore has achieved the perfect balance of coexistence between locals and migrants, but it does mean that this city- island is consistently advancing and making changes to how these varied cultures interact. Dr. Ye Junjia’s presentation finished off on a positive note, which embraced this constantly improving ideal. She stated that shared spaces are spaces of hope. A valid and optimistic idea indeed!

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Report prepared by Katie Collom

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