Managing Diversities
Rethinking The Singapore “core”

By Bennett Wong

There is a perception that Singaporeans’ woes about immigration stem from a government that has prioritised its economic development over and above the welfare of its citizens; that, in its ceaseless striving to achieve status as a hub of expertise, non-citizens have been overly courted for their manual labour, intellectual skills and cosmopolitan capital.

The anxiety flowing from this perception has been amplified by online debates about population renewal and national identity. What has emerged is a consensus that there is an urgent need to protect a strong Singapore “core”, that, like a ballast, would buffer against the volatility from structural changes in population like migration,

But in the face of the challenges posed by Singapore’s economic exigencies, a tension inevitably emerges between the oft-stated desire to build a strong Singapore “core” and the need to “re-invent” ourselves. The former implies stability and strength; the latter connotes change and fluidity.

Yet, who is in the Singapore “core”?

Singaporeans in the world

Between 2003 and 2012, the number of Singaporeans working and studying overseas has slowly, but very steadily, increased from 157,000 to 200,000 per year.

The exposure of so many Singaporeans to life abroad has become a test of our understanding of what it means to be a Singaporean. This is part of the natural process of nation-building, which is never a finished project.

In fact, the illusion of finality in nation-building may in some ways explain why Singaporeans are anxious about population change. The evolution of what it means to be a US citizen took over 200 years of quiet and noisy arguments, covert and overt violence, and multiple legal revisions. Europe witnessed struggles spanning hundreds of years between individual countries in nation-building. In the turmoil, they foisted upon themselves principles of liberty and fraternity that, up till this day, continue to be tested and renegotiated by population flows and economic exigencies.

Amidst the noise of Singapore’s immigration debate, there is a need for Singaporeans, politicians and citizens alike, to evolve a way of speaking about ourselves without becoming divided. Developing a vocabulary of citizenship may help to untie some of the knots that current immigration debates in Singapore have revealed.

Starting at the beginning

A unique geographical position, lack of resources and a colonial policy of encouraging migration resulted in a varied mix of people, which became our only resource.

However, it is often easy to confuse the management of human resources with the management of natural resources. Managing ourselves as resources goes beyond regenerating harvests, replenishing raw materials and enhancing yields through skills upgrading. If one accepts that Singapore’s only resource is its people, one also has to accept that this resource is dynamic, and that human interaction and movement are part of that dynamism.

Hence, the constant talk of “reinventing” ourselves involves more than just economic strategising and identifying the next hub. It includes reinventing how Singaporeans look at ourselves and our relationships with non-citizens. It includes taking stock of our demography and realising that perhaps an overemphasis on defining and strengthening an ephemeral “core” runs counter to our origins and may do more harm to our social well-being.

Rethinking the Singapore “core”

Regular references to “heartland” and the “Singapore core” by Singaporean politicians and citizens alike, limit the understanding of what it means to be Singaporean by accentuating multi-dimensional cleavages between Singaporean citizens, and between Singaporean citizens and non-citizens.

The fact is that all Singaporeans already lie at the “core” of our nation and in many ways, through habit and thinking, all Singaporeans are should be considered “heartlanders”. This perspective has been obscured because the term “heartland” has been talked about in such a way that to be a one is also to be someone who is not “cosmopolitan”, not “outward-looking” and not “entrepreneurial”. This makes it difficult to encourage an attitude open to change and adaptation, qualities that lie at the origins of our nationhood.

It would be more meaningful to talk about when and what aspects of being a “heartlander” do Singaporeans choose to display, and not preoccupy the debate with dichotomies of who is (or is not) part of the Singapore “core”. The waving of NRICs in a show of solidarity against non-citizens during the May Day gathering at Hong Lim Park [2],  is another reminder of how seductive it is to think in dichotomic terms, which easily mutates into xenophobia.

Similarly, when Ms Grace Fu, Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, lamented that it was a difficult decision for new citizens to shed their old allegiances to become Singapore citizens [3],  she reinforced a prevalent idea that citizenship is black and white. Despite the natural tendency to think in such stark terms, this need not be the case. There is never a shortage of stories on how new citizens rally and maintain an interest in the evolution of their original homeland, and of how Singaporeans negotiate the terrain of home and belonging while living and working overseas

All over the world, one reads about the diaspora — about how individuals negotiate the terrain of being American and mainland Chinese, of being British and Indian, of being Irish and Canadian, of being Thai and Australian, and of being Malaysian and Singaporean. What of being Singaporean and Filipino, Singaporean and British, or Singaporean and Vietnamese? How will Singaporeans, politicians and citizens alike, engage with a person with such a multi-dimensional identity?

Highlighting this in no way denigrates national allegiances. But it brings attention to the reality that as we become ever more cosmopolitan, people will have to transition from old to new meanings of citizenship.


As Singapore continues to celebrate its nimbleness, it will also be reinventing its rules of co-existence amongst its people. Thinking and speaking about ourselves and non-citizens in a different way now, is a natural step in our process of re-invention and may make one realise that citizens and non-citizens can be surprising with their ways of being Singaporean.


[1] Source:

[2] Source:

[3] Source:



Bennett Wong was previously with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He is now working in the field of commodity finance.

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