“New Yorkers Awoke to Snow-Covered City” (14 Mar 2017)

This one headline got me thinking. No, not about climate change or the lack of cold weather in equatorial Singapore – but rather, the proper noun used in the headline. New Yorker. It’s a demonym, which, as its root words (dẽmos – “people, tribe” and ónoma – “name”) imply, is a word that identifies residents or natives of a particular place.

New Yorker. Londoner. Shanghainese. Parisian. Delhiite. Manileño.

And… Singaporean?

Does Singaporean fall under the same category? It surely is a demonym too, as are Indian, Sri Lankan and Vietnamese. But those words also refer to either a nationality and/or an ethnicity, without addressing the issue of residency. An Indian need not be residing in India. An Indian need not even be a citizen of India.

In fact, calling myself a “Singaporean Indian” aligns well with the Singaporean norm of labelling races. It encompasses both my racial and national identity. I’m also Punjabi by ethnicity, or rather, a Singaporean Indian Punjabi.

And if I were living in London for a significant amount of time, and had started to identify with the city, I might even call myself a Singaporean Indian Punjabi Londoner – in an attempt to fully capture how I conceive of my identity.

What about a Burmese person, born and brought up in Myanmar, as a citizen of Myanmar, now living in Delhi? A Burmese Delhiite? Probably.

And what about a Vietnamese national, born and brought up in Hanoi, and now living in Singapore for a few years? Are they a Vietnamese Singaporean, or a Singaporean Vietnamese? Does the demonym Singaporean even apply in this case?

Let us re-examine demonyms. Location-based demonyms exist for countries, states and cities. Malaysian, Mauritian, Moroccan, Mississippian, Mumbaikar and Münchner are all demonyms, but only the first three imply citizenship. There is a formal process for becoming a Malaysian. However, Mississippi being a state, and Mumbai and Munich being cities, do not have formal boundaries around their demonym. One identifies as a Mumbaikar not through a government-backed ID, but after enduring the local train network daily and walking knee-deep in waterlogged streets every monsoon.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch once said, “[…] you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.” So even though location-based demonyms exist for countries, states and cities, it is clear that only adopting a country-based demonyms requires undergoing a formal (sometimes exclusive) process.

This presents the unique problem that a city-state like Singapore faces. The term ‘Singaporean’ is exclusive to citizens, and there is no unique demonym to signify residency in Singapore. As an example, a Singaporean living in California might one day start identifying as a Californian, or even a San Franciscan Californian, but a Californian living in Singapore would not simply call themselves ‘Singaporean’ without Singapore citizenship. The linguistic space required for a city-based identity is already occupied by our term for citizenship.

How does this missing demonym affect us?

We have a non-citizen population of 2.17 million (2017), making up more than 38% of the people living in Singapore. We generally classify this group into Permanent Residents (0.52 million) and non-residents (1.65 million), but it is difficult to state how many from each group truly identify with being in, and a part of, Singapore. It is harder yet to quantify how many citizens feel a belonging to the physical city that is Singapore. Unlike Londoners, we never had a specific word for it, and probably never even thought of this as another dimension to our identity.

However, this is the exact dimension of identity which gives us the chance to connect with the non-citizens of Singapore who may or may not call Singapore ‘home’, but still feel a sense of belonging to the place.

While assigning a term to this identity may not be completely necessary, it is worth thinking about the words we use and the sheer number of people left out in our assumptions. 38% of the resident population is not a trivial number. In fact, slicing and dicing by all the various parameters of identity (gender, culture, race, religion, citizenship), 38% qualifies as the fourth-largest identity group in Singapore, after ‘Chinese’ (race) and the two genders.

The missing demonym affects us because the roads we take are shaped by the words we use. It is worth being aware that we currently lack a word for ‘belonging-to-the-culture-and-vibe-of-Singapore’ without the formalities of citizenship. Most major cities in the world have it, allowing them to bond on a common identity.

If such a term existed in Singapore, it would be the common plane on which we would connect with the 38% non-citizens residing here. It would be the identity of modern Singapore, with all its mish-mash of cultures, races, religions, citizenships – and the journeys involved in all these identities.

Varun Soni is an eastie, Tampinesian, (naturalised) Singaporean, racially Indian, ethnically Punjabi; but born a Delhiite and an Indian citizen. His professional and social circles often connect to interesting individuals that inhabit the liminal space between belonging to Singapore and being a foreigner, some of whom inspired this essay.

This essay was first published with the title ‘Singaporean’ in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take. As Singapore turns 53, the book includes 53 reflections on the journeys and paths we take, as individuals and as a society. The book can be purchased at bit.ly/2MIlUFg.

Image by Michael CannonCC BY 2.0