The “foreigner’’ in this Singaporean
Updated: Feb 18
By Val Alvern Cueco Ligo
PHOTO: LIANG LEI
I am a first-generation Singaporean, having only become a citizen about three years ago. The rest of my 22 years on earth was spent as a Filipino citizen, albeit one born and raised in Singapore. The longest period I’ve stayed in the Philippines was just slightly under two months. My parents migrated here for work a few years before they had me — my mom was an accountant and my dad, an engineer. We try to go back every year but besides that, most of my life was spent here on this little red dot.
These circumstances gave me a peculiar dynamic growing up. Caught between two identities — Filipino and Singaporean — and two cultures, I tend to hyphenate them (Filipino-Singaporean) in my head.
Even as I played with my Singaporean friends in primary school, ate Singaporean food, learnt the intricacies of speaking Singlish, going home reminded me I was born an immigrant — fresh off the boat and negotiating a place for my identity. When I’m at home talking to my parents, my Rs become slightly more pronounced and my vowels, more rounded. (Here’s a video for you to hear what the difference is). My Singaporean syntax, though, would sometimes kick in in the middle of a sentence. I suppose I am, essentially, a Singaporean boy in a Filipino body.
This back and forth continued through my childhood and went beyond just how I spoke and what I ate. I remember once insisting on eating food out of my bowl with chopsticks because it was how many of my Chinese Singaporean friends in primary school would do it. I also remember how I became addicted to mee siam after I went to my Malay friend's house, and even told my parents I preferred it to Filipino food — the horror in their gasps still remains vividly.
I went to your average primary school, where foreigners were rare and “non-Singaporeans” were usually permanent residents whose parents came to Singapore when they were much too young to remember. Thinking back, all the friends I considered close then were Singaporean. Being young, the supposed binary of “local” and “foreign” weren’t concepts that I understood — I just cared about having pals for recess. Even at my afterschool haunts — the neighbourhood street soccer or basketball courts — I was hanging out with Singaporeans, just by sheer probability, since there were more of them around. The only Filipino kids I’ve met were those of my parent’s friends, usually at what I like to call “Pinoy Parties”.
However, secondary school surprised me. For some reason, my school had many people who might have been considered "foreigners": Filipinos and Indonesians who had just migrated over, but were technically Singaporeans, Malaysians who crossed the causeway every day for school, and many other nationalities — all in a school that was “semi-autonomous” and had in no way branded itself “international”. This school had an unexpected mix of Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, interacting without any labels of who was foreign and who was not. I suppose it was here where I became fully aware of the foreign population in Singapore. At the secondary school level, this understanding came quite late, but it gave me a newfound capacity to actually process this foreign reality that has shaped many of the opinions I have of the foreign population today.
Which is why growing up, I never completely understood the criticisms of foreigners or foreign talents, especially when conversations about overpopulation and immigration were at their most spiteful. To me, other foreign talents were like my parents; people who came here for a better life and were contributing to the economy. So even if their utility was merely monetary (something I am not completely comfortable with), they were still valuable members of society. In fact, I would actually expect people to be welcoming of foreigners. We really do need them, especially given the incredibly worrying total fertility rate of 1.14 in 2018.
This brings me to ask: Aren’t most people in Singapore considered a sort of pseudo-foreigner? Many of the Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian communities have roots from other countries. Is it about how long their ancestors have been here or whether they have a distinct Singaporean-ness in them? If it’s the former, how long is long enough for someone to be considered a “true-blue Singaporean”. If it’s just a matter of being born here and, in the case for men, doing National Service, then why do I still get people asking me where I am from?
Why do they go: Oh, so actually you from the Philippines lah (This really happened in many of my Grab rides). I sometimes force a Singaporean accent and some Singlish to get my Singaporean-ness through.
Truth to tell, I can’t really speak Tagalog or Bisaya, the dialect my parents speak. My incredibly vague comprehension of these languages has always made for awkward family gatherings. Someone will always ask, “Why can’t you speak Bisaya/Tagalog?” Others have said I can’t be a “real” Filipino without speaking them.
I am sure you realise by now that I’m in a bit of a grey area when it comes to my identity, with both sides telling me I’m not part of either. Yet here I am, trying to force my way in. For my Filipino side, it’s obvious — I can’t speak the language and I didn’t really even grow up there. For my Singaporean side, though, it gets a lot more contentious. Who exactly is Singaporean? Can’t my Filipino-ness be considered Singaporean? Or does my blood exclude me from being “truly” Singaporean?
At the risk of stereotyping, allow me to say that the boomers or even the Gen Xers are the ones most suspicious of foreigners. It was always someone significantly older telling me, oh, you’re actually from the Philippines. It might be because the younger generation grew up with foreigners already very much integrated into their social reality. The older generation had to witness their way of life gradually change and honestly, I can see how that could be scary.
But look on the flip side. For foreigners, their entire lives changed with an airplane ride.
I sometimes wonder about how things would have turned out if I was brought up in the Philippines. I was born and bred in Singapore — I would think my aspirations and concerns are largely aligned with locals my age. If I had stayed in the Philippines, I suspect that I would have aspired to emigrate like my parents, given that many Filipino professionals or graduates leave the country for work anyway.
I’m not entirely sure what motivated my parents to come to Singapore. I can’t imagine, though, how anxious they must have been about moving to another country — to uproot themselves, leave behind friends, family, and familiarity. I can’t imagine the kind of courage they needed to leave their entire identity behind to become a blank slate somewhere else, reduced to an economic number and labelled ‘foreign talent’. They had to sacrifice more than I probably ever will. And even if the economic rewards made it somewhat worth it, their reminiscences of home remind me that, for them, there will always be something missing.
Read the buzz over population here.