Headlines, Lifelines

Sinking roots, settling down and building a nation

The Sunday Times, Sept 7, 1997

By Asad Latif

Yet again, Singapore awaits foreigners offering their talents and labours. Some will leave after a while and others will stay on. ASAD LATIF looks at how earlier generations of expatriates turned into settlers.

LONG ago, people cut down a tree. Then there was a terrible storm, the river overflowed its banks and carried the tree out. It moved over long stretches of land, but came to a rest before reaching the open sea. When the flood subsided, it lay abandoned, wilting away.

So says Kuo Pao Kun in his play, The Silly Little Girl And The Funny Old Tree, whose fifth scene is called "Island Of The Abandoned Tree".

The story continues.

The thought of death roused the tree to fury. It shook and made waves in the river. It stretched its branches desperately and touched the river bed, and it sprouted leaves that caught the generous nurture of the sun.

Its branches, leaves and roots awoke to life. Fish and prawns gathered around them, and birds and animals bred by them.

"So they went on, generation after generation, with the old ones burying themselves, turning into ashes and nourishment, feeding those who came after them. Finally, the abandoned floating tree had grown into a little island."

Though the island has no name, the play can be seen as a parable of nationhood.

In invoking the elements and calling upon them to bear witness, Kuo gives the origins of Singapore the quality of a natural force, primal, obstinate, inviolable and irreversible.

The play is a secular creation hymn. It rises to a crescendo in the Tree Dance, a ritual movement in choral solidarity: "One tree joined to another tree, and then joined to another tree, forming a row of trees. One row of trees joined to another row of trees, and another row of trees, forming a forest of trees.

"Facing the approaching storm, they begin to dance and sing ..."

The tree, which embodies the rooted resilience of tradition, tells the story of the island to the little girl -- who, as a child, personifies the eternal purity of the land, and who, as a woman-in-the-making, is a promise of its unfailing fertility and continuity.

IN THE imaginative history of Singapore offered by the play, the island itself appears as a migrant entity. No wonder that it has attracted migrants, and continues to do so.

But the tree-turned-island has sunk its roots. What about its people?

China-born Kuo (right), who came here when he was 10, has not only sunk roots but also, as the play shows, turned them into an anchor of his art.

It was not like this always. Immigration reflected the ebb and flow of colonial labour policy, and most of the early immigrants came here to make money and leave.

To say this is not, however, is to belittle them as just another episode in the legacy of colonial transience.

Choices were not easy for the huaqiao, or Chinese sojourners. Their story is well-known, though what they were up against is worth remembering.

In his contribution to the volume, Sojourners And Settlers: Histories Of Southeast Asia And The Chinese, the historian Wang Gungwu describes the cultural baggage they carried.

He notes that the modern Chinese term for migrant, yimin, "is derived from the phrase yimin shibian (moving people to support border areas as military colonies) or yimin tongcai (moving people to ease economic conditions, usually because of famine or other natural calamities)".

Either way, the term implied enforced movement by officials, and neither was an endearing comment on the yimin. There was also the term liumin, which was worse: It meant people running away (as from the law). At best, there was nanmin: refugees.

As Professor Wang explains, the huaqiao looked for protection to the idea that they were sojourners, or temporarily absent from China, and not voluntary migrants, to escape from these hapless connotations.

That is understandable.

The result was that in the South-east Asian countries where they lived, the Chinese remained distinctive, a quality embodied in the very word nanyang. The Nanyang being the land that lay immediately beyond the South China Sea, China was the locus of the Nanyang identity.

To live in the Nanyang was to live on the geographical and existential fringes of China. The labourer or trader who arrived in Singapore or Malaya saw himself as making a detour through the periphery to return to the centre, even though it had rejected and disparaged him.

That self-perception began changing -- and Singapore's social destiny changed with it -- when the authorities began allowing Chinese women to arrive.

The Chinese male could now found a home here. With his wife, and with his children born on local soil, he had a family in which lay the seeds of the long transition from sojourner to settler.

In the change lay the makings of today's Singapore.

The reality of the transformation was underscored by the response to a foreign article in 1980 which portrayed Singaporean job-hoppers as descendants of country-hoppers.

It declared that many Singaporeans were descended from migrants who had settled here because they could not do better in other places where they had set up shop.

"Therefore job-hopping for them is nothing when they compare 'country-hopping' which their fathers or grandfathers did," the article argued.

A public uproar ensued, not so over the label of job-hoppers as over the audacious attempt to hold the past responsible for it. People refused to let anyone revile their past, migrant and all. Their sentiments were strong because these Singaporeans were here to stay.

THE story of the Indian community is a familiar one, too.

"Indians have been present in Singapore from the very first day of its foundation as a British trading post by Raffles in January 1819," according to the late Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu in the book, Indian Communities In Southeast Asia.

A small band of Indians, consisting of sepoys, lascars and assistants -- apart from the trader Naraina Pillay, who was part of Raffles' entourage -- grew as labourers and traders were attracted by expanding employment and business opportunities here.

By the 1950s, a sea-change had come about in Indian attitudes towards Malaya and Singapore vis-a-vis India. In contrast to "their earlier role as birds of passage in temporary exile from their village hearth", Indians identified their interests with their new homelands and became an integral part of political and economic life there.

WHILE immigration from outside South-east Asia was a function of colonial policy, Chinese and Indian affiliation with Singapore grew independently of administrative fiat.

Remarkably, this applied also to Britons who had come in as part of the Empire.

Among them was Francis Thomas (right), teacher, social worker and Minister for Communication and Works in both Labour Front governments between 1955 and 1958.

Born in a small British village, brought up to believe in God, King and Country, and educated at Cambridge, he came to Singapore looking for a job and found a home. His Memoirs Of A Migrant reveals how a Briton, whose liberal egalitarianism set him against the institutionalised racism of his time, became a Singaporean.

Being taken prisoner by the Japanese influenced that choice, but his decision to stay on after the departure of colonialism, marry and set up family here had more to it.

His explanation is brief, simple and heartfelt: "I came to Singapore as an alien and stranger, an expatriate. I have found here a new identity as a citizen of our new nation."

He speaks eloquently of the enigma of arrival: "We are all born into this world as strangers, carrying with us an inescapable inheritance from our family and race. Migration is a kind of second birth, in which we can to some extent choose what parts of our inheritance we will carry forward and use in our new lives.

"I am proud of much of my inheritance as an Englishman ... But I do not regret coming here and being a citizen of Singapore. It is a piece of good fortune for which I owe gratitude to my fellow citizens."

ULTIMATELY, the only way to determine who belongs to a country is to distinguish between those who are indigenous to it and those who are exogenous. That has less to do with who arrived "first", and more to do with what they make of their presence.

According to a sociologist, indigenous peoples see land as the foundation of their being, whereas in the exogenous view, land is territory, open to exploitation.

Indigenous Singaporeans abound, and more are being born every day.

Indeed, among the greatest of indigenous Singaporeans are those who, not being content with once having lived here, return before they die.

P. V. Sarma (right), a ranking member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), died in 1994, three years after he was allowed to re-enter the Republic.

Kerala-born Sarma -- who was banished from Singapore in 1952 and travelled to India before moving to China, where he lived for 32 years -- told his relatives before leaving this country that he hoped to be back again in better circumstances.

As proof of that hope, he held on to his identity card for all those years. "He always anticipated needing it again for the day he was allowed to come back here," his elder son said.

Kuantan-born Eu Chooi Yip, a fellow-leader of the CPM, died in Singapore in 1995, four years after being allowed to return here. He had fled to the Riau islands in 1953, and had been deported from Jakarta to Hanoi. He had gone to Beijing a year after being barred from re-entering Singapore in 1967.

Singapore was where he returned.

AND so the story continues.

Times have changed, and with them the kind of people needed by Singapore. Today's expatriates will not arrive by bum-boat, neither will they take "scoldings in a tongue I did not understand", like the rickshaw-puller does in Roger Vaughan Jenkins' collection of poems, From The Belly Of The Carp: Singapore River Voices.

They may wonder, like the first-generation immigrant in the same collection: "Even the sky here is different. Is that the same moon my father sees?"

But there is one thing that is unchanged. The immigrant who wonders about the moon remembers his father's words: "When you drink water be grateful to its source."

That source is Singapore, and Singapore is here.


Copyright 1998 Singapore Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.