Sinking roots, settling
down and building a nation
The Sunday Times, Sept 7,
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
"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?
(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
To say this is not, however, is to belittle them
as just another episode in the legacy of colonial
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
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
The reality of the transformation was underscored
by the response to a foreign article in 1980 which
portrayed Singaporean job-hoppers as descendants of
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
"Therefore job-hopping for them is nothing
when they compare 'country-hopping' which their
fathers or grandfathers did," the article
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
THE story of the Indian community is a familiar
"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
Remarkably, this applied also to Britons who had
come in as part of the Empire.
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.