#8 JANE Says … It Takes a Village
“In the early days of settlement, people came from all over the world, initially to simply trade or make a living before returning to their homeland,” says Jane Iyer of Jane’s SG Tours.
When Raffles and Farqhuar first arrived in 1819 to set up a trading base, they began assigning communities to specific parts of town. While the Malays and Arab traders had already established themselves in Kampong Glam, the British allocated land on the north side of the Singapore River to the Chinese; this area is still called Chinatown to this day.
Various waves of migration happened at all levels of society. The poorest came from parts of famine-ridden China, while others were brought to Singapore as indentured labor, often from southern India, to work on plantations, in leather tanning and in construction. Educated, and sometimes wealthy, Persians, Jews and Armenians came to Singapore fleeing revolution and persecution in the Middle East, and they quickly made their mark.
“The Armenian and Jewish communities have always been small, but their influence has been proportionately greater than their size, as they have provided leaders in business, politics and the community,” Jane says.
Meanwhile, the Peranakans constitute a much larger group and pre-WWII were very much the “bridge” between the local communities — especially the Chinese — and the Europeans, especially in the field of commerce.
“The Peranakans were a cultural mix themselves, so they had an inherent willingness to be open to other ideas and influences. They were even known as the “King’s Chinese” for their Anglophile ways,” says Jane.
Singapore’s ethnic fabric is a patchwork quilt of communities who have come to Singapore over the past two centuries to seek their fortunes and have stayed on to make it their home.
"Because of their overall numbers, it’s the Malay, Chinese, Indian and British communities who have had the most impact on Singapore’s history, culture and destiny,” says Jane.
Singapore is renowned worldwide as a cultural melting pot, a place where many nationalities co-exist peacefully, but Jane believes Singapore is more of a mosaic than a melting pot.
“While Singapore’s culture contains a blend of influences, one can still clearly see each of the parts separately, from Indian restaurants, temples and sari shops in Little India, to the Sultan Mosque and shops selling haj items in Kampong Glam and the Chinese temples and bak kwa stores in Chinatown,” says Jane.
With time, migrants turned into immigrants, though they still largely kept within their own ethnic circles and physical neighbourhoods, speaking their own language and cooking their native food. In the early years, there wasn’t a real Singaporean identity, as it was part of greater Malaya.
The Chinese formed Clan Associations to maintain support and sustain their family lines, while Eurasians, British and other European groups joined clubs as a way to foster close ties with their communities as well as for both social and financial support. Others, like Jewish immigrants, chose to live close to a synagogue so that they could maintain their faith and cultural values.
“Since Singapore’s break from Malaysia in 1965, things changed, and huge efforts have been made to build a feeling of nationhood and a unified Singaporean identity. Yet at the same time to respect the various traditions — be they religious, historical or cultural. It’s a fine balance, but one that I believe Singapore handles very well. While I think there’s a clear notion of what being a Singaporean means, our strength is definitely in our diversity,” Jane says with pride.