SINGAPOREANS AND FOREIGNERS

SINGAPOREANS AND FOREIGNERS
SEVEN TRUE WAYANS TALK ABOUT CULTURES AND IDENTITY
BY Lee Chung Horn

The people who took part in the discussion had all shown up at a church talk. Photo by Francis Chua.

The seven True Wayans were Matthew Mak, Jovan Paul Chitakkarottu, Becky Goh, Nevan Ng, Mayden Asibor, Loli Sani and me.

That’s not the order that you see us in the photo. And Nevan and Loli don’t even appear here. You will see them later as you read on.

In September this year, our church organized a talk called “Cultural Sensitivity in doing Gospel Work“. The speaker was Andrew Sabaratnam. He’s in his 60s, was born in Malaysia, travels widely, and lives in Singapore. He is an engineer, Bible scholar, educator and writer.

Andrew isn’t the first person we’ve heard tell us that God has brought the world to our doorstep, that today’s missionaries don’t always have to cross oceans, they just have to cross their road.

This statement about how missions has changed is one we’ve heard quite a few times on Mission Sunday, or at mission events organized by our mission committee. So, how was Andrew different?

Well, he was quick to drop a fact that not many of us knew—that 49% of Singapore’s population is made up of foreigners.

He talked about things we don’t often mention in church—like xenophobia, racism and exploitation. He asked: “Is the Singapore church too task-oriented? In our outreach work, do we too often forget that we need to be friends first? Has it become our custom to do things the American way—get straight to the point, business before people? And are Chinese nationals and Japanese people more relational than Singaporeans?”

He wasn’t making an unkind observation.

Well, I think you could tell that Andrew has interacted with people from many parts of the world. He was folksy. He talked about Nabeel Qureshi, which made the younger people sit up. He talked about his overseas experiences, and importantly, he talked about foreigners and migrants who live in Singapore. These people make up 49%, so whether we like it or not, they’re not people we can ignore, or push past.

He said, and I think he’s right, that Christians sometimes see missions in a one-dimension way, as a task to do, the better with skills, training and prayer. But before we even learn basic Thai, or Arabic or Japanese, or take a culture immersion course, we should realise sharing the gospel with a foreign person will go in unexpected directions.

Because the person in front of us has emotions, and prejudices and an identity that makes her who she is. How successfully we share the good news with her depends on how well we understand her identity.

Very certainly, some of us have never visited New York City, Bengaluru, or the Middle East, and have no such ambitions. We don’t need to sign up for cultural training. This does not change anything because we live in a wired global village. This village — Germans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Iraqis, Taiwanese, Indonesians, Brazilians, Bangladeshis and more – have set up home in Singapore.

There were 29 listeners at Andrew’s Saturday afternoon talk. Many enjoyed his session which was sprinkled with movie clips. They were eager to share their thoughts, comments and questions.

Three weeks after the talk, I asked a small group of people to meet for a chat. This is rich material we could get our teeth into again, and more deeply. I wanted a bold mix of Singaporeans and foreigners, young and old, men and women. The reasons are plain–because young people see things differently from older people, and men operate differently from women. Do Singaporeans and foreigners think about things differently? If so, how differently?

This is a transcript of our discussion. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Lee Chung Horn: Thank you for coming. You can speak your mind!

Matthew Mak: I work in business development. I have many colleagues who are foreigners. Many have become friends. As a Christian, I want to share the gospel, and this very much includes them.

Jovan Chitakkarottu: I’m from South India. I’m a student at Singapore Bible College. I help the worship bands and the choir. You can all see I’m a foreigner.

Nevan Ng: I came to True Way in 2018. I’m a Singaporean student at NUS, but right now, I’m interning at IRAS.

Becky Goh: I’m Singaporean. I’m part of the young adults ministry. I’ve been in True Way for eight years.

Mayden Asibor: I’m Filipino. I came in 2014. I’m in the church choir. I work at an IT company doing accounts administration.

Loli Sani: I’m from north-eastern India. I came to Singapore in 1999. I joined True Way in 2014.

Chung Horn: First question–what in Andrew Sabaratnam’s talk excited you?

Mayden Asibor.

Mayden: It was the part where he showed how people who move to a foreign country for work and become Christians there then return home to their countries of origin. They carry the gospel home. They bring about conversions in their own families and communities. It’s just like me. I came here to work and eventually I will go back to the Philippines. Maybe I will bring back the guitar ministry and ukulele ministry and stuff I learned here. I don’t think Filipino churches have these ministries. And I pray I will carry the gospel home.

Chung Horn: When are you planning to leave?

Mayden: I’ve been wanting to go back since 2020, the year COVID-19 began. Right now, my contract hasn’t ended. In fact, my boss has kept renewing my work permit. We’re a small company. It’s all hands-on-deck with us. I think he wants me to stay. But I’ve been praying: “God, if you really want me to leave, please get the authorities to stop renewing my permit!”

Jovan: I was very struck by God’s immigration policy. That’s the term Andrew used. He talked about Abraham. Abraham was an immigrant from Ur who went to Haran and then Canaan. He went into Egypt. Abraham crossed lands and borders in pursuit of God’s promise to bless him and make of him a great nation. Three years ago, I, too, left my family, my country and my job as a music teacher. I moved to Singapore to study. I became an immigrant, a stranger in Singapore. I knew nobody. In the beginning I felt very lonely. I realized I had to learn new things quickly.

Matthew Mak.

Matthew: In my work, I have to travel to places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. I know about cultural differences, but I also know all people share a common humanity.

If we want to share the good news across cultures, we need to understand cultures and customs. Andrew gave us many examples of how and why people are different. If we become friends and trust each other, we can forgive each other our wrong assumptions and wrong words. We can continue the conversation. Relationships are so important.

Becky: Singapore is a multicultural, multireligious and pluralistic society. We have so many nations here. We can’t be ignorant or presumptuous. We can’t just impose on other people, especially when we’re talking about faith.

Nevan Ng. Photo by Png Eng Keat.

Nevan: The Bible has many stories about migration, but the policy Andrew talks about is not really a policy because policy is a modern idea. The policy is God’s heart to allow people to move and migrate because this is His way of saving the world. I used to think people migrate for economic reasons. Of course they want to make a living. They need to feed families. But perhaps God also takes people into faraway lands because He wants them to hear the good news and carry the good news home. Migration is not just because the world has opened up, it’s not an accident. It is God’s purpose.

Loli Sani.

Chung Horn: Loli, this talk was your idea.

Loli: Yes. I wanted to bring a talk like this to True Way. I asked Andrew to come. I’ve been in Singapore long enough to bump up against some of the ways that Singaporeans think and act. I’ve been on the receiving end a little bit, if you know what I mean. In Singapore, there’s a big premium on IQ. In school, our students are taught to excel academically. Nothing wrong with that. What about EQ? Well, some people have EQ, some not. But EQ can be improved and it’s something we should all work on.

Then there’s also CQ, or cultural quotient, or how well we relate to people of a different cultural background. I’ve observed that the average Singaporean doesn’t have a lot of CQ.  For example, in church, people have said to me: “’Loli, you should just stop talking about your Indian-ness. Stop using illustrations from India.’ Another person said: ‘You’ve already been in Singapore such a long time, stop talking like an Indian!’” I made a joke, but I still remember how it hit me.

Chung Horn:  Indeed, the idea of assimilation. Do we expect or require a foreign person to make himself culturally indistinct from the local person? We’ll see if we can talk a bit about this later.

Loli:  I think, unlike us, Jesus was very culturally sensitive, and he can be a role model for us. He didn’t ignore a person’s cultural background or biases. He didn’t assume everyone he met was the same as everyone else. He didn’t obliterate a person’s cultural identity, or ignore it.

Because of how migration has evolved in the modern world, we now see people from third-world countries going into first-world countries where they become missionaries. Imagine this!

Globalisation has reversed the archetype of the privileged white man bringing the gospel to poor, illiterate savages. It’s upside down.

Also, many churches have in recent time been interested in hiring music pastors and worship pastors. Here, foreigners are filling the gap, more than locals. But there’s still resistance – people are still not sure if they want foreigners in these church positions.

Chung Horn: Let’s talk about overseas. Where have you folks traveled to?

Jovan Chitakkarottu.

Jovan: I’ve never travelled, never lived abroad. Singapore is the first time I’ve been so far from home. I had culture shock. This term, I was elected as president of the students’ council at Singapore Bible College. I’m a quiet person, so I really had a lot to adjust to. For the first time, I had to deal with disagreements and quarrels. But I learned things I wouldn’t have if I didn’t leave India.

  “Singapore is the first time I’ve been so far from home. I had culture shock. I learned things I wouldn’t have if I didn’t leave India.”

Becky Goh.

Becky:  Once while holidaying in Spain with my parents. I saw graffiti that said “Asians, go home!” Another time, on a U.S. road trip, my dad went into a public restroom at a rest-stop, and found a group of men inside. I think they were homeless men. They’d decided to live in the restroom because they had nowhere to shelter. They shouted aggressively at my father and told him to get out. I think they didn’t want an Asian man trespassing on them. Was this xenophobia?  Well, it shook us.

Chung Horn: To be true, the racist graffiti we sometimes see in foreign countries is aimed more at foreigners who have settled there. The graffiti is not really aimed at tourists. But because we’re human, the graffiti hurts our feelings too. Reading racist graffiti makes us grow up a bit. This is a moment when we realize the world we live is broken, and more complicated than we think. What’s important is we should check our hearts—has a seed of self-protecting anger been planted? 

Remember the media stories from 2020 of Chinese people and Asian people in the UK and US who were assaulted because the COVID-19 virus originated in Wuhan? Racism rears its ugly head. Locals don’t like foreigners because they’re different, and they compete for jobs.

All societies struggle with their immigrant populations and ethnic minorities. Should we limit immigrants? All societies struggle with the idea of assimilation. Is assimilation a good thing? Is it attainable?

As a Chinese Singaporean, and four of us here are Chinese Singaporeans, I want to say that a person from a majority race is not always aware of the predicaments of people from minority groups. We are often blind to their difficulties because of our perceived privilege. I’m not just talking about foreigners here. For example, I have a doctor friend who is an Indian Singaporean who’s lived here all his life. He said that if I opened my eyes, I will discover that there are lines he does not cross because he’s Indian.

In our Singaporean social compact, in our political narrative, in our schools, our four races are rarely identified as majority and minority.

You will point this out to me and you’re right – in our Singaporean social compact, in our political narrative, in our schools, our four races are rarely identified as majority and minority. We are one united people. We prefer to say Singapore has four main racial groups. My categorization of majority and minority is just based on percentages, but you see my point.

Nevan:  When I was doing NS, I had one bunkmate who was Malay. The training during Ramadan when he fasted often tired him because he didn’t eat and drink. Could training have been adjusted for him? I don’t know. But he wasn’t unhappy. He was willing to continue.

Chung Horn: What nationalities are there in your workplace or school?

Mayden: For me, Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans and me, one Filipina

Nevan: Indians, Malaysians, Sri Lankans.

Loli: My godparents who are now retired are white Australians. When they were working, they took care of me like I were their own daughter although they already have six children of their own. They opened their home to foreign students from Germany and Brazil. When my family travels, we have met people who asked: “Is it OK, if I come to Singapore, can I visit you?” These people are not always Christians, I’m talking about drivers, waitresses, ordinary people we meet. I often wish I could open up my home like my godparents, but It’s hard for my family to put people up.

Jovan: There is a Hindu security guard in SBC who has become my friend. One time he was asked pointblank if he was a Christian. He felt embarrassed because he had to say no.  When in actual fact, he knows a lot about what Christians believe. He is not able to convert to Christianity because he wants to stay loyal to his Hindu great-grandfather.   

Mayden:  This may surprise you, but my closest friends here are Singaporeans. But I have a group of twelve woman friends whom I go out with who are all Filipino domestic helpers! Whenever they invite me out, I will join them. Wait, they are not the loud ones, they’re all well-behaved! But when we arrive at restaurants, we get a look and a sigh as if we’re bad for their image. When we go to high-end shopping malls, pretty much no sales person will entertain us. Not even for a bottle of moisturizer which I should be able to afford. All because I’m with my Filipino friends. But when I’m out with my Singaporean friends, the treatment I get is totally different. The sales staff treat me as if I’m Singaporean.  

Chung Horn: Have you ever thought of ditching your Filipino friends?    

Mayden: No. Never. I have a thick skin, this does not hurt me much anymore. I don’t care if people think I’m a maid. So what?  Domestic helper is an honest job. But do I feel hurt when they shoo us out of shops and restaurants? Sometimes.

Chung Horn: Mayden, have you had any unhappy encounters at True Way because you’re Filipino?

Mayden. No. Nobody has looked down on me. When I look around the church, I see Filipinas who are identifiably domestic helpers because they’re in church with their ah-ma’s. I see that our church people also talk to them, not just their ah-ma’s. This is what I see.

Chung Horn: Some Singapore churches have Filipino fellowships. Do you think they are a good idea? Does this lead to racial segregation? Is that a good thing?

Mayden: But what about the Thai service then?

Matthew: I would prefer a congregation where all nationalities come together.

Loli: When we say people from different cultures should integrate, the question always comes up: “Integrate into who, which group?”

Majority groups instinctively feel that minority people should blend into the majority group, not the other way. We think: “If people want to join us, they should try to conform to our mould. If they do that, they’re welcome. If they don’t conform, they should try harder.” But this expectation can turn people off.

“You can still mingle with other people, understand them, get along with them without sacrificing who you are.”

This has happened to me. Well-meaning Singaporean friends have told me more than once: “You’ve lived in Singapore so long, you must love durian. Don’t you love durian? What’s wrong with you?” At the end of the day, I think we should not have to apologize about retaining our identities. You can still mingle with other people, understand them, get along with them without sacrificing who you are. I truly believe that churches should not be afraid to be hodge-podge. There may be reasons for Filipino fellowships, women’s groups, men’s groups, but there are potential danger areas, too.

Chung Horn: Because of the ways the world’s changed, young adults today meet foreigners more often, more readily than older adults. Particularly young adults in university, where there’re often three or four classmates who are foreign. Compared to older adults, young adults are more curious, more liberal and less judgmental. They don’t have to work day jobs, so they have time to explore friendships. Our young adults ministry is a fertile place for friendships with foreigners.

Becky:  We recently had a girl from Kyrgyzstan in YAM, Rufina. I think Rufina, who’s now left Singapore, found us to be a bit bookish because we liked bible study and the youth group she belonged to in her country spent more time on singing and games. But Rufina often met us outside of church and YAM. There, we would eat together and chat.

Chung Horn: For many immigrants, America is the promised land. Many people want a green card, a ticket to a better life. The average American person would say that assimilation means immigrants fitting into American society without creating undue problems for themselves, or for those already there. Peter Salins, author of Assimilation, American Style gives us a more thoughtful definition. He says that immigrants would be welcome if they agreed to abide by three simple precepts. First, they accept English as their language. Second, they live by what is commonly referred to as the Protestant work ethic, which is to be self-reliant, hardworking and morally upright. Third, they take pride in their American identity and America’s liberal democratic and egalitarian principles. These are not exhaustive ideas, but they get at what most Americans consider essential to successful assimilation.

Matthew: Just before coming to this meeting, I was queueing to buy my food. I asked the Indian man for kopi-o kosong. He didn’t understand my order and went to ask his boss who was Singaporean Chinese. From a business point of view, this was an instance where language created a problem, and I don’t mean for me, but for the Indian man himself. He really has to learn English and Singlish. He doesn’t have to stop being Indian, but he would be more effective and happier at his job. 

Chung Horn: Foreigners make up 49% of our population. They will always be here. If that is the reality, assimilation would be a good thing, no?

Proponents feel that assimilation promotes equality. To them, equality is a human good. The foreigner should feel equal to the local person, not second-class. Opponents of assimilation decry the unthinking erasing of ethnic traits as if these count for nothing, or less. Assimilation is especially hard for older people. Assimilation is easier for young people who are often more anxious to identify with their adopted culture and who already understand the global ideas from the internet. What does the Bible teach us about assimilation? Do you think True Way on the right track?

Matthew: I remember an incident I will never forget. This involved a colleague from India. He was an immigrant to Singapore, a biologist. We were both in our late-20s. At a meeting, the topic of chemical spills came up. I remember saying it was important for staff to handle chemicals properly, and that some chemicals bleach the skin to white. This man stopped talking to me after the meeting. When I later asked him why our relationship had changed, he told me he felt I’d made a racist remark. I protested, I said that Singaporeans are, by and large, not racist, and that he should see that. He understood. Our friendship has grown through many years. He has now become a neighbourhood leader and Singaporean. He works with young people in Singapore. He is now as Singaporean as I am.  Trust takes time.

Loli: In churches, even if it’s not always possible in other civil groups, we should retain our identities. I feel we don’t have to discard who we are in order to mix and mingle with people who are different from us.

Becky: Because Singapore prides itself as a global multicultural country, the pressure to assimilate may be less pronounced. Global cities welcome people from around the world, you can’t insist that every person must be the same.

Loli: Yes, but in many ways, we all need to assimilate to survive. I like Matthew’s story about the kopi-o seller not understanding Hokkien and Malay. In a perverse reversal, I remember a Singaporean bus driver getting annoyed with me for not speaking in Hokkien. Well, my Hokkien is not that good. But I was the passenger, I was the client riding his bus!

Matthew: I think assimilation has to be a two-way thing. It’s not only the responsibility of the citizens to welcome the foreigner. The foreigner must see it as his responsibility to understand Singapore culture, too. May I share another story?  I went to Iran once for a business meeting. My Iranian contact asked me to stay inside his home. He was that welcoming.

We are to treat the immigrant as any other person in our community. We are to love them even as we love our very selves.

Chung Horn: Scripture is clear on this: in no way are we to harm the foreigner. We are to treat them as any other person in our community. We are to love them even as we love our very selves.

A thought just came to me. In Singapore, we don’t have a big problem with illegal immigrants. Our immigrants are legal, which means that, by and large, they have jobs and work permits, or else, student visas. They are respectable. In other countries, this isn’t always the case. In the U.S., for example, there were 10.5 million illegal immigrants in 2021. They made up 22% of the foreign-born U.S. population, with Mexico being the most common origin country. Illegals are not always bad people, though they’re often thought of that way. Employers accept illegals where their contributions are needed. But there are problems. Illegal immigrants are a polarising issue in U.S. politics. We Singaporean Christians don’t struggle with this problem, but American churches are forced to ask themselves: “Do we have to love illegal migrants like our very selves?”

On any given Sunday, people from diverse backgrounds and countries gather to worship God.

Loli: Listen, at our coming Service of Lessons and Carols, our participants will wear national costumes and ethnic costumes.

Jovan: I think True Way is doing the right thing with foreigners. There’s no discrimination here. There’s a big heart. And I hope all of you will like my kurta and my mund.  

Lee Chung Horn is a church elder and medical doctor. He is the editor-in-chief of TOGETHER. He took all the photos except otherwise indicated.

Opinions expressed are those of our authors. This is the first article of our December 2023 issue. Next week, our writer takes you on the recent Turkey-Greece church trip. All rights reserved. Please send comments to [email protected]. Previous issues are available at trueway.org.sg/newsletters.