When I was in Hong Kong for an exchange programme, I assumed the role of a de facto ambassador for Singapore.
For four months, I was surrounded by Hong Kongers and other students of different nationalities who had little idea of what Singapore was (really) like.
Sure, most Hong Kongers had heard of Singapore.
Some would exclaim with awed admiration, “Ah, Lee Kuan Yew! What a great leader you have,” before lowering their voices to mutter darkly, “I wish Hong Kong had a Mr. Lee too.”
Others would pinpoint our national icons and landmarks with varying accuracy, which was a constant source of amusement for me.
“I ate at hawker centres, Singapore food is very good!” “I go to the spaceship-looking building ah!” “Singapore so hot!” My local friends would say in their characteristic sing-song intonations of Hong Kong English.
Whenever I met a new local friend, we would perform a courteous ritual which entailed:
- surprised looks upon learning that I hailed from Singapore
- their immediate recollections of anything and everything Singaporean (durians! the Merlion! the crazy heat!)
- warm welcomes and eager enthuse over why I chose Hong Kong
After the successful execution of this informal protocol, my duty as a Singaporean Ambassador would officially begin.
Here are five questions Hong Kongers had that never failed to stump me, and which I never had a simple answer for.
1. Are all Singaporeans Chinese?
Hong Kong has an overwhelmingly Chinese population, so it was quite uncommon to meet non-Chinese Hong Kongers. When I did, I noticed that they mostly stuck to their own communities.
From what I understood, non-Chinese Hong Kongers, especially those who were unable to speak Cantonese, were also often marginalised in society. And I noticed a subtle discrimination–or at least an avoidance–of people of South Asian heritage in general.
So Hong Kongers were often surprised to learn that our population comprised of Singaporean Chinese, Malays, Indians, “Other” (those of mixed ethnicities, like the Eurasians, Chindians and Peranakans), Caucasians and foreigners.
2. How did you know Cantonese? What is Singlish?
I always received looks of surprises whenever I revealed that my parents (and their parents’ parents and so on) grew up speaking Cantonese.
But explaining why I couldn’t speak my true mother tongue always gave me a pang of shame.
I’d ramble about how my great grandparents or “ancestors” came to Singapore from China as immigrants, but because we learnt English and Mandarin in schools, dialects like Cantonese and Teochew became increasingly redundant.
On the other hand, explaining Singlish was a lot tougher, and involved a lot more fudging.
I mean, what is Singlish?
I’m sure a linguist would be able to come up with a better definition, but it’s basically our local ‘language’ that includes an extensive vocabulary borrowing words from our various languages and dialects.
I remember how someone asked us what ‘alamak’ meant after hearing my friend Vic say it on more than one occasion. Our explanation? “It’s like an exclamation mark (!) said out loud.”
3. What is a Singaporean food?
This one was tough.
Try describing laksa to someone who has never heard of laksa before. It’s a… Peranakan dish, I think? It’s a coconut milk, curry broth with thick white noodles, prawns, oysters and fish cake.
How about prata? Hmm, it’s an Indian food, with this dude who takes some dough and whacks, flattens and fries it on this flat stove till it’s nice and crispy-ish. You eat with curry and sugar. Sometimes you can even eat it with a fried egg or cheese or blueberry jam or chocolate spread!
Now try ice kachang. Ummm, it’s a Malay dessert of shaved ice, colourful liquid flavourings, these little green ‘worms’, attap seeds which are chewy oval things, red bean, corn… and I think that’s it. Right?
Bak chor mee? Nasi padang? Palak paneer? … I give up.
I remember one surreal moment as I was describing satay as “slivers of meat skewered on sticks, barbecued, and eaten with rice cakes, peanut gravy, cucumbers and onion.” Saying it made me feel ridiculous.
Singaporean food can’t be explained. It just has to be eaten.
The best answer any Singaporean can ever give is, “Aiya, just come to Singapore and you’ll find out for yourself lah!”
4. What do you think about your government? Is Singapore a dictatorship? Do you support the PAP?
These questions were inevitable, especially since I was a politics student, taking a class on democracy, witnessing the pro-democracy movement, and living in a politically liberal environment.
I often struggled with answering this, especially after a jarring realisation that the way we Singaporeans view ‘authoritarian’ countries like China or North Korea is pretty much how the rest of the world sees us.
The moment my tutor mentioned Singapore in one of my politics classes, everyone around me smirked–and that smacked me right in the face–the fact that Singapore’s perceived as unfree and undemocratic, a place to shudder when thought about, where people lacked freedom and didn’t know what they were missing out on.
But the funny thing is, most of us Singaporeans believe that we are a democracy. While we may not be liberal per se, we do enjoy free, fair and regular elections, universal suffrage and basic political rights. For many of us, that’s exactly what democracy means.
Yet for many Hong Kongers, that’s merely its skin and bones. For them, democracy’s real substance and meaning is found in a high degree of political and liberal freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of the press.
I loved discussing politics with Hong Kongers, be it with my professor over dinner, student union members waving petitions over our heads, or with friends as we got to know one another better.
Talking with them gave me a refreshing insight to the liberal democratic mentality and the impetus for their political vibrancy and fervour. At the same time, it gave me a chance to share about Singapore’s side of things, and the reasons for why our political system and culture are the way they are.
Getting to live, breathe and interact with politics was definitely one of the highlights of being in Hong Kong.
Last but not least…
5. Is chewing gum banned?
Long story short, yes, it’s technically banned; but no, we do still get to enjoy chewing gum.
Ask every Singaporean family who’s ever made a day trip to Malaysia!
Even though this prohibition has (basically) been in place since time immemorial, there’s still a horrified fascination around the world with the fact that we can’t stick our gum onto pavements and trains.
Oh International Media, how I abhor that perennial one-liner on our gum ban that’s in Every Single Article Written About Singapore.
You’re making the jobs of us de facto ambassadors so much harder! (Sigh.)
Even though I had to field tough questions like these and more, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of sharing about Singaporean society, culture and politics; and in exchange, learning more about Hong Kong’s. It forced me to think about who I was as a Singaporean, and invited me to see my nationality and identity from a fresh perspective. Though I’m probably not the best citizen out there, when it comes down to it, I do think that there is something precious and worth defending about Singapore.
And I’d like to think I did pretty well as an amateur ambassador.