"The grim prospect of having to possibly defend my country from that of my extended family and close friends was unsettling."Biao Huan Foo

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of life in the military.

This article was inspired by Jonathan Chan's recent article, 'My time in the military'.

Malaysian. Singaporean. 华裔 (huá yì). Orang Cina. These are some of the labels that have followed me throughout my life as a Straits-Chinese who was born and raised in the State of Selangor until the age of 6, and educated in Singapore, the US – and now, the UK. From my time as a former Malaysian in Singapore’s education and military system, to my current experiences as an international student at the University of Cambridge, questions of national identity have continuously eluded me.

For context, just as certain European states are culturally similar, Malaysia and Singapore share close ties on many fronts. Unbeknownst to many (including a significant number of Singaporeans and Malaysians), our two countries have a common national language, Malay, and our ways of life are predominantly derived from the cultural interactions between the main ethnicities in the region, namely the Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasians. Barring policy differences, we are so rooted in ties of kinship that my Malaysian friends often tease Singaporeans for adopting Malaysian culture, and Singaporeans frequently comment on how our culture is synthetic – not in the pejorative sense, but rather in the sense that Singaporean culture is our own invention; a self-construction attempting to delineate an immaterial boundary that exists beyond the physicality of the Johor-Singapore border.

This perception is certainly not lost on the community of Singaporeans at Cambridge, whose society is aptly named ‘Cambridge University Malaysia and Singapore Association’ – a historical relic from the days during which Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister and the society’s founder, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, studied here.

“My national identity is complicated by a range of institutionalized issues.”

Personally speaking, and perhaps rather controversially, the manufactured nature of the difference between Malaysian and Singaporean identity is manifested more in policy than in cultural disparity. The policy of single citizenship is one example that perfectly sums up the subtleties and complexities of this situation; although both Malaysia and Singapore do not recognise dual nationalities, all Singaporean converts from Malaysia are not permitted to renounce their citizenship until they have completed military service and are deemed old enough to fill out a legally-binding renunciation of citizenship form called the “Borang-K”.

This policy placed people such as myself in a rather awkward situation, as it meant that while I was still under the age of 21 and serving in the Singapore Armed Forces, I was performing my duties as a Dual National who was equally eligible for conscription in the Malaysian Armed Forces (thankfully, I was placed in such a scenario).

To complicate matters, Malaysian Permanent Residents of Singapore are also required to serve in the Singapore Military or face being “blacklisted” by Singaporean Customs and Immigration Authorities – and, in accordance with the policy of single citizenship, they are often urged to choose between Singaporean and Malaysian citizenship upon completion of their service. This effectively means that many people with connections to Singapore and Malaysia face a perplexing dilemma: Despite our cultural roots in both Singapore and Malaysia, we have to make a difficult decision by balancing between two equally important considerations of familial ties and practical living arrangements.

Moreover, as my time in the Singapore Military went by, it became clear that even as a Singapore Citizen on paper, my national identity is complicated by a range of institutionalised issues. As Jonathan Chan notes, although the Singapore Armed Forces is more of a creature of diplomacy than blunt military force, it is still officially a defence force meant to deter external threats from invading our Little Red Dot.

Understandably, due to issues of national security, foreign nationals are almost always sent to the Infantry, and in particular, to certain units where the makeup of the battalion would be significantly foreign-born. Hence, even as a Singapore soldier, there were times when I felt that I was not truly recognised as Singaporean. Nonetheless, from the Government’s perspective, I could see why the arrangement was as such: How otherwise could the Government give a place in the military to soldiers whose loyalties were questionable?

As someone who had spent my early years in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and frequently visited my Malaysian hometown for family reunions, the grim prospect of having to possibly defend my country from that of my extended family and close friends was unsettling, to say the least, and I tried (and still try) my best to bury those thoughts as far down the recesses of my brain as I can.

Outsiders’ observations of my (perceived) national and cultural ambiguity have, accordingly, haunted me since a young age. In Secondary School, I remembered being teased for being a “Fake Singaporean”; in the Army, I was jokingly referred to as the “traitor”; in the US, many classmates failed to even differentiate my Straits-born identity from Mainland Chinese identity; and fittingly, here at Cambridge, these comments have come full circle, with some of my most endearing friends playfully referring to me as the “Fake Malaysian”.

As a former Liberal Arts student, the connotations of those words do give me pause for thought; they imply that I could be an impostor, a defector, or (worse still!) perhaps a little of both. When I was in New York, I remember relating this story to a brilliant classmate of mine who hailed from Manhattan but had ancestral roots in Russia. During one of our many intellectual discussions, she asked me a deceptively simple question: “Where is home to you?” I answered: “Singapore,” but both of us sensed a hint of hesitation in my voice. The truth was certainly a lot more nuanced than that.


Mountain View

My time in the military

To be clear, as a Singapore Citizen, I am loyal to the ideals of Singaporean democracy-technocracy and our particular social contract. At the same time, being around a substantial community of Malaysians and Singaporeans here at Cambridge has reminded me that neither my own forced ignorance nor my Singaporean education can strip me of the bare fact that my hometown is Petaling Jaya, a satellite city west of Kuala Lumpur. Home, in this historical sense, would be my childhood house from which I used to travel to the nearby Sunway Pyramid Shopping Mall to have a hand at ice-skating, and visit the KLCC Park to go for a walk with Mum and Dad.

Yet, naively framing my origins from the perspective of a wide-eyed toddler would be doing little justice to the subsequent events that have shaped who I am today. If anything, I relate strongly with my fellow Malaysians and Singaporeans simply because I am Straits-born. My pride in traditional Straits-Chinese values, in Chinese-Malay-Indian-Eurasian culture and our starkly different history from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan is what I increasingly fall back on when defining my own identity in an international environment. Regardless of whether that identity is construed as Malaysian or Singaporean, what is important is for people like me to recognise the existence of that shared Straits-born distinctiveness in the first place.

There is a distinction between the political construct of citizenship, and cultural character; forced separation in one aspect does not necessarily imply separation in the other. Correspondingly, in my present state, I do think I have somewhat managed to clarify a sense of my own identity.

I am loyal to my country, but I also love my land, and I absolutely adore my people. Nothing – especially not regional politics – can wrench that away from me.

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