Being Malaysian, living in Singapore and the question of loyalty

I am a Malaysian who has been living in Singapore for 26 out of 28 years, a Singapore permanent resident who has spent practically all my life in Singapore. That includes kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, pre-university, national service and my Bachelor’s degree.

The national service leg is interesting; quite a few Singaporeans wondered why I had to serve the country even if I was not of that nationality. Like a broken record, I explained that second-generation Singapore PRs had to undergo mandatory national service, be it in the army, police force, or fire brigade.

I was in the third group (well kind of), where I was twice offered Singapore citizenship. Both times I said no. The plan is that I re-locate to Malaysia in the long run, hence the reason for retaining Malaysian citizenship. This is the same response I give to Singaporeans in general.

Being a Malaysian with Singapore PR invites interesting remarks. In Singapore, I am simultaneously seen as a Singaporean while being reminded, through jokes, of my Malaysian nationality. In Malaysia, I’m told I am more Singaporean than Malaysian. I must say that these jokes are strictly jokes and have no ill intent.

However, as with any other phenomenon, jokes reflect a fascination with the truth. The fascination in this context is how I have a Malaysian passport but was placed on the Singaporean track since I was two or so.

I become a little uneasy when someone asks where I am from. I still haven’t figured out a way to escape the intellectual maze that is this question.

What do they mean by where I’m from? Nationality or race? Instinctively, I just say I am from Malaysia. Woe betide the man who doesn’t look like a certain nationality when he says he belongs to that same nationality. The response I get is “you don’t look Malaysian”. I am not sure what a Malaysian looks like. I end up giving a song and dance of my racial background. My point is that even saying I am Malaysian doesn’t cut me loose but that merits another article for another time on race.

So the question is, who am I loyal to? I think loyalty, in this context, is a very emotionally-laden word to use. Being loyal to one country presupposes apathy or indifference to another. I am not indifferent to Singapore simply because I have a Malaysian passport. Nor am I apathetic to Malaysia simply because I never had a life there.

The truth is, despite the wave of questions about what I am, I feel a connection to both countries. I have said why for Singapore already. For Malaysia, the memory of my late grandfather, whom I was close to, still keeps me feeling Malaysian. Being able to publish in Malaysian news websites definitely helps too. At least I know that my opinion is welcomed there, whether people agree with it or not. Predictably enough, I had one netizen respond to an article I wrote for a Malaysian news website, saying I had little authority to write on Malaysia because I was not genuinely Malaysian.

Now, I’m not saying I’m the only individual to be in this position. I’m sure there are many others who wonder which nationality they belong to, simply because they have a certain passport but never grew up in the country of that passport. Nationality is one of many social categories we use to feel a sense of belonging to somewhere. Other categories could be race, gender, socio-economic status or even job occupation.

Which category we use depends on which one we think about on a regular basis. It could even be more than one category. In this article though, I talked about nationality because, well, I think about it a lot. Is there a way two reconcile two certainties, one being that I’m Malaysian, and two, that I’ve lived in Singapore almost my whole life?

In a utopian world, questions of nationality would not exist. We would be “global citizens”. This term has been thrown around before, both as a joke and as truth. In the real world, cosmopolitanism and national identity exist side by side. Simply saying you’re a global citizen is a cop-out. Malaysia and Singapore are not mutually exclusive to me; I feel connected to both countries, for different reasons. The important thing is I should be allowed to feel that way.

Syed Imad Alatas is an FMT reader

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.