An Authentic Slice of Southeast Asia in Singapore

Singapore uses a race model to administer the population – called the CMIO model, standing for Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others model. It is good for administrators but blurs the many nuances and distinctions that nedd to be draw with a felt tip pen by goig through them with a thick marker.

Putting aside the fact that the term ‘others’ is a lazy one for a racial category, the large amount of mixing of the races, dialects, and ethnicities means that the more appropriate way to categorise (as the need may be) Singaporeans is to look at their cultural influence. In the previous article, I looked at the traditional cultural enclaves (marketed as racial ones) of Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Little India and Katong. Just look at this video on the big data analysis on tourism numbers in Chinatown for example.

Those places were cultural enclaves for the some Singaporeans, but Singapore is more than the people born here*,and more than a crikety four barrelled racial classifier. As a highly respected politician** once said (and I paraphrase) being Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry but of choice and conviction, those areas I mentioned leave out important cultutal enclaves for many Singaporeans. I have attempted to cover these in my Singapore-based blog.

At the same time, Singapore includes the non-local, non-resident workforce from all over the world, from the labourers to the PMETS. They too, are part of the fabric of this island and they too have their cultural enclaves brings a sampling of their world to our shores. All of these new cultural enclaves were organically set up by economic migrants, as were the famous four enclaves I mentioned previously.

The first of the modern cultural enclaves were from Southeast Asian cultures, which is the focus of todays post. I want to separate this from another post on modern cultural enclaves because these enclaves deserve their day. Singaporeans sometimes have a superiority complex, and look down on our neighbours (whose development is slower only because of their more complicaed national situations not because they are a weaker people, and I want this post to give our regional neighbours their due.

The first place I want to mention is Little Thailand in the Golden Mile Complex. Because of the richness of Thai Buddhist Temples in Singapore it is hard to include any of these buildings as uniquely Thai cultural enclave.

The Thais have had a long relationship with the people on the island, including a much heralded stoty of introducing Anna Leonowens to King Mongkut (of Anna and the King fame).

The modern story of Thai immigration to Singapore focuses around the 1960s when many Thais arrived mostly to serve in the service and labor jobs with a smattering of professionals and technicians. The power of the Singapore dollar and the fetishisation of Thai women also meant that some Thai’s work in the red-light districts (such as Geylang and Orchard Towers). But Singapore and Thailand are very different places and for many Thais, they needed a place to get products from home, feel at home and connect with their fellow countrymen. The settled upon this old rundown building outside the city. The demoraphics of Thai immirants to Singapore has changed over the years, with the proportion of PMETs and students increasing.

Once a sign of the future, this 1960s multipurpose complex had lost its lusture with two decades. The property prices dropped and Thai entrepreneurs made their way in to set up shops. Consequently, Golden Mile Complex is as Thai as you can get in anywhere in Thailand with each part of the old 1960s multipurpose mall turning into a soi (alley in Thai). The stalls here are set up not to cater to a Singaporean clientele but to a Thai population, hence the amazing authenticity of the place.

Another major group of immigrants to Singapore were Filipinos and in their case, Little Manila can be found on Orchard Road at the Lucky Plaza shopping mall.

Lucky Plaza Shopping Mall, along the Orchard Road shopping belt

Like the Thais, present day immigration of Filipinos began with female domestic workers and lounge singers around the 1970s. The demographic grew in the 1980s and then shifted to services, studies and PMETs in the 2000s. In what is perhaps a more caustic condemnation of Singaporean economic snobbery, Filipinos suffer from the impression of being lower class people due to the history of migration as domestic workers. The story of Lucky Plaza is similar to that of Golden Mile Complex – a once state of the art structure lost its position to other malls and was saved by the influx of new businesses, this time catering to the Filipino workers (or OFWs).

Lucky Plaza is a hidden treasure of great filipino food which includes the most successful branch of the Filipino fast food restaurant called – Jollibee.

Another Filipino resource is in the Catholic Church in Singapore – where the Tagalog speaking Filipino population single-handedly doubled the local Catholic population (from around 200,000 to 400,000). This is most apparent during the annual Simbang Gabi events in Singapore (one of a few places outside of the Philippines where it happens) – a nine day series of devotional masses in honor of the Virgin Mary and in anticipation of Christmas. National shooter Martina Veloso is an example of a Singaporean with Filipino heritage.

As Thai labour become more expensive and the demographics of Thai immigrants changed, another southeast Asian community of labourers was brought in – Burmese. There are three places that can be seen as cuturally important to the Burmese people in SingaporePeninsula Plaza, Clementi district and the Maha Sasana Ramsi Burmese Temple. On Sundays, when many Burmese individuals have their days off, the gardens of the Anglican Cathedral of St Andrews and Fort Canning (both next to Peninsula Plaza) are favourite sites for public picnics.

I tried Burmese food once in the Clementi district, and I found it an interesting experience – the flavours were very different and to some extent acquired. I wasn’t too used to the food, but I would try it again for sure.

There is also a district in Singapore called Balestier that has numerous roads named after Burmese cities, these names were given by the colonials as a way to celebrate their achievements in Burma (then the most important of the United Kingdom’s Southeast Asian enterprise). The Aw brothers of the famous Tiger Balm brand and who built the wonky Haw Par Villa were of Burmese descent.

And then we have the most recent of Vietnamese individuals. Most Singaporeans know about pho, trips to Vietnam and Vietnamese mail-order brides. That’s about it unfortunately. Vietnamese individuals form perhaps the newest group of Southeast Asian immigrants into Singapore, and at present do not really have a space that caters to them, when they do have in the centre of Joo Chiat Road are many pho shops and nightclubs staffed by Vietnamese people for a Singaporean clientele. While most Vietnamese still performed more menial jobs, there are a growing number of Vietnamese workers in companies as well as students who join Singapore schools and workers too.

A few years ago, the upper middle class locals of Joo Chiat presented a political hot-potato to the government because of concerns that their property prices and social environment were suffering due to the growth of nightclubs and underground brothels staffed by Vietnamese. Perhaps this is a rather unsavoury way to have a Little Vietnam (nightlight and prostitution), but this is the grimy and unfortunate reality as it is.

Is this all to Southeast Asia? No, but the Laotian and Cambodian population in Singapore is too small for there to be any discernible enclave and the Indonesians, Malaysians and Bruneians are so similar to Singaporeans that intermingling takes place throughout the island.

ON THE MAP (Golden Mile Complex)

ON THE MAP (Lucky Plaza)

ON THE MAP (Peninsula Plaza)

ON THE MAP (Joo Chiat Road)

* I do agree that the powers that be need to refocus their energies on helping the resident Singaporean population but I draw a line at inane statements such as Singapore for Singaporeans – a foolish notion that signals the closing of doors and (at a minimum) the economic suffocation of a nation. Singapore for Singaporeans is a notion that is opem to much abuse and will destroy our nation. More on this in another post (link will be updated)

** Mr S Rajaratnam (1915-2006), journalist, author, Labour/Culture/Foreign and Deputy Prime Minister.

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