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Re-imagining ‘Singaporeans’

On the evening of Thursday, June 5, 1919, around 60 to 70 Eurasians of Singapore gathered in the hall of St Andrew’s School. There, they founded the Eurasian Association, which they dedicated to the welfare and improvement of the community and its descendants.

Re-imagining ‘Singaporeans’
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On the evening of Thursday, June 5, 1919, around 60 to 70 Eurasians of Singapore gathered in the hall of St Andrew’s School. There, they founded the Eurasian Association, which they dedicated to the welfare and improvement of the community and its descendants.

There had been a great deal of discussion among those present over the name of the new society. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser commented on the alternative. It had been, the paper said, a “patriotic” suggestion.

The Straits Times was far less coy. It reported: “The meeting spent a goodly part of its time in discussing whether or not another term than Eurasian should be adopted, Singaporean, for example. If the new association wishes to bring ridicule upon itself it has only to go to work in this way. Anything so futile as the suggestion to adopt the name Singaporean — with, we suppose, Penangite, Ipohite, and the like — can hardly be conceived. In any case the meeting wisely rejected the suggested new term and the Eurasian Association was born.”

At the time, the term “Singaporean” was, in Singapore’s English newspapers at least, a selectively used adjective. Things or events associated with the island were referred to as “Singaporean”. But when it came to people, the word “Singaporean” was used in these years to describe Europeans who lived or had lived in the colony.

In 1910, a Mr WF Morgan, who was engaged in a boundary dispute with his neighbour, was described as a “well-known Singaporean”. The first Singaporean to leave for Europe to fight in World War I was a Mr C de St-Ceran. In 1916, “French Singaporean” Louis Chaffonjon was reported to have joined his brother at the front in France. A Mr AHM Thomas, working as a Chief Inspector in the Sudan in 1920, was “a former Singaporean”. In contrast, the English newspapers of the time almost always referred to Asians by their race — “a Chinese”, “a Malay”, or “a Tamil”.

This explains, perhaps, The Straits Times’ dismissal of the attempt by some of Singapore’s Eurasians to say that they, too, were “Singaporean”. In colonial Singapore, in the early decades of the last century, “Singaporean” appears to have been a rather exclusive identity. In this light, a letter written to The Straits Times on June 30, 1915 is especially poignant. The writer protested that, contrary to perceptions, Eurasians were loyal, brave, and more than willing to volunteer for service in the Great War. He signed the letter, “Singaporean”.

Nearly 50 years later, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of the newly independent city-state of Singapore, found himself speaking before the St Andrew’s Old Boys Association. On this occasion, on September 7, 1968, the Prime Minister addressed the question of what it meant to be a Singaporean.

He acknowledged: “In the first place, we did not want to be Singaporeans. We wanted to be Malayans”.

But his generation of committed Malayans — then Malaysians — had “abruptly” become Singaporeans after the tumult of the Merger and the trauma of Separation.

Now, many decades after The Straits Times ridiculed the Eurasians in the St Andrew’s School hall who wanted to call themselves Singaporeans, Prime Minister Lee said to the St Andrew’s old boys: “The acid test of who is a Singaporean is whether the person is so committed to Singapore that he is prepared to stick (it) out and fight for Singapore. An emotive definition, a qualitative not quantitative test, of a Singaporean, is: A person who either by birth and upbringing or residence in Singapore feels committed to upholding this society as it is — multiracial, tolerant, accommodating, forward-looking — and prepared to take his life for this community.”

The term “Singaporean” had, in other words, undergone a metamorphosis of meaning over half a century. No longer a ridiculous, futile, or unwise idea, “Singaporean” was now an identity that the island’s multicultural people could claim as long as they were committed to one another. When they sang Singapore’s national anthem, opening with the words “Mari kita rakyat Singapura”, they addressed one another as “fellow Singaporeans”. What could “hardly be conceived” in 1919 was, decades later, on everybody’s lips.

The world today is experiencing ever-intensifying globalisation that is consequently making national identity a more salient aspect of belonging. As barriers to the movement of goods, services, capital and people fall, citizens all across the world are increasingly questioning what bonds they share. In not a few countries, the answers to these concerns have taken an ugly turn, in the form of nativist expressions of racism and xenophobia. Those sorts of answers would be inappropriate for Singapore, not just because of their impracticality — we are already a diverse nation, and we need to remain open to the world — but also because they would not be true to the inclusive values that allowed us to achieve all that we celebrated in our SG50 year.

As Singapore moves forward from its golden jubilee, one of the most important questions we will have to grapple with is what the word “Singaporean” means.

We will have to do so in a world that is volatile and complex. In re-imagining Singaporean-ness for the next 
50 years, we may want to be guided by the examples of our past, where visionaries, finding themselves in uncomfortable circumstances, pushed the boundaries of what the term meant. Eurasians, standing between colonial Singapore’s European and Asian communities, made claims on an identity for which they were ridiculed.

Singapore’s first generation of leaders, many of whom had been born abroad and seared by war, communalism, communist emergency and decolonisation, understood that Singapore’s diverse people needed inclusive values if they were going to make it through turbulent times: Living, fighting and perhaps even dying for one another.

These re-imaginations were bold. It is unlikely that The Straits Times’ editors of June 1919 could ever have imagined a definition of “Singaporean” so broad as the one Mr Lee Kuan Yew offered almost 50 years later.

We should perhaps be comforted that answers can emerge from difficult situations, and that they may come from liminal sources — communities the term “Singaporean” does not currently enfold, or who never intended to be Singaporean.

In all likelihood, the answer that future Singaporeans formulate will be one that we today, too, can hardly conceive.

However, guided by values that emphasise tolerance and accommodation, and exhorted by our anthem to “unite” and to “progress towards happiness together”, it is my hope that future Singaporeans will include even more diverse peoples who want to call our island “home”.


Vernie Oliveiro received her PhD in History from Harvard University, where she was a lecturer from 2010 to 2011. She researches the history of Singapore, and Kallang in particular, as a hobby, and is a public officer by profession. This piece, which is written in her personal capacity, first appeared in The Birthday Book 2016, a book of essays by 51 different authors on Singapore’s Next Big Thing. TODAY will be publishing other essays from the book in the coming weeks.

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