The Meaning of Citizenship

by singaporearmchaircritic

A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2012 asks Singapore-born citizens and foreign-born citizens what it takes for immigrants to be considered “Singaporean.” And this issue marks the widest divergence in the opinion of the two groups: sending one’s children to serve National Service (NS). Whereas 69% of Singapore-born citizens take this as a yardstick that qualifies immigrants to be Singaporeans, only 43% of foreign-born citizens think so.

Why do Singapore-born citizens think sending one’s son(s) to serve NS is such an integral part of being Singaporean? Because it entails sacrifices and risks on the part of the young man and his family. Not only does it take up two years of a young man’s life; it also means going through some hardship and perhaps getting injured in training. And although we live in peaceful times, there is still the possibility that Singaporean men may be conscripted in the event that war breaks out.

For sure, we can opt to leave this country and give up our citizenship. But because we are born and bred here and bonded by ties to our family and friends, uprooting is easier said than done. For those of us who stay put, it is a sacrifice we make or simply a duty we perform. It is part and parcel of being Singaporean and the ultimate test in one’s commitment to be a Singaporean.

So naturally we apply the same yardstick to immigrants who choose to come to Singapore and take up citizenship.

To Be or Not to Be

The crux of the matter is this: the 57% of foreign-born citizens who do not think having their sons serve NS is such a big deal actually know it IS a big deal.

Here in Singapore, it is mandatory for second-generation male PRs to serve NS. Unless they give up their PR status, that is. And this is precisely what one-third of all male PRs at the age of 18 did over the last five years. Figures released in 2011 indicate that 4,200 male PRs at the age of 18 renounced their PR status while 8,800 were enlisted and served NS.

On an Internet forum, an expatriate rants about why he does not see the need for him or his sons to serve NS:

I’m here for work, nothing else. Why the hell I need to fight for this country? Loyalty, gratitude, none of that applies. I pay my taxes, I get services in return. I’m not a bum and I earn my keep. It is a mutually beneficial, money driven relationship between myself and SG. PR is a convenience sort of renewable PEP that’s all. If they made PEP renewable I’d not need PR at all.

I can always transfer to KL as I have no issues with living in Muslim country . . . or even Bangkok. It is just taxes in KL are higher and that’s the ONLY thing SG has for me. Do you really think I should put mine and my sons lives down for that? Contrary to what you said I’d rather fight for an idea than stupid sh.t like low taxes. And if push comes to shove I’d rather be in US army, even if at this point US establishment is f…ked up, the idea (I’m pretty sure you have gone through pages of your US passport) is certainly worth fighting for.

They can close the loop holes all they want, I’ll just move on, no big loss for me, extra 7-8k in taxes per year is worth not wasting 2.5 years of my kids time, especially if reasons given I consider not worth paper they are written on. At this point for me SG is not inherently better than MY for example or TH for that matter. Nothing distinguishes SG from MY/TH that touches me and would make me want to keep and fight for SG the way it is. (emphasis mine)


But I suspect our government will feel the sting of his cold, calculating words more than we ordinary Singaporeans who know all the while that liberally giving out citizenship/PR doesn’t instill loyalty.

Every Man for Himself?

Why is loyalty expected of foreign-born citizens or PRs?

The simple answer is this: because citizenship entails not just rights and privileges, but also duties and obligations.

In the U.S., for instance, these are:

Rights of U.S. Citizens

  • Vote in federal elections
  • Serve on a jury
  • Bring family members to the United States
  • Obtain citizenship for children born abroad
  • Travel with a U.S. passport
  • Run for federal office
  • Become eligible for federal grants and scholarship

Responsibilities of U.S. Citizens

  • Support and defend the Constitution
  • Serve the country when required
  • Participate in the democratic process
  • Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws
  • Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others
  • Participate in your local community

Similarly, there are rights and duties for Canadians, British citizens and others.

In Singapore, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) has drawn up a table of rights and obligations of Singapore citizens versus PRs. Only two rights – the right to vote in parliamentary elections and the right to stand for election and become a Member of Parliament – are listed while the rest are just technical information on taxes, CPF, subsidies and housing schemes.

So blunt as the expatriate’s words may be, they hark back to some important issues brought up in my previous post on the Singapore identity.

When it comes to the crunch, citizens, Singapore-born or otherwise, won’t fight for a country because they like the low tax rates and subsidized education. They fight for a country because they love the country and what it stands for. They fight for a country not only because their families and friends are here, but also to protect a way of life they treasure, the freedoms they enjoy, and the values they believe in. These are the essence of citizenship.

But in the context of Singapore, what exactly are these?

Part IV of our Constitution does address the “fundamental liberties” of Singaporeans, such as freedom of speech, assembly and association, but as we all know, these liberties are greatly curtailed.

I would like to invite readers to participate in this little exercise. Write down in the comments column what rights and responsibilities you think Singapore citizens should have. It doesn’t matter if these have not materialized yet, or are not supported by our law.

Next week, we can then delve into the conditions that make citizenship meaningful based on your response.