I am a Malaysian student who recently came over to Singapore for my undergraduate education. By virtue of this, I fall into that awkward grey space between locals and Malaysians who had been studying in Singapore since poly or JC. Despite there being no outward difference in appearance, people can usually tell that I am no local. Oddly enough, they usually pin me to be Vietnamese, Burmese, Hong Kongese – basically, everything Asian but Malaysian.
As a freshman, I was worried that this would lead to problems with assimilation. My background had left inevitable gaps in my knowledge for things such as the junior colleges in Singapore, and locations of cafes around town. Trivial? So it would appear, but I do believe that small talk paves the way to deeper connections as people seek people who are similar to themselves.
For most people, this xenophobia happens on a more subconscious level which even they themselves are unaware of. Unfortunately, - though few and far between - I have personally come across more explicit xenophobia. I am unsure if it was a figment of my overactive imagination, but I swear I have seen the spark of interest curl up and die in strangers’ eyes the moment they were made aware of my nationality.
More puzzlingly, there are people who ask questions of which answers they aren’t emotionally ready to hear, namely, “What are your future plans after university?” This writer has found that one is either regarded as unwelcome competition or written off as indolent – a lose-lose situation either way. To borrow from “A Little Princess” (or Angelina Jolie), us Singaporeans and Malaysians could have very well ended up as residents of the other country if not for that mere twist of fate. I am glad to be able to say that my closest friends here are locals – thankful evidence that SMU students are open-minded and receptive.
Another point this writer keenly feels for, with regards to SMU, is that stereotypes exist for a reason – the “kiasuness” is very, very real here. New to the bell curve system, I can’t say that I wasn’t taken back by the competitiveness. Mugging, to me, is not a way of beating the competition, but has become a necessary route to survival. Singaporeans also have a healthier respect for authority – a book that perhaps wouldn’t hurt some Malaysians to take a leaf out of.
As trifling as it may seem, I believe that the convenience and efficiency of the public transportation in Singapore has led to another cultural difference. Singaporean youths are able to get around on their own at a younger age, whereas their Malaysian counterparts typically only gain this mobility when they gain a driving license. In my eyes, not having to be ferried around by parents has made Singaporeans more personally independent as they were more exposed to outside stimuli.
A typical street in Penang Source: Raising Explorers
On a lighter note, there certainly are quirky differences between Singapore and Malaysia: I was appalled to discover that there is an underappreciation for cempedak (a tropical fruit similar in some ways to the jackfruit) in Singapore (and take it from me, you guys are sorely missing out!).
It was also discombobulating to find significantly fewer halal eateries available here as compared to in Malaysia. I also found it funny that the state of Penang has been condensed into Penang Road in Singapore - an urban street with malls on each side.
Regardless - a person’s entire identity isn’t composed purely of nationality. At this juncture in life, we are all students facing the same struggle – to carve out our own places in the working world.
*Note: these are things that the writer has come across only in personal experience (which varies from person to person), and thus should be taken with a grain of salt.