The Discursive Construction of New Citizen Identities in Singapore

Author: Raymund Vitorio (De La Salle University)
Speaker: Raymund Vitorio
Topic: Language Ideologies
The CALA 2022 General Session


This paper investigates how new citizens reconfigure dominant indexes of citizenship to claim status as legitimate new citizens of Singapore, an economic powerhouse and immigration hub in Southeast Asia. New citizens offer a perspective that remains understudied in the sociolinguistics of citizenship: even though new citizens had already proven their worth as deserving recipients of citizenship, they continue to grapple with social repercussions brought about by their transnational connections and visible racial and linguistic differences from local-born citizens.

New citizens are expected to resolve a tension that underpins public discourses in Singapore society: while the statal narrative of multiculturalism countenances new citizens to have perceivable markers of difference, everyday discourses expect new citizens to assimilate into the Singapore core—a term used in Singapore that denotes a homogeneous understanding of what it means to be Singaporean. To analyze how new citizens resolve this tension, this paper analyzes a dataset (ethnographic observations, interviews, and field notes) which was a product of a linguistic ethnographic fieldwork with 18 new citizens conducted in Singapore in 2015-2016.

Viewing ideologies about citizenship as a metasign—“one that regiments how it itself and other signs are to be interpreted…a framing” (Gal, 2014, p. 114)—this paper identifies three common indexes of citizenship that new citizens negotiate to resolve this contradiction: language, loyalty, and legacy. These three indexes are discursively tied to salient ideologies in Singapore society, such as the Standard Singapore English/Colloquial Singapore English interface, beliefs about military conscription, and banal performances of heritage. By reconfiguring common markers of citizenship in Singapore, new citizens are able to discursively construct a type of citizenship that they can legitimately claim and contribute to: one that does not aim for local-born authenticity but aspires for enoughness. The metapragmatic approach helps us understand how various signs become coherently understood as about “citizenship,” which proves that indexes of good citizenship cannot be easily presupposed. Moreover, this paper emphasizes the active role that people have in constructing, reconstructing, and typifying citizenship indexicalities. This paper contributes to the ongoing academic debates on language and migration by expanding common understandings of the notion of citizenship in Singapore society.

Gal, S. (2016). Sociolinguistic differentiation. In N. Coupland (Ed.), Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates (pp. 113–136). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keywords: Citizenship, language ideologies, multiculturalism, metapragmatics, Singapore