The (in)significance of race in Singapore’s immigration context: Accounts of self-differentiation by academically elite students

Research Highlighted:

Lu, L. (2020). The (In)significance of Race in Singapore’s Immigration Context: Accounts of Self-Differentiation by Academically Elite Students. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 1-18. doi:10.1080/15348458.2020.1832494

Dr Luke Lu, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

In order to counter low birthrates, the Singapore government recruits top-performing students from China and Vietnam with scholarships to augment the local talent pool. Another criterion, is that most immigrants must be ethnically Chinese, so as to fit into the nation’s majority racial group. This study examines whether and how race (or other factors) might play a part in the formation of friendships and relations amongst a group of top-performing students in Singapore. Rather than assuming the importance of race from the outset, I looked at how various aspects of identity emerge from the ways they described their school experiences and peers in interviews and focus group discussions. What I found was that instead of race, informants referred to themselves and others in terms of Singaporean-ness. They used different labels of nationality and the varying amounts of time they have spent as immigrants in Singapore to mark themselves and others as different. Most importantly, ways of speaking that showed that they were from China were seen as barriers to integration with locals.


The data I present in this paper are part of an ethnographic study I undertook in Singapore between March and December 2014. This paper focuses on two datasets. The first dataset consists of life history interviews that I conducted with 20 individuals. This was aimed at uncovering the educational pathways they undertook, as well as how they experienced life in each school they attended. The second dataset was collected while I was a participant-observer for six months in a particular peer group of 11 core members, of whom three were involved in the life history interviews. This peer group is made up of individuals who had graduated from St Thomas’ in 2011.

I focused on data when informants described their experiences in school, and talked about themselves in relation to others, for example, what and how labels of race or nationality were used in these descriptions. I then considered how the use of these labels and descriptors might be linked to wider attitudes and common stereotypes in Singapore society. The method of data analysis is based on the principles outlined by Bucholtz and Hall (2005) regarding identity, as well as Blommaert and Rampton’s (2011) approach toward investigating rather than assuming categories that individuals (dis)associate themselves from/with. In this paradigm, identity is seen to be an emergent product of linguistic practice, possibly encompassing macro-level demographic categories (e.g. race); it may be indexed through a speaker’s style, use of language forms and positioning, and is relationally constructed between self and other; it may be in part intentional, in part habitual (and less conscious), in part an outcome of negotiation and co-construction with interlocutors, in part linked to wider social structures and systems.

Key Findings

Findings suggest that labels of race were never used in their accounts. Instead, individuals tended to refer to themselves and others in terms and characterisations of Singaporean-ness.

Labels of nationality and the amount of time spent in Singapore are used to distinguish themselves and others. Negative stereotypes were most associated with immigrants from China, though informants from China also reproduced these same associations when referring to persons from China who have arrived more recently in Singapore. Crucially, practices that indicate that someone is from China are not valued and at times to be avoided, while local ways of behaving (such as using Singlish) are seen to be more important when interacting with locals. In Singapore’s context, these patterns of self-differentiation might be explained if they are seen in the light of wider discourses: (i) anti-immigrant sentiment; (ii) the status of English and Singlish in Singapore; and (iii) how styles of English are linked to notions of social class.


The state’s conceptualisation of race and ethnicity fails to recognise how overt ‘Chineseness’ is not valued in local contexts when academically elite immigrants interact with their Singaporean peers. While both groups might be identified by the state as ethnically Chinese, immigrant informants from China possess different linguistic and cultural practices from Singaporean Chinese. These different practices manifest as inequalities when transported across contexts (different spaces). My informants respond to the altered value of their original practices by adopting acceptable repertoires (English/Singlish) when interacting with locals and abandoning repertoires that index migrant status. The state’s apprehension of ethnicity – expecting that immigrants can fit in locally just because they fit official racial categories – does not consider how cultural practices are re-valued when transported to a different space. Singapore’s case offers a cautionary tale for how the transnational movement of highly-skilled and talented individuals, even when supposedly sharing similar ethnic characteristics with the local polity, is never seamless and straightforward.

Author Bio

Luke Lu is currently Lecturer at the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He has completed a Linguistic Ethnography of academically elite students in Singapore, examining how they discursively positioned themselves to wider structures and discourses in local spaces. He is primarily interested in approaches to interactional sociolinguistics and ethnography, pertaining to issues such as transnational mobility, education, language rights, language planning and policy, and ethnicity. Luke can be contacted via

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