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Monday with the Editor:  Strangers in our own land?

Where I live, in Hougang, I have been seeing more foreigners nowadays, sometimes during my routine walks to the neighbourhood shopping centre and the MRT station, and often while I am on the bus within Hougang.
For the past few years, Indian and Chinese nationals were a common sight in Hougang, but now, it also appears there are Caucasians and Africans in the town. 
If this is representative of a trend happening in HDB towns, it points to Singapore becoming truly more cosmopolitan as people of other nationalities integrate into the heartlands of our city state.
Should Singaporeans have reason to complain about the perceived demographic change taking place? I see no basis for any complaints.
Let's face it. We were never a homogeneous population. Our parents and grandparents came from China, India, Malaysia and other countries. They settled down as total strangers in a new land. But, they quickly became friends with people of different races out of a common need for security and mutual help. In time, communities grew out of this motley group of settlers. 
I was reminded of this ease in which older Singaporeans of different races blended with each other recently when I was on the bus back to Hougang.
I was standing on the lower level of a double-decker bus, taking notice of the passing people and vehicles on the road when my ears picked up a conversation between two elderly people. Both were using Malay as a lingua franca, for one of them -- a woman -- was Indian, and the other -- a man -- was Chinese.
I realised that they were total strangers when I paid attention to the content of their conversation - the woman was asking the man where he lived and what he was doing for a living. Here were two perfect strangers, who happened to be seated next to each other on the bus, exchanging their views on a myriad of topics. Yet, they were engaged in an animated conversation that could only have taken place between two persons who had known each other for ages.
Are our younger Singaporeans -- those in their forties and younger -- as forthcoming as our older Singaporeans when it comes to mixing around with people of other races? Personally, I have yet to see positive signs.
I have to admit that I am guilty of not being friendly. If you were to put me in the same situation the two elderly passengers were in, I daresay I would have kept mum and remained unapproachable.
So, what's wrong with people like me -- the younger generation of Singaporeans? Have we not inherited the 'blending' skills that our parents and grandparents tried so hard to acquire in order to make living in a new land palatable?
I remember when I was in primary school in the early 70's, my neighbours were Indians. I remember I used to visit them every day. On their festive occasions, I would join them and their relatives, seated on the floor in a circle and eating their delicacies. I even followed them when they were doing the Thaipusam walk all the way up to Mount Faber.
Yet, today, I have difficulty bringing myself to talk to strangers, whether they be people of other races or my own race, in public areas. I hope my behaviour is not representative of a trend taking place in Singapore. If it is, it begs the question: Why are younger Singaporeans withdrawing into their own cocoons nowadays?
I cannot answer for others. For myself, I would say that I have become reticent, unwilling to take the first step. Unlike in the past, there are no disincentives for not taking the first step. Our parents and grandparents would have found Singapore inhospitable if they had not mixed around. Today's Singapore presents too much of a good life for us Singaporeans. Inhospitable conditions do not exist so we need not take the first step in becoming neighbourly. We are in danger of becoming strangers in our own land.
Alas, what our parents and grandparents tried so hard to build may be lost to future generations through our complacency. But, all's not lost. Though I don't mix well with strangers, I don't look down on them. I treat them as equals. It's just that I rather not come out of my cocoon. But, rest assured that in times of trouble, I will not fail to help other neighbours, just as I did last month when I alerted my Malay neighbours living downstairs of a fire in their kitchen - the whole family was sleeping in their air-conditioned bedroom though the flat was blanketed in smoke.
So how do we ensure that our younger Singaporeans do not become withdrawn socially? By actively imbuing in them, when they are in school, racial integration skills and appreciation for other cultures. By actively encouraging neighbourliness among residents in housing estates. Already these are things being done, but needing to be improved upon.
But then, there's only so much the Government can do. We Singaporeans need to break out of our self-induced reticence too. With Caucasians, Africans and other nationalities assimilating into our community of four races; and with mixed marriages become more common, we don't have a choice. Singaporeans have to get used to a new Singapore - cosmopolitan and vibrant.


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28 February 2005