One thing that is not easy when living overseas is finding community. For Singaporean overseas sons, after going through NS and finding a source of funding to go overseas, the next step is actually living overseas, and that means making new friends. From personal experience I can tell you being out of place can be a bummer sometimes, and the excitement of being somewhere new and exotic goes hand in hand with the alienation of being somewhere foreign. Luckily for many Overseas Singaporeans, some of their community comes with them.
SingSocs, or Singaporean Societies are present wherever there are hubs of Singaporeans studying or living overseas, particularly at large and prestigious universities in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. According to the Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) there are 249 registered SingSocs worldwide. These organizations are largely organized like other student clubs at universities, providing mentorship, community and resources for incoming Singaporeans over Facebook, blogs and in person. Particularly in the UK and the East Coast of the US, the close distances between colleges allow these societies to connect and organize holiday events for a large network of Overseas Singaporeans, such as Hari Raya and National Day. Funding for events comes from a mix of partners, and the handful of society leaders I have talked to say it is a mix of university, student, and government support. In particular the largest government support comes from the OSU, a Singaporean government agency under the National Population and Talent Division of the Prime Minister’s office. OSU provides a directory of SingSocs, events, resources, and stories for students, parents and professionals in all stages of going overseas. It covers overseas professional and business communities as well as students. In addition to the OSU there has also been funding available from Contact Singapore, an organization under the Ministry of Manpower and Economic Development board with the mandate which, according to their website, is to engage Overseas Singaporeans along with global talent to ‘work, invest and live in Singapore’.
Funding from OSU for SingSoc events can range from 40-80% depending on whether they fulfill the following criteria: “Celebrate Singapore’s culture and heritage; Keep Singaporeans abroad abreast with developments in Singapore; and Strengthen a sense of community amongst the Singaporeans abroad through meaningful projects and activities” and have group of over 50 with majority Singaporeans. (https://www.overseassingaporean.sg/resources/students/staying-abroad/fundings-for-communities) Three of the Singaporean students I have interviewed have worked with these SingSoc’s, and they have expressed gratitude for the type of funding that helps keep these organizations together that few other countries would provide. It seems many students kept close with Singaporean friends after settling overseas, rooming with other Singaporeans, road tripping with them, or going to seniors for advice on their future. As a returned exchange student myself I can see how valuable those kind of groups would be, particularly for the new students with little or no connections when they arrive.
Some Overseas Singaporean men, particularly those living in the US and those more set on emigration expressed a certain amount of ambivalence about what they referred to as a ‘bubble’ of Singaporean culture in colleges that are hubs for Singaporean students. Although almost everyone seemed thankful that support was there for them from Singapore, many Overseas Singaporeans (OS) were proud of the fact that they had taken the initiative to break out of that bubble and connect with a larger community of international students and locals. Especially for those graduates finishing 3 or 4 years stints overseas, the importance of keeping connected with a more cosmopolitan, or as one friend called it, ‘sophisticated’ community of foreigners and Singaporeans with international perspectives was heightened upon returning. This was often associated with the self-reflexive linguistic code-switching that returning students had to deal with where they would speak more Singlish or Chinese dialects with Singaporean friends, and more American/UK English or Standard Mandarin with international friends. In fact, many interviewees mentioned they find it annoying when OS, who are considered posh or too Westernized, are unable to properly switch back to local speech patterns and instead maintain an overseas accent as a result of their experience. Bringing this back to the realm of place in the family and nation, staying connected overseas fits with the goal of maintaining ties to homeland, which connect both long term family plans of localized eldercare, marriage and home ownership, and state discourses about OS as a part of the national development plan. At the same time, the continued association with ‘sophisticated’ communities raises questions about what are the long term effects of studying overseas in terms of identity and sense of place.
As I am living in Singapore it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I am myself part of these cosmopolitan circles, as the people I am becoming friends with and interviewing tend to quote American TV shows, talk of overseas dreams, and use the same internet sites I do. At the same time,it is clear this is not the only identity for many, as when I press them further, these same friends will talk about their duty to Singapore and their nuanced opinions on its politics, their home languages, which rarely mirror our conversational language, and their localized use of the internet. In other words, as a foreigner I am more exposed to one identity then the others, but it is clear that for most people, they exist simultaneously and are context dependant.