What it’s like to raise a binational, multicultural family in Singapore

Ethnographer Dr Kalpana Vignehsa shares how mixed families like hers can be the best ambassadors for normalising difference and diversity.

By SGN | 17 Apr 2023

Where are you from? What is your ethnicity?

These may be common questions, but they’re not quite essential, Kalpana points out, since boxes and labels don’t do justice to our complex histories and identities. We are, after all, more than our ethnicity or nationality.

“I’m proud of my Sri Lankan roots. I love and understand my cultural heritage well,” she shares. “But there’s so much more to me. I guess I prefer to think of ethnic culture as something you can hold dear and carry along with you, without it being the only thing, or one of the main things, that defines you.”

Southeast Asia, in particular, has a long history of migration and cultural blending, as exemplified by Peranakan, Eurasian and Chetti Melaka cultures. “What are Southeast Asians if not extremely mixed?” Kalpana observes. “Yet many of us have chosen to identify as a certain ethnicity, as opposed to celebrating the diversity in our heritage.” Even her Australian husband, who has portions of African American and Indian heritage, would be simplistically racialised as white, based on his appearance.

At home, the academic couple hope to raise their children to embrace diversity and not absorb negative ideas surrounding skin colour. When talking with their six-year-old son about race – a concept that scientists have long regarded as biologically meaningless – they refer to how someone is racialised, rather than what that person’s race is.

Challenges of social integration

After spending half her life abroad, Kalpana returned to Singapore in 2018 to be closer to her ageing mother and joined the Institute of Policy Studies as a researcher on social integration, embarking on an expansive study of binational families.

“It happened to be a confluence of my own experiences and the growing interest in integration and immigration,” she notes. Having just established a binational, multicultural family in Singapore, she knew she would be able to relate to the experiences of the research participants.

Kalpana received her PhD in organisational sociology from the University of Technology Sydney.
As Kalpana’s mother got on in years, her family decided to move to Singapore.

In a hyper-globalised world, binational families are on the rise. Roughly 1 in 3 marriages in Singapore are binational, with more couples choosing to settle and raise their children here, given the family-friendly environment and excellent quality of life. As with immigrants in general, binational families often seek to become socially integrated and create a loving environment where their children feel that they belong.

“Social integration has to do with feeling a sense of belonging or inclusion, without somebody questioning your place in a society,” Kalpana explains. “You gain the ability to express yourself. You become more eager to mingle with people. You become more interested in participating and contributing to that society.”

Yet, the process of integration isn’t linear, and the sense of belonging may not be consistent, she warns, saying, “You can feel like you belong more on some days and less on others, in some situations and not in others.”

An influx of foreigners can stir up sentiments of hostility when it’s perceived to destabilise the social equilibrium, taking jobs away or exerting an undesirable influence. In Singapore, where 40% of the population wasn’t born here, those who have experienced life overseas may be more welcoming of foreigners, but those who have formed negative ideas about immigrants may express them through overt remarks or subtler undertones that become hurdles to social integration.

The power of curiosity

Fostering empathy and integration is complex and challenging, but Kalpana says there are simple strategies that can be tapped into. Interacting with foreigners, or even hearing stories about them, naturally helps to normalise differences, dispel negative assumptions, and break down the labels and boxes we assign to others.

Another catalyst for integration is curiosity. “Both immigrants and locals have an opportunity to be curious about one another, new activities, and perhaps most importantly, ideas,” she says. “And if they are curious, they’re less likely to be coming from a place of judgement. If you wanted to supercharge the ability for integration to take place, it would be helpful to adopt that sense of curiosity.”

In turn, curiosity leads to meaningful engagement in society. “Foreigner or not, you get the most out of your experience if you engage extensively with people who call that space home – immersing yourself in the culture, the food, and understanding the lay of the land you live in. In my opinion, this is the secret sauce to integration.”

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While living in Australia, Kalpana immersed herself in various activities: volunteering with NGOs, doing research with government agencies, continuing to practise Indian classical dance, picking up Cuban salsa – which was how she met her husband!

Within binational couples, the foreigner spouse tends to enter local spaces and accumulate more local experiences than the average immigrant. “Most of the participant families in my research live in HDB flats, adore hawker food, use public transport, take their kids to polyclinics, and get worried about the Primary 1 registration exercise!” Kalpana remarks.

“As a result of their understanding of local culture, these spouses are the best ambassadors, and their families are a microcosm of the integration we want to see in broader society,” she adds. “That said, I’d like to imagine a future where robust integration doesn’t require marriage to a local, where we don’t have spaces that are predominantly inhabited by locals or foreigners, and where our children grow up knowing that many of their classmates call Singapore home by choice.”

Kalpana’s husband eating durian for the first time. He has since been converted to the durian-loving camp in Singapore.

As her children grow older, they too would make great ambassadors for integration. “Our son doesn’t question why everyone in the family has a slightly different skin tone. He doesn’t question why we eat some meals with a knife and fork and some meals with our hands and some meals with chopsticks,” Kalpana shares. “He’s in a great position to look at difference around him and go, ‘Yeah, it’s all normal.’”

What we should all be looking harder at, instead, is our common ground. “The thing that comes out strongly in my research is just how similar our experience of life is. There are far more things a Singaporean family and a binational family have in common than things they don’t.

“The differences are small, and the differences are not insurmountable. They shouldn’t stop us from having friends. They shouldn’t stop us from feeling like we belong.”

About Kalpana

Kalpana is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), an autonomous research centre of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. An ethnographer by training, she holds a PhD in organisational sociology and has conducted human-centred research that impacts policymaking and user experience design.

Connect with her here.

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