For more than five decades before the widespread relocation of Singapore residents from rural settlements (called kampong) to communal public housing, Pakistani families lived as minorities among other Malay-speaking Muslim communities.
Daily interaction between Pakistani families and their multiracial neighbours contributed to their acculturation to the local culture.
Within a generation, children born to Pakistani migrants communicated in the local language, ate and cooked local food and practised the customs of the local population while retaining those of their migrant fathers to varying degrees.
The women in Pakistani households played a crucial role in this process of acculturation, being contact participants as they interacted with their non-Pakistani neighbours.
In terms of food, for example, occasions such as Ramazan provided opportunities to learn and share recipes and exchange food with their neighbours.
This unique situation is the reverse of diasporic Pakistani communities in other parts of the world, where women are usually expected to maintain the cultural traditions within the family while men establish contact with the wider society.
Role of Islam and Malay language
Malay was widely spoken in Singapore, even by people of non-Malay origin. It was the language of commerce that allowed people of various backgrounds to communicate and interact with one another.
Through such interactions, Pakistani migrants and their children quickly adopted the Malay language. For Pakistani children born to local mothers, the language spoken in the household was almost always Malay.
Even in cases where both parents communicated with one another in their native language, such as Hindko, Pashto or Punjabi, they communicated with their children in Malay to ensure they could speak the language fluently.
They did so to give their children an advantage, seeing how they were now residents in a Malay-speaking society.
Being a minority within the larger Malay-speaking community, Pakistani families relied heavily upon their Malay neighbours in fulfilling certain cultural and Islamic religious obligations. These included – but were not limited to – wedding and funeral arrangements.
This was true in the kampong and even after families were relocated to new public housing estates.
This reliance paved the way for them to gradually adapt local customs and religious practices, including the use of specific Islamic religious texts unique to the Malay world.
Importantly, there was no mosque in particular where the Pakistani community congregated which could have possibly maintained the religious and cultural identity and practices from its source of origin. Knowing the Malay language became necessary for the children of Pakistani migrants to receive Islamic religious education in Singapore.
Since there was no ‘Pakistani mosque’ in Singapore and hiring a personal tutor from Pakistan could only be afforded by the wealthy, institutions such as mosques, madrassas and informal religious classes called kelas mengaji were the most convenient – if not the only – way for Pakistani parents to ensure their children received Islamic religious education in Singapore.
These religious institutions facilitated the acculturation of second and third-generation Singaporean-Pakistanis to the local Malay language and culture, or at the very least create a sense of solidarity between them and other Malay-speaking Muslims.
Besides communicating in the same language, being part of the same religious and social space and sharing social memories make Singaporean-Pakistanis identify more closely with Malays.
By the third-generation, Malay had become the first language of most Singaporean-Pakistani children.
While second-generation Pakistanis were brought up in an environment where a Pakistani language was spoken by at least one parent in the household, third-generation Pakistanis were born into households where complete language shifts had occurred.
The Malay language was also readily taught to second and third-generation Pakistani children in school. As part of Singapore’s bilingual policy, all students are required to study a second language (L2) other than English in schools.
It was not until 1990 that Punjabi and Urdu were offered by the Ministry of Education as two of the five non-Tamil Indian languages students could select as their L2.
Therefore, for more than four decades, school-going children of Pakistani descent had to choose one of Singapore’s three national languages – Chinese (Mandarin), Malay or Tamil as their L2.
For many who grew up speaking Malay, it was the natural choice. For others, Malay was chosen as it was perceived to be easier to learn compared to Chinese (Mandarin) or Tamil.
Influence of Bollywood
Food and clothing are the strongest markers of Pakistani culture among Singaporean-Pakistanis.
Even though Singapore is often regarded as a food haven, Singaporean-Pakistanis still eat Pakistani dishes occasionally — whether at home, when visiting their elders or at restaurants.
Most of my interviewees immediately think of chapati when asked what kind of Pakistani food they eat. Chai (or teh susu as it is called in Malay) is also often served in Pakistani households – even though it is usually made differently than in Pakistan. In Singapore, teh susu is often made using evaporated or condensed milk.
Occasionally, Singaporean-Pakistanis wear traditional Pakistani attire such as shalwar kameez for both men and women. However, other South Asian clothing such as the kurta or sherwani for men as well as the anarkali or lengha for women are also popular.
These clothes are usually worn on special occasions like Eid and for engagements and weddings.
Given that other aspects of Pakistani culture no longer feature strongly among Singaporean-Pakistanis, I believe that food and clothing symbolise the vestigial remains of cultural identity inherited from previous generations.
Interestingly, the Hindi film industry played a crucial role in shaping and reviving Pakistani culture and identity in Singapore.
Hindi films and songs are popular among Singaporean-Pakistanis and many acknowledge that they grew up watching Hindi films and listening to Hindi songs.
Hindi films and songs offered Pakistani migrants and their families a form of entertainment they could relate to, given that they were familiar with the language and setting as well as the family-friendly values espoused in these films.
Even the younger generation reveal that these movies resonate with them at a deeper level. “I feel like I’m watching my family, not only in the clothes that they wear and the food that they eat, but also in the sarcasm when the actors speak, or in the idealistic idea of love,” explained one of my interviewees.
“It’s like watching your own family drama, just with Amitabh Bachchan acting in it.”
Hindi films were very popular among the Malay-speaking audience in Singapore during the 1960s.
Actors like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Nargis became household names during this period, prompting an interest and an increased affinity towards Singaporean-Pakistanis.
The resurgence of Hindi films in the 1990s, with actors like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan in lead roles, also contributed a desire among younger Singaporean-Pakistanis to reconnect with their ancestral roots.
Although Bollywood may evoke a sense of nostalgia or empathy among Singaporean-Pakistanis, it is at best a foreign culture that has attached itself to the original culture of their migrant forefathers.
Furthermore, the diminished sense of community also means that there is little coherence (unity) among the customs and practices of Singaporean-Pakistanis.
Perhaps sensing a disconnection between their ancestral origins and the localised cultural practices of their families, younger Singaporean-Pakistanis tend to look towards Bollywood for cultural inspiration.
Ties to Pakistan
Unlike more recent diasporic Pakistani communities across the world, second and third-generation Singaporean-Pakistanis who have their roots in colonial Singapore do not always have strong ties to Pakistan.
There is a small number of families who have retained the cultural practices of their forefathers and maintained close ties with Pakistan.
Most, however, have never visited Pakistan and many are unsure where exactly their migrant forefathers came from.
Through the letters they receive when their migrant forefathers were alive, some may know that they have relatives in Pakistan, but since the death of their migrant forefathers, they have lost contact.
Many of my interviewees acknowledge that they do not follow the news and political developments in Pakistan, nor are they familiar with the nation’s history.
Evidently, the social, economic and cultural developments in Singapore have shaped second and third-generation Pakistanis, defining them as Singaporeans.
Having grown up in Singapore all their lives, most of my interviewees express familiarity with the history of Singapore and its neighbouring countries and are proud to be part of its historical heritage.
Historical narratives such as the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, communal life in kampongs, the 1964 racial riots and the independence of Singapore resonate more with Singaporean-Pakistanis.
Unfortunately, negative perceptions of Pakistan persist among those who have not visited Pakistan or have no family ties there.
Their perception of the country is formed through stories passed down from their migrant forefathers and more recently through media accounts of the country.
Yet as an ethnic group, it is also impossible for Singaporean-Pakistanis to detach themselves completely from the social and political developments in Pakistan.
The perceptions of Pakistan among those who have visited Pakistan are more balanced and generally more positive with many citing the beauty of the countryside and the hospitality of relatives as reasons for their affinity towards the country.
Singaporean-Pakistanis who have been to Pakistan and have physically seen their ancestral village or town show a greater sense of belonging to Pakistan and a greater sense of identification to being Pakistani than those who have not.
Regardless of how they feel towards the country, Pakistan still provides a reference for a sense of identity among Singaporean-Pakistanis in one way or another.
Some may decide to pick up cricket, hockey or squash because of Pakistan’s dominance in those sports. Others may decide to learn Urdu or the native language of their forefathers late in their lives to reconnect with their heritage.
Transnational marriages between second and third-generation Singaporean-Pakistanis and their relatives in Pakistan are also becoming more common as families seek to rekindle or maintain kinship ties. Often, the bride from Pakistan becomes the catalyst of cultural revival in her new family.
From here we can see that Pakistan still provides a strong impetus for Singaporean-Pakistanis to make certain decisions in life.
Most importantly, almost all my interviewees who have not visited Pakistan express a strong desire to visit in future, particularly the ancestral land in which their forefathers were born and raised.
While Singaporeans of Pakistani descent firmly see themselves as Singaporeans, Pakistan holds a special place in their hearts as the land of their forefathers.
This article first appeared on Dawn.