Monday, March 12, 2007

Excuse Me, Are You A Singaporean?

This ‘friendly’ salutation by a clipboard-wielding teenager must strike terror into the hearts of thousands of Orchard Road shoppers every weekend.

Quite surprisingly, few, if any, seem to ask ‘Are you a local?’ — considering that, in Singapore, local and Singaporean are often treated as synonyms.

Local is, of course, a relative term. In Britain it has a narrow scope, usually meaning ‘of this village or county or region’, and rarely ‘of this country’ (except when contrasting with foreigners). It can even be used as a noun to refer to the village pub. The connotation is thus a provincial one: In regional newspapers, one sees headlines like ‘Local girl interns at NASA’ and ‘Local man in Bali bombing’, meaning that they are local to the county.

In Singapore, by contrast, local has a national reach — a reflection perhaps of the country’s small size? Not only that, it is sometimes used to mean ‘Singaporean’ even when the point of reference shifts. Overseas, it is not uncommon to hear Singaporean students saying: ‘We don’t like hall food, so we Singaporeans always get together to cook local (i.e. Singaporean) food’!

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