Singapore, ASEAN, and Cultural Competence

Researchers from the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy suggest how Singapore can take the lead in fostering a sense of community with our Southeast Asian neighbours.

Cultural Competence

Date Posted

14 Dec 2020


Digital Issue Special Edition, 14 Dec 2020

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has come a long way since its inception in 1967. Then it was a loose regional framework for confidence building and economic cooperation between the leaders of the burgeoning Southeast Asian nation-states of Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. ASEAN has since developed into an effective diplomatic platform that has fostered regional stability and expanded to focus on economic and social integration. To meet the challenges of globalisation and the growing economies of its member countries, ASEAN leaders soon realised that a clearly articulated ASEAN identity, predicated on a sense of “common destiny” and belonging amongst its citizens, was urgently needed. This led to the adoption of the ASEAN motto: “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”.1

Singapore has contributed to the work of fostering a robust ASEAN community through several formal programmes, and especially through education. For instance, Singapore’s Primary School Social Studies syllabus includes a section on “Discovering Southeast Asia” which includes a variety of field-based learning experiences ranging from heritage site visits, study trips, and even overseas immersion programmes.2 The Ministry of Education also gives out prestigious ASEAN scholarships to students from the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. The government also provides subsidies under SkillsFuture,3 its lifelong-learning initiative, for Singaporeans applying for the ASEAN Leadership Programme where candidates are sent for training in various business firms to develop skills for global roles. These initiatives seek to provide opportunities for networking, understanding of the burgeoning Southeast Asian markets, as well as cross-cultural learning among Southeast Asian youth.

To be culturally “competent” is to be able to work effectively across cultures—learning, communicating and working respectfully with people of diverse backgrounds.

A Perception Gap among Young Singaporeans

Despite such governmental efforts, a 2006 survey of 184 NUS students conducted by anthropologist Eric Thompson showed that although young, educated Singaporeans had a strong sense of Southeast Asia as a region, they were undecided about Singapore’s relationship to that region. Most Singaporeans identified with either the “West” or looked to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, rather than their Southeast Asian neighbours.4

Worryingly, these impressions do not seem to have changed in the last 10 years. In 2018, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) reported that many young Singaporeans believed that the rest of Southeast Asia was “dilapidated”, had “poor infrastructure”, and was “backward”.5 This was even though Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam are in fact some of the world’s best-performing economies, enjoying more than 5% annual growth over 20 years. Singapore, to Singaporeans, is the only exception in Southeast Asia. Such views reflect a mental barrier to regional community-building that persists despite state efforts.

Given this perception gap among Singapore’s educated youths, what can be done to foster a greater sense of common identity and destiny with our ASEAN neighbours? One approach is to do so by developing cultural competence.

Culture is a learned set of shared interpretations about values, norms, beliefs, and social practices of a group, including ideas of race, class, gender and religion. Although we think about culture as having clear boundaries, cultural practices are fluid and diverse, even within one’s own culture. To be culturally “competent” is to be able to work effectively across cultures—learning, communicating and working respectfully with people of diverse backgrounds.6 Developing an awareness and understanding of other cultures and being able to communicate with people who hold different social beliefs and values from us would allow Singaporeans to confidently engage with their neighbours. However, acquiring cultural competence is not just about the acquisition of skills and knowledge, but also an ongoing, learning process that has to do with mindsets and attitudes.

Singapore “Exceptionalism” as a Barrier to Cultural Integration

Historically, Southeast Asia has been a site of intense migration and trade. Some historians argue that early Southeast Asians were extremely mobile as a result of free-flowing trade,7 and did not profess allegiance to a specific locale or kingdom.8 NTU Professor Farish Ahmad-Noor has argued that these patterns were highly indicative of the ways in which identities were thought of as fluid and adaptable by Southeast Asians in the pre-modern, pre-colonial period.9 Singapore, because of its strategic location, has been and remains an important hub for migration and trade, taking in people from all over Southeast Asia who come here in search of business, work, education, or leisure. Singapore’s legacy as a multicultural society is one that is built upon the presence and lived experiences of numerous groups of settlers from Europe, China, India, and especially Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, unlike its precolonial predecessors, postcolonial Southeast Asian identity is fragmented, centred on fixed sociopolitical and cultural boundaries that are often ideologically reinforced by the various nation-states. The rise of nationalism and the nation-state has imposed relatively fixed ideas of nation, culture, language, and race on Southeast Asian people. This has several implications on how Singaporeans view their neighbours. First, while Singapore has developed into a multicultural society where English has become the lingua franca, other nations in the region such as Thailand and Indonesia have adopted a more assimilative position, where culture is defined by the majority population. Second, Singapore’s rapid economic development relative to the rest of the region has resulted in a popular view, cited in a 2015 report in The Economist, that Singapore is “Asialite”, located at the heart of Southeast Asia, but “without the chaos, the dirt, the undrinkable tap water and the gridlocked traffic”10 that is supposedly characteristic of its Southeast Asian neighbours. As a result, at least in the minds of Singaporeans, Singapore appears linguistically and culturally more like the developed West than its neighbours. Nurturing a sense of community in this context is no easy feat and would require a concerted effort to enhance cultural integration and understanding among the people of Southeast Asia.

Towards an ASEAN “Community”


Community-building cannot rely solely on a top-down approach. Ordinary Singaporeans need to engage with their Southeast Asian counterparts at the individual level. The state, however, can provide more opportunities for Singaporeans and encourage interaction. This is particularly important as Singapore attracts more immigrants to our shores, and more global and local companies, especially tech start-ups, are investing in places like Indonesia and Vietnam. These aims can be achieved by continued efforts to promote regional tourism and overseas placements for Singaporeans.

If mindsets are to be changed, it is crucial that a younger generation of Singaporeans, potentially the future leaders of ASEAN, have more avenues to interact with youth from other Southeast Asian nations. For instance, events like the 2013 ASEAN Youth Camp, which brought together young people from a cross the region for a week of arts workshops and collaborative performances, could help nurture a common sense of identity and community.

More can be done in the education sphere. For instance, Linda Lim, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, notes that Singaporean universities currently offer many opportunities for travel-study, internship and exchange programmes with the West—for example, Silicon Valley, New York, and London. They could do more to offer Southeast Asian options. One promising initiative is the Temasek History Research Centre’s Southeast Asian Heritage programme. Through expert lectures, archaeological surveys and excavations, and visits to heritage sites, the programme offers students a first-hand experience of the history and heritage of their ASEAN neighbours and a deeper understanding of regional, contemporary politics and sensibilities.

Thompson’s 2006 study, which identified young Singaporeans’ perception gap about the region, also pointed out that young Singaporeans do not receive much schooling about Southeast Asia. While Southeast Asia is a focus in Primary School Social Studies, there is little emphasis on present-day Southeast Asia in secondary schools; history textbooks for ‘N’ and ‘O’ levels focus more on World War II, the Japanese Occupation, and Singapore and Malayan history rather than the broader region. As such, unfamiliarity can lead to an overreliance on stereotypes and superficial impressions of other countries in the region.


While businesses benefit from using Singapore as a staging post to the rest of the region, these efforts can be impeded if Singaporeans do not have an appreciation for the language and culture of our neighbours. Speaking at a Singapore Press Holdings forum in 2017, Mr Chan Chun Sing, then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, suggested that having a command of Malay can help Singaporeans bridge Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.11 Malay and Bahasa Indonesia are used by hundreds of millions in the region—in particular, our closest neighbours. Competence in this major language group could help foster a better understanding of our immediate neighbours and open up new opportunities.

Basic communication skills in other Southeast Asian languages such as Vietnamese, Thai or Filipino (standardised Tagalog) could also be promoted to increase Singaporean cultural literacy and competency of the region. Currently, younger Singaporeans are likely to be more familiar with common phrases and greetings in Western languages such as French, or East Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese, than the same phrases in Southeast Asian tongues. We should make it more fashionable for Singaporeans to develop the basic competencies in various Southeast Asian languages. For starters, Singapore could emulate, at least on a small scale, what we have done for the official languages in Singapore by holding Southeast Asia—focused heritage and language festivals. These could provide opportunities to share and learn the histories of different Southeast Asian communities and their languages. The significant Southeast Asian communities that already reside in Singapore could offer much scope for cultural exchange and learning.


As a multicultural cosmopolitan city, Singapore is well-poised to take advantage of a significant and diverse resident migrant population. Immigrants are carriers of cultural artefacts: they bring with them cultural practices, beliefs, and attachments to their new place of residence. As such, they play an important role in the cultural diffusion process. Their presence in Singapore should not be regarded as an incidental side effect of our open economy nor (worse) an inconvenience. Instead, their presence in Singapore should be appreciated as an important opportunity and conduit for Singaporeans to better understand and connect with the cultures of broader Southeast Asia.

Interactions with Southeast Asian migrants can help Singaporeans better understand the many nuanced regional and sub-cultural differences in Southeast Asia. Multiracialism in Singapore has nurtured a culturally diverse citizenry committed to maintaining social cohesion at our national level. However, it has not necessarily rendered Singaporeans better able to navigate or negotiate greater degrees of cultural diversity—although it is a start. On the one hand, while Singapore’s categorisation of its population into the distinct racial categories of “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, and “Others” (CMIO) has been a helpful bureaucratic tool in state management, it has effectively homogenised cultural differences within these racial groups. This potentially limits the Singaporean’s ability to fully understand the complexities and uniqueness of Southeast Asian cultures. On the other hand, however, the CMIO model—with its emphasis on racial harmony—provides the basis for which diversity can be seen in positive terms. Hence, unlike in Europe, where xenophobia has accompanied the migration crisis and the effects of globalisation, more frequent interactions with our fellow Southeast Asians may expose our population to the rich cultural diversity in Southeast Asian societies. This could foster among Singaporeans an interest in seeking to understand other cultures, as complex as these might be, rather than relying on simplistic portrayals of the other.

Cultural competence is not just about understanding others, but also our own cultural values and how they influence our actions.


Cultural competence is not just about understanding others, but also our own cultural values and how they influence our actions. To be able to form a community, a people need to share common beliefs, visions, meanings, and values. In turn, this requires interpersonal connections and affiliations through which culture can be shared.

There is a need to foster more willingness to engage with ASEAN cultures—this can begin by changing the perceptions of Singaporeans towards our neighbours. This will have to be followed through with opportunities for our peoples to work together on meaningful projects towards common goals, such as addressing climate change or healthcare. Such hands-on efforts will help build up trust and confidence, so Singaporeans can begin to see themselves not as the aloof exceptions but as equal partners in a larger regional community that is thriving and rich with opportunity.


Mathew Mathews is Head, Social Lab and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. He has been involved in over 50 research projects, a number of them revolving around culture.

Shane Pereira is Research Associate at the Institute of Policy Studies. His research interests include social and cultural diversity. He is currently working on issues of in-work poverty and youth, and multiculturalism and the use of public space.



  1. Association of Southeast Asian Nations, “Chairman’s Statement of the 11th ASEAN Summit ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’, Kuala Lumpur”, December 12, 2005, accessed 17 December, 2018,
  2. Curriculum Planning and Development Division, Ministry of Education. Primary Social Studies Syllabus, 2012.
  3. SkillsFuture Programme (website),
  4. Eric C. Thompson, “Singaporean Exceptionalism and Its Implications for ASEAN Regionalism”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 28, no. 2 (2006): 183–206.
  5. Louisa Tang, “The Big Read: As ASEAN Economies Take Off, Young Singaporeans Need to Shed Misconceptions about the Region”, CNA, September 25, 2018, accessed December 18, 2019,
  6. C. Moloi and Mariette Bam, “Exploring Cultural Competence from a Sociological Point of View”, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 5, no. 3 (2014): 332–337.
  7. Anthony Reid, “Singapore between Cosmopolis and Nation”, in Singapore from Temasek to the 21st Century: Reinventing the Global City (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010), 37–54.
  8. Lee Jun Jie, “Colonialism and ASEAN Identity: Inherited “Mental Barriers” Hindering the Formation of a Collective ASEAN Identity”, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, 2018, accessed December 16, 2019,
  9. The Singapore Bicentennial Conference, IPS, video file, posted October 6, 2019, accessed December 18, 2019,
  10. The Economist, Special Report, “The Singapore Exception”, July 18, 2015, accessed January 22, 2020, special-report/21657606-continue-flourish-itssecond-half-century-south-east-asias-miraclecity-state.
  11. Zhaki Abdullah, “Malay Can Serve as a Bridge to the Region: Chan Chun Sing”, The Straits Times, October 24, 2017, accessed December 18, 2019.

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