Touch, You & Your Family

Citizens, Permanent Residents and pilgrims

I HAVE A CONFESSION to make. Although I carry a pink Identity Card and have completed all my National Service liabilities, I am not a citizen by birth. I was born in the town of Kuching, in the state of Sarawak, in East Malaysia.

This fact has not escaped the keen eyes of many Immigration Officers who have thought that my application to enter their country deserves a little closer scrutiny. I suspect that it is because of this fact that I have been asked a few more questions and even had my bags searched at times. You could say that I was a victim of Ethnic Profiling. Apart from this, I seldom give my heritage a second thought. I regard myself as a rightful citizen of this tiny red dot.

It is for this reason that I am both perplexed and disturbed when I read in various media forms how strongly people feel the need to distinguish ourselves as citizens, Permanent Residents, or visitors. With competition for employment, fewer available seats in the food courts and MRT, and even rising property prices, we have become more conscious of who has a greater right to be here. Though we are happy for tourists to visit and spend their money here, we have become less welcoming of those who settle a little longer.

This less-than-charitable spirit is not the affliction of Singaporeans alone. When economies are buoyant and there are plenty of resources to go around, people tend to be more generous. The reverse becomes true when there is scarcity, be it perceived or real. We tend to be more territorial. Having said this, I must add that local incidents of overt expressed prejudice against another ethnic group are rare and when they do occur, they are kept in check by the authorities.

Still, some might ask, is there any harm in being a little more nationalistic? After all, should not citizens have some special rights and privileges over non-citizens? Citizens pay tax and serve their nation in various forms, so does it not count for something?

I am all for having a sense of national pride. Having lived here almost all my life, I feel that we have much to be proud of by way of our nation’s almost miraculous success. Our history of harmonious inter-ethnic existence stands in direct contrast to nations that are split apart by racial tension and strife. In addition, it is also because of our history that we have to learn to be more inclusive and accepting of other cultures.

Almost all of us are of migrant stock. Many of us have come directly from Malaysia, China, India, and Ceylon. If we are not direct immigrants, then perhaps our parents or their parents were. The only persons who can truly claim the right to be here are perhaps the descendents of the 150 or so “Orang Laut”, whom our history books tell us were the original settlers when Sir Stamford Raffles first arrived.

Is there a biblical perspective to this topic of citizenship? I can think of one oblique reference in the New Testament. Jesus reminded His disciples in Matthew 22:21 to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. It would appear that the focus is not on our rights as citizens but on our responsibilities to the rulers that be. Indeed we may not always agree with them and in the case of the Israelites, being an occupied people, they had more reasons to disagree with their Roman rulers. Nevertheless, Christians are to be good law-abiding citizens. We are to do our lawful duty as citizens.

In this day and age of greater political awareness and empowerment, this seemingly subservient stance might appear out of place. What makes it possible for the Christian to be so dutiful is the fact that we are only pilgrims on our journey to our final destination. In today’s terminology, all Christians are Permanent Residents here on earth and this status is valid as long as we inhabit this earthly form. After which, we join others ahead of us in our citizenship of Heaven.

With this mind-set, we are asked to lay up for ourselves treasures in Heaven where neither moth nor rust can consume (Matthew 6:20-21). This also means that our focus is not on the appreciation or depreciation of our worldly assets or quality of life, as these are but momentary given the eternal span of time.

If we are getting more upset with what we have to share with our new residents, perhaps we are becoming a little too attached to our earthly treasures and this may be an indicator of our heart’s changing citizenship.

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Benny Bong is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, is a family and marital therapist.