Singapore Eurasians – The Inheritors of Western and Asian Cultures

Singapore is a multi-racial society whose citizenry, excepting the native Malays, are of various migrant stocks coming from many parts of Asia and further afield. Their collective contributions have, over the years, gradually transformed Singapore into a harmonious, dynamic and prosperous First World country, much respected, admired and envied by others.

The Eurasian community, one of the four major components of Singapore society and numbering a little below 17,000 than  (less than one percent of its population), have had a glorious history and whose achievements have far exceeded their small population. This is clearly reflected in the many street names and public edifices which commemorate their illustrious forebears.

Who are the Eurasians, where did they come from and what are their historical connections with Singapore, Malaysia and the region? When the European maritime powers colonised Asian countries, such as India, Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia and Indochina, from the 16th to 20th centuries, they brought into being a new race of people known historically and generally as the Eurasians.The early Western colonisers were not accompanied by their women folks on these perilous adventures. Consequently, many married the local women of these lands, or formed liaisons with them. The offsprings of such a union were brought up as an appendage of the ruling class and enjoyed advantages not accorded the rest of the local population. This policy of assimilation was, initially, actively encouraged by the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch colonial regimes in order to create a new breed who would be loyal and help them administer these newly acquired territories aimed at perpetuating their rule.

In course of time, the most commonly accepted definition of the Eurasian was, and still is, that the male ancestor must be of Western provenance while that of the female one would have Asian roots. By the time the British planted their flag in Singapore in 1819, a well-established Eurasian community had already existed in British India, Malaya, Ceylon and Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Not a few of them, especially those from Malaya, were among the early immigrants to Singapore, attracted by Raffles’ free trade and open-door policies. Many more from elsewhere followed suit in later years. This historic definition has been subsequently modified so that offsprings of new mixed marriages between Asians and Westerners would invariably have the surnames of their fathers and belong to their race and nationality. In the Singapore and Malaysia context, they would be outside the ambit of the traditional Eurasian community.

Being of partial Western ancestry whose male forebears came from many parts of Europe, coupled with their familiarity with the English language and the European way of conducting business, Singapore Eurasians had a head start here over other migrants from China, India, Ceylon and elsewhere. They became junior civil servants, chiefly as clerks or supervisors, or were employed in similar capacities in trading houses or other business establishment operated by Europeans. Unlike the Chinese and Indians, few were interested in becoming businessmen themselves. The countries of origin of their European ancestors are clearly reflected in their surnames to denote their Portuguese, British, Dutch and Spanish ancestry, among many others.

They looked upon an English education as a passport to a better life in colonial Singapore and hence heir children were among the first to enrol in English language schools when they were set up. They attained the highest literacy rate among the local groups here. This enabled them to secure comfortable employments later, in both public and private sectors, following in the footsteps of their fathers and as a family tradition for the future generations.

An English-speaking Eurasian middle class, unfailingly loyal to the British Crown, was gradually emerging in Singapore. Christians almost to a man, they considered themselves superior to the other local races and subordinate only to the European community. This perception was, of course, carefully nurtured by the British in pursuit of their own long-term interests.The elites among them would emulate the lifestyle of the British ruling class and adopt their mores and value systems.  They also shared the British fervour for sports, particularly cricket and hockey, as a prerequisite and mark of a gentleman. They chose to downplay their Asian lineage and, at the same time, exhibited unconcealed pride in their Western heritage.

Up until the early 1870s, the Eurasians were generally treated more like an equal by the Europeans here, and there were regular interactions between them in sports and socially. However, the advent of the steamship, which greatly reduced travel times between Europe and  Singapore, brought with it more European settlers to the Colony. They began to distance themselves from the Eurasians and preferred to keep company with their own kind. They became ardent advocates of separate communal sporting and recreation clubs, whose memberships were open only to those of pure European descent. Even Europeans with Asian wives were frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome there.

This blatant racist sentiment brought home starkly to the Eurasians that they must develop a separate identity of their own in the face of changing circumstances. They therefore founded their own Singapore Recreation Club (SRC) in 1883, with land granted by the Government. This was followed by the formation of the Eurasian Association (EA) in 1919 aimed at promoting their interests and advancement. These became the focus of their community life.

By the early 20th century, a number of young Eurasians had already won the coveted annual Queen’s Scholarships, the precursors of present day Singapore President Scholarships, and graduated mainly as lawyers and doctors from leading British universities and learned professional institutions.  In addition, the most able among those employed by the civil service and leading European business houses had little competition in reaching the top positions earmarked for non-Europeans. Others achieved prominence in public life and became leaders of the Eurasian community.

The most respected among them was Edwin John Tessensohn who was the first Eurasian to be appointed a member of the prestigious Singapore Legislative Council. He was president of the SRC for 27 years and a long serving vice-president of EA. There was hardly a matter concerning his community that he did not play a part in and his advice was always heeded. He had devoted a life time of public service both within and outside of his community. The government had named a street in his honour.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, many Eurasian men, who had enlisted in the Singapore Volunteer Corps for active service, died defending it. Those who survived were interned together with their compatriots who were closely identified with the British war efforts. They were among the allied prisoners of war dispatched to build the infamous “Siam Death Railway” by the Japanese military administration and many never returned.

When World War II ended in 1945, it ushered in a turning point for all Singaporeans. The ignominious surrender of the British to the Japanese, whom they hitherto thought inferior, had destroyed once and for all the myth of the invincibility of the white man. Nationalism was being stirred up and multiracial Singaporeans, including their Eurasian brethren, began to seek better and fairer job opportunities, in both public and private sector employments, as a vital first step towards achieving eventual independence from the British.

The ensuing civil service reforms, which inevitably impinged on the private sector largely dominated by western enterprises, paved the way for Singaporeans taking over the top posts from the British officers within an agreed time frame. The Eurasians, by virtue of their English language proficiency and service seniority, initially stood to gain more than the other Singaporeans in proportion to their population.

The period between 1940s and 1960s saw the full flowering of the Eurasian community. They were well represented in the Legislative Assembly, and later Parliament, the top echelons of the public services, the academia, the professions, journalism, the business sector and, last but not least, for having two Cabinet ministers out of ten in the earlier socialist People’s Action Party (PAP) government headed by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore became an independent republic in 1965, after being forced out as a part of the expanded Malaysia.

The other well-educated Eurasians also kept their community’s flag flying high in the teaching and nursing professions, in the fields of music, entertainment, fashion and sports, the police force as well as in the holy orders of the Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church. Among their many past luminaries were Dr Charles Paglar (the controversial but influential community leader), Dr Benjamin Sheares (an internationally renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist), Sir George Oehlers (Speaker of Parliament), EW Barker (Cabinet Minister), Kenneth Byrne (Cabinet Minister), George Bogaars (Head of Civil Service),Dennis D’cotta (High Court Judge), Stanley Stewart (Permanent Secretary), John Le Cain (Commissioner of Police), John Eber (lawyer and left-wing political activist), Maurice Baker (scholar and diplomat), PF de Souza (lawyer and community leader) and, ES Monteiro (university professor and diplomat). The most prominent of them all was Dr Benjamin Sheares who became the independent Singapore’s second President and held the office from 1971 for 10 years. A popular leader, his death in 1981 was deeply mourned by all Singaporeans.

To carry on the impressive record of their predecessors, their worthy successors have continued to make valuable contributions to Singapore’s national development into the present time, albeit to a lesser extent as before. Among their current leading lights in both public and private sectors would include Joe Conceicao, Barry Desker, Mark Van Cylenberg, John De Payva, John Klass, Farah Lange, Jeremy Montario, Herman Hochstadt,  Judith Prakash, Eunice Olsen, Annabel Penefather and Brian Richmond, among others.

What are the Eurasians like as a people? How do they articulate their hopes and aspirations and what lies ahead for them in the new millennium? It is the general consensus that they are a leisure, music and sports loving people due to their Western upbringing and who get more out of life by living it to the full. They generally take the Christian religion and festivals seriously and these have a significant impact on their way of life. Their Asian heritage makes them a very family oriented people, and they get on harmoniously and easily with their fellow Singaporeans.

Like all communities everywhere, social hierarchies and class consciousness do creep into its traditional culture, albeit now fast losing much of its relevance in a fast changing world. In its heyday during the colonial era, the elites among them considered themselves “the upper ten” and derisively referred to their less affluent brethren as “the lower-ten”, and their social paths seldom crossed. Such social snobbery is based on various considerations including that of one’s station in life, wealth, level of education, profession, religious affiliations, residential address and, last but by no means least, the colour of one’s skin (the lighter the better).

They generally prefer to be civil servants, members of established professions like law or medicine, in academia or in a well-paid capacity in the private sector. Unlike their Indian and Chinese counterparts, there are fewer Eurasians who are self-employed business men and women or big league entrepreneurs because a commercial career did not quite appeal to most of them and they would rather opt for the stability of a salaried employment and this traditional mindset has persisted into the present time.

Despite their remarkable past achievements in the various fields and good command of English which is their mother tongue, a noticeable decline of the Singapore Eurasian community became self-evident from 1970s onwards. Those who were more Western-oriented took a dimmer view of their future in Singapore under what they considered a radical socialist PAP Government. Many, including some picks among them, began to emigrate to countries like Australia, United Kingdom, United States and Canada for greener pastures, particularly during 1960s and 1970s when the Republic’s’ economic and political viability was not yet fully established.

One of the common grouses of many Singapore Eurasians is that they are not fully recognised as a major component of the Singapore society because of their small size, and hence there is a lingering feeling that they are being marginalised as a community. This perception is not borne out by the reality of life in the meritocratic system that has been carefully nurtured and safeguarded in this land where every citizen, regardless of his or her race, religion or skin colour, can advance in life provided he or she has the demonstrated abilities to do so.

Although the brighter Eurasians who remain committed to help make Singapore becoming a better place to live and to work have continued to acquit themselves well in an intensely more competitive environment, they are no longer as active in public life as they were in the earlier decades. Consequently, they have not had a representative in the Singapore Cabinet since the retirement of the distinguished government minister Eddie Barker in 1988, and there were only a handful of them in subsequent years in Parliament until 2006 when two young Eurasian lawyers, Christopher de Souza and Michael Palmer, became elected MPs. Another Eurasian, Eunice Olsen, became a nominated MP and completed a two-year term sometime ago. We shall wait and see if more Eurasians will join the next and ensuing Parliaments.

The writer is of the view that, in a multiracial society like Singapore where meritocracy is the cornerstone for ultimate reward and advancement, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Eurasian community will continue to make useful contributions to the Republic’s development, as their forebears had done in the past two centuries, provided they remain ready and able to meet the more formidable challenges that the new millennium will bring. I am optimistic that, as inheritors of both Western and Asian values and cultural influences, they are in a unique position to continue to make a beneficial impact on the future well-being of cosmopolitan Singapore, of which they are an integral component now as before.

Lam Pin Foo

18 thoughts on “Singapore Eurasians – The Inheritors of Western and Asian Cultures

  1. Dear Pin Foo

    Thanks for sharing.
    I work for the Eurasian Association and thought it would be interesting if we could put this article up on our EA’s official web-site. May i have your permission, please? with bext regards..

  2. I apologise for not being able to recommend the books that you seek.

    Do find out if Singapore’s Eurasian Association or the Singapore Recreation Club can assist you.

    You can look up their respective websites for contact purposes.

  3. Dear Mr Lam,

    It’s nice to read your article. I need your help on finding the leisure & past time of Eurasia in Singapore before World War III. Any books to recommend . Thanks in advance.


  4. Hi Pin Foo,

    My name is Eve, and I’m currently doing a documentary series on Eurasians in Singapore. I found your write up extremely enlightening.

    I’m currently looking to beef up my research, so I would really appreciate it if you could drop me a note through email.

    Thank you!



  5. Dear Pin Foo

    Your article is well written and a pleasure to read. Very helpful information on the Eurasian community.


  6. Pingback: The cheebalizing Tao of language at Cheryl Marie Cordeiro

  7. Dear Pin Foo,
    I am a Singapore Eurasian living in Australia, one of the first generation born here after our parents migrated here in the early seventies. Thank you for creating a greater understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

    Warm regards,
    Simon Klass.

  8. Dear Pin Foo,
    your definitive article gives all its readers an excellent appreciation of our Eurasian fellow Singaporeans. I fully agree with you that our Eurasian community will continue to contribute significantly to Singapore’s growth as a nation, albeit a small one. With more inter-marriage between Asian Singaporeans and Europeans or Eurasians in Singapore, the line of Eurasians will certainly grow in number. Singapore will become more and more a model for the ever-shrinking world that the latter’s long-term destiny is to be populated by the ‘human race’ since ‘blood’ is the same color regardless of ethnicity. After all mankind arose from one set of first human parents. I do not subscribe to the theory of many sets of concurrent human parents as it does not compute.
    with best regards,

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