The discursive construction of citizenship in Singapore

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Current studies on language and citizenship view citizenship not just as a fixed political category but as a product of continuous negotiation that can be mediated by various sociolinguistic means. This study contributes to the ongoing academic conversations on language and citizenship by examining how the notion of citizenship is discursively constructed in Singapore, and its relationship with how new citizens imagine and position themselves in Singapore society with respect to the material conditions that surround them. By using an interpretive approach that incorporates methods from linguistic ethnography, corpus linguistics, and discourse analysis, this study analyzes a dataset comprising public media texts (newspaper articles and government-produced documents about citizenship from 2013-2017) and interview narratives and observational data from 18 new citizens. The focus on new citizens, which has been lacking in sociolinguistic research, was motivated by the importance of their position in Singapore society: while they have completed the citizenship application process, they continue to grapple with citizenship-based issues in their everyday lives. This study analyzes how various signs, such as linguistic patterns, metapragmatic comments, and multimodal resources, come to index citizenship. The study proposes that these signs cluster together and become typified into the field of indexicality (Jaffe, 2016) of citizenship. The study argues that citizenship functions as a metasign—a sign “…that regiments how it itself and other signs are to be interpreted” (Gal, 2016: 114). Viewing citizenship as a metasign paves the way for the analysis of how various signs are regimented and construct the notion of citizenship and for the investigation of how people position themselves in relation to citizenship. The findings reveal that Singapore public media texts primarily revolve around the legal and political aspects of citizenship that tend to reflect governmental discourses on citizenship, while the interview narratives highlight the socially situated, experiential, and affective aspects. My participants’ articulations of citizenship—which were intertwined with their accounts of emotions and lived experiences—facilitate how my informants employ or reconfigure indexicalities about citizenship. The participants used the signs of family and mobility to present themselves as new citizens who negotiate the global and the local —a dichotomy that undergirds policies and discourses on Singapore citizenship. Moreover, their narratives about how they manage difference enable them to present themselves as new citizens who are good citizens in their own way. This shows that my participants’ reconfigurations of statal narratives into something that matches how they view themselves allow them to claim status as legitimate and good citizens of Singapore. The findings show that the new citizens’ perspective can help us understand how dominant discourses on citizenship are circulated and reproduced in Singapore society.
Date of Award1 Jun 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorBen Rampton (Supervisor)

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