SINGAPORE: When Mr Daniel Ellis pulls into a bus bay, some commuters do a double-take and wonder if they’ve flagged down the right bus.
With his fair complexion, cropped brunette hair, he’s the proud bus captain of service 27, a loop service from Hougang Central bus interchange.
The 34-year-old has already garnered quite a following of curious fans, though he has been on the road for just three months.
“Actually, some people wait for my bus specifically. So that they can board my bus rather than someone else’s because they enjoy riding with me,” he smiled.
This newly-minted bus captain does stand out in an industry dominated by locals and foreigners from mainly Malaysia, China and India.
And Mr Ellis is a bona fide Singaporean, although he does not look like one. He is one of about 20,000 new immigrants who take up citizenship here every year, adding to the increasing diversity in Singapore.
On a special National Day episode, the programme Talking Point (Aug 10, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5) explores how social cohesion could be affected by these demographic changes.
WHY BE A SINGAPOREAN
Born in South Africa, Mr Ellis came to Singapore in 2009 to meet a local girl that he had been communicating with online.
The two married in 2011 and he became a Singapore citizen two years ago.
Mr Ellis recounted how impressed he was by the friendly culture here and the ease of getting around, especially with English being the main language. And when he got married, the decision to move here was an easy one.
“I wanted to live in the East, but the main reason is I wanted to be here to build my life with my wife.
“The understanding was that we will either settle here or in South Africa, but the preference was Singapore. And of course it’s a really nice country to live in, truly,” he said.
This meant giving up his South African citizenship, but he said his heritage will always be a part of him. “You can’t take that away,” he said.
Watch: What his ride's been like so far (2:57)
ENJOY THE RIDE
The next thing he had to do was look for a job, but that proved to be a challenge because not many companies recognised his qualifications from South Africa.
He applied to be a bus captain, partly because of the stability that it offers. “Initially, it was just going to be a job,” he said.
“But the more I learned about the systems and how everything fits together, I started enjoying it more and I was quite pleasantly impressed by the level of sophistication.”
Even his colleagues questioned his career choice at first - given that Caucasians working here tend to hold white-collar jobs. He is, in fact, the first to be employed by SBS Transit as a bus captain.
“Most of them wanted to know, why do you want to be a bus captain?
I just throw the question back at them, and they say, ‘I just needed a job to pay my bills’. So, it’s the same for me, we’re the same, right? When we make that level of connection, then things are much smoother after that.
He gets quizzed even more regularly by his passengers, about his origins, whether he’s really a Singaporean, and where were his parents born?
“I understand that they are trying to package me into a little box, to understand how I fit into their worldview.
“Most bus captains don’t really interact with the passengers as much, but because people are very surprised when they board my bus, they want to interact as well. I allow that as long as it doesn’t disrupt the service or it doesn’t take my focus away from what I’m doing.
“But overall, people are generally friendly,” he said. He has already received eight compliments in the past three months from commuters delighted with his service.
Mr Ellis – who enjoys nothing more than his hot kopi-o kosong (black sugarless coffee) and a good plate of chicken rice – admits however that “there’s always this underlying tension” between Singaporeans and foreigners.
When he used to live with his in-laws in Eunos, someone wrote “Foreigners and FT (foreign talents) go home” on the wall of a HDB block, although it wasn’t targeted at him specifically.
And while no one has personally accosted him about being a foreigner, he has seen it happen to others. He and his wife were walking in Punggol when he heard one teenager scream at a guy on a bike, ‘Bangla go home, what are you doing here?’
Both my wife and I were saying ‘So young and they are already doing that’.
Mr Ellis belongs to an evolving ‘Others’ category, which makes up 3.2 per cent of the total resident population. This mix of ‘Others’ has changed quite dramatically over the years.
In 2000, Eurasians topped the list, followed by Caucasians and then Arabs. Today, the top three are Filipinos, Caucasians and an ‘Others’ within ‘Others’ category – a mix bag of ethnicities which could include Vietnamese, Myanmarese and Africans.
The proportion of Eurasians has halved to 13 per cent, just under 17,000 Eurasians. (Read: We're more than an ‘other’: Eurasians in search of their disappearing culture)
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Will this increasing diversity affect our social cohesion?
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the way to tackle it is to get to know these naturalised citizens as individuals.
It’s not about the passport you hold, but about seeing them as individuals with their hopes and aspirations.
“So I would say, keep our prejudices in check, understand that we are all trying to make a living and that we really need to form a community, a harmonious one, because we don’t want to end up in strife and tension and conflict all the time,” he said.
And some of these new immigrants work as nurses and bus captains - jobs that Singaporeans don’t really want to do.
“The diversity that we have as a result of these people coming in is actually a good thing,” he said. “We learn new ideas and new ways of doing things, we are not living in a silo, so I believe it would make life more exciting.”
Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Leong Chan Hoong noted that on average, it takes new citizens 10 years or so to assimilate into society.
For new citizens, Mr Ellis recommends that one make the effort to make friends, understand what Singaporeans do and how they live their lives. “Keep an open mind,” he advised.
One should also explore Singapore and understand its history. “There is also one thing that ties everything together - the food.
“If you learn what people like, what they don’t like and what they enjoy, you can share over a kopi, laksa, or Vietnamese beef pho – that’s something that connects you,” said Mr Ellis who despite his initial repulsion, has even taught himself how to eat durian.
More about the issue on the Talking Point episode, ‘Changing Faces of Singapore’, which airs Aug 10, at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.