By Nicholas Clark
The shifting sands of Singaporean statecraft.
In 1980 the second deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Dr Goh Keng Swee, broadcast a pointed warning to television viewers as he addressed the nation. Dubbed ‘The Anomie Within Us’, Dr. Swee cautioned viewers of ‘the state of mind of one who has been pulled up from his moral roots,’ one who ‘has no longer a sense of continuity, of folk, of obligation’. The speech may seem unusual, coming as it was from a figure who single-handedly influenced the development of institutions that would change Singaporean society permanently. Swee drew from the writing of sociologist Émile Durkheim, who coined the term ‘anomie,’ referring to the breakdown of social values or ‘normlessness’ within a population. This reference might come as a surprise from a figure who had gone to substantial lengths to disrupt the structure of Singaporean identity and community, but it continues to resonate today.
Singapore, only fifteen years old at the time of the speech, had undergone rapid and disruptive change. Dr Goh himself was a fierce and professorial engineer of the newborn country’s civil service and social institutions. His resume includes the structuring of the country’s armed forces, instituting national service for all male Singaporeans, and proposing the now near-trillion dollar sovereign wealth fund. Indeed, Dr Goh was a major contributor to the institutions of economic progress and development that Singapore has formed as the basis of much of its emerging national identity.
An island city-state nestled between the Straits of Malacca and the Malay Peninsula, Singapore often confounds outside observers. Over the years, the country has attracted an often contradictory set of accolades and derisions. The ‘Singapore model’ is a strict legal regime (visitors are often affronted by bans on chewing gum and spitting), with a degree of public ownership rivalling Cuba’s as a percentage of national GDP, and a low-tax, yet it maintains a highly favourable regulatory environment for international commerce. It has been lauded as a success story of British colonialism, a laissez-faire model for Thatcher’s Britain and Boris Johnson’s Brexit, a state-capitalist system of social ownership adopted by Deng Xiaoping’s reformist Chinese Communist Party, or an autocratic ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’. Critics and admirers alike are routinely impressed by Singapore’s core national mythology, which drew the arc of growth from a small group of fishing villages to a leading global financial centre in the span of less than fifty years. This ‘Singapore Story’ has become a lodestone of Singaporean political messaging, and lent the title to founding-father Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir.
As with any national mythology, it can be difficult to separate truth from legend. Notwithstanding the bellicosity of political rhetoric and National Day parades, it is undeniable that Singapore’s rapid development is remarkable. But it is difficult for outsiders to understand that for many Singaporeans the pace of change was hard to bear, particularly among the elderly population lauded with being Singapore’s pioneers. As a national identity was carved out of a disparate and multi-ethnic population, traditional structures were pushed aside, with little time for sentiment or nostalgia. The country’s position in the Straits of Malacca attracted large populations of Chinese, Peranakan, and Indian merchants, who cohabited the island, for centuries relegated to a backwater under the auspice of various Malay sultanates. The arrival of the British, and the construction of what is now Singapore’s modern port in 1819, allowed Singapore to blossom into a jewel of South East Asia, attracting with it large populations of immigrants from Southern China, among other regions.
The process of Singapore’s development mirrors the urbanisation now underway in much of South East Asia, as thousands stream from rural villages into the burgeoning metropolises of Bangkok, Java, and the Mekong Delta. The ‘Singapore Story’, with its gleaming skyscrapers and effective public institutions, also offers a stark vision of the future of developing states, where local identities will inevitably confront a disorientating process of change and adaptation. To the credit of its policymakers, Singapore has built a national ethos on development, a process which many argue legitimises the country’s particularly strict rule of law, one in which many Singaporeans self-effacingly take pride. Subjected to the ardours of a hostile and politically volatile region as a fledgling city-state, Singapore’s tempestuous early years were marked by the will of its founding political class to promote stability and development, with very little regard or patience for sentimentality or nostalgia.
Filling the vaults of Singapore’s libraries and archives is remarkable technicolour footage of a country that would be unrecognisable to young Singaporeans, so recent is the country’s development. The kampungs of Singapore’s past traditional villages that relied on small trade, agriculture, and fishing were rapidly cleared as the population was moved into public housing. The open-air markets of the old downtown were cleared, with the city’s distinctive and colourful shophouses, formerly home to multigenerational residences, restored and converted into chic commercial spaces and restaurants. It is hard to underestimate the symbolic power of the urban environment in shaping identity and place. For the British reader, the scale of disintegration and redevelopment can be compared to the reshaping of the country’s urban centres by the Blitz, and the subsequent post-war embrace of mass social housing.
Of particular interest here is Singaporean language policy. Any visitor to Singapore may attest to the government’s remarkable role in shifting every-day language: speech, for instance, is peppered with acronyms. This is a hangover from a period where the majority of the population lacked proficiency in technical English, and institutions adopted easy-to-remember abbreviations for simplicity. However, it is the seemingly innocuous ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ that may be remembered as the most culturally significant. Launched in 1979 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the campaign was inaugurated by the slogan ‘Speak More Mandarin, Speak Less Dialects’, with the aim of ensuring that ethnically Chinese Singaporeans could share a lingua franca, having been divided by Chinese dialects including Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka. In an interview with The New York Times, Singaporean historian Tan Dan Feng described the state of the country’s dialect speakers at the time as a ‘linguistic tropical rainforest’. Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat, writing on Singapore’s colonial cultural landscape and the heady years post-independence, claimed that the ‘anchoring’ of cultural orientation to ‘imagined homelands’ by immigrant groups in Singapore meant that ‘Singaporean culture as such was an “absence”, something inconceivable’. In a fragile and highly pluralistic society, it became the task of Singapore’s policymakers to fill that gap, and quickly.
The initiative which, under the auspices of the Promote Mandarin Council, promoted new slogans annually, continues to operate to this day. The campaign was, by all measures, incredibly successful, not least because it was accompanied by sanctions on the use of dialect in public life. Certain government officials were immediately compelled to use Mandarin, even when conversing with dialect speakers, while dialect use was quickly eradicated from local television programming and broadcasts. In time, this government program furthered the linguistic isolation of older dialect speakers, lacking proficiency in either English or Mandarin, a rift that has only grown as children in formerly dialect-speaking families are unable to communicate with their elderly relatives. In an ageing population that already suffers the malaise of elderly loneliness, this has served to further isolate the elderly from the society they played an instrumental role in building. Benedict Anderson, an erstwhile sociologist and specialist in South East Asia, who explored the notion of nationhood as founded on ‘imagined communities’, claimed that language is a means to understanding the ‘thinking and feeling of a people’. In the process of consolidating Singaporean identity, a linguistic gulf was opened up between the worlds of the elderly and the young, a generational divide that seems almost impossible to broach.
For the country’s elderly, marooned and rooted in their dialect, lost in a city that has come a long way from the kampungs and shophouses of their youth, it is hard not to imagine the difficulty they face on a daily basis. While controversial, some critics, such as Singaporean sociologist Wendy Bokhorst-Heng, have alleged that the loss of dialect in daily life has had negative collateral effects on the belief in an ‘authentic’ Singaporean national identity. Fragments of dialect are preserved in Singapore’s vernacular patois, Singlish. Smatterings of Hokkien and Teochew — pejoratives and names of food, inflections and exclamations — continue to colour Singlish expression. Dialect now enjoys a long half-life in local slang, particularly in the military. As with the communities of elderly Singaporeans, the persistence of dialect in Singapore is indicative of a fundamental tension between the nation as it exists in policy and in reality.
According to the French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil, ‘to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’. In a Singaporean context, many argue that the aims of national language policy have justified the means, with Singapore’s proficiency in English and Mandarin Chinese a major asset as the Chinese market continues to grow in size and influence. The consolidation of Singapore's Chinese population has increased social cohesion, an important measure after the turbulent post-independence years, which saw the eruption of racial riots and tensions with Singapore’s other minority groups. Singapore’s development, too, has achieved remarkable social equity. The majority of Singaporeans reside in social housing; there is near-universal access to education and social resources. For Singapore’s visionary founders, Singapore’s modern and efficacious civil society may, in the eyes of history, justify what was broken on the way.
In the present, we come to the paralysis of a generation ‘between declarations and dreams,’ a phrase accompanying the opening exhibition of Singapore’s first major gallery for national art in 2015. The blindingly progressive confidence that marked Singapore’s ‘pioneer generation’ and the grand struggle for nation building recedes into the mundanity of technocratic political life. Lee Kuan Yew, the nominal father of the nation, paused for reflection in his later writing. Rationalising the costs of rapid development, Lee asserts that ‘we were in no position to be fussy about high-minded principles.’ As many states in South East Asia remained in the grip of crushing poverty, the creation of a national identity was a necessity. To return to Chua Beng Huat , ‘only when it had become a fait accompli, was it necessary to produce a “nation” and a “people”.’ Such is the conflict at the heart of Singapore. Shortly after independence, Lee Kuan Yew famously wept on television, affronted by the seemingly impossible task ahead. Indeed, Singapore perhaps sits alone in history as having once been a state without a nation.
Nicholas Clark reads law at Wadham College. Don’t worry, he’s also rolling his eyes.
Art by Cleo Scott.