FEER book review: Ironic Championing Of Confucian Values

Garry Rodan
2 Oct 06

Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control By Carl A. Trocki

Routledge, 211 pages, $100/$33.95

Carl Trocki offers a refreshingly different look at Singapore’s colonial and postcolonial history, emphasizing important continuities in the city-state’s history of authoritarian rule and the struggles involving its Chinese-educated and ethnic Chinese majority. His book also makes the most theoretically explicit statement yet that social conflict is the decisive force for change.

For Mr. Trocki, a professor of Asian studies at Queensland University of Technology, class friction was the key dynamic that shaped modern Singapore, with control over the opium trade and the system of labor organization being two fundamental aspects. However, he takes the legacy of precolonial social structures seriously in his explanation of the limits and possibilities of elite rule. His approach is also empathetic to the losers of these struggles and cognizant of the analytical importance of explaining their defeats. Consequently, the diminished power positions of local capitalists and the working class are afforded special attention and significance.

The complex ethnic mix of forces important to the struggles over economic and social control throughout Singapore’s history poses challenges for class analysis. Mr. Trocki appreciates this complexity, detailing much of it in the book. However, his principal focus is on how the different ethnic groups have been involved in, and affected by, the struggle to establish and shape capitalist development. Therefore, whereas writers like Mervyn Wynne, Leon Comber and Wilfred Blythe saw Hokkien-Teochiu tensions in the 19th century as “doctrinal influences” imported from China, Mr. Trocki argues that the root cause lies in the competition over control of pepper and gambier plantations. Similarly, the fragmentation of Chinese secret societies into small-scale criminal gangs is traced by Mr. Trocki to their being squeezed out of revenue farms, the coolie trade and pepper and gambier agriculture between the middle to late 19th century.

The two points most powerfully made in this book relate to his class analysis but are not reducible to it. The first is the observation that the limited institutional penetration and social neglect of the colonial state had long-term political ramifications. The second is that the recent championing of Chinese cultural values by the ruling People’s Action Party contradicts its own historic role in the marginalization of social forces and interests associated with Chinese culture.

Mr. Trocki argues that due to both convenience and a lack of political will on the part of colonial authorities, many of the collective organizations of immigrant communities assumed a vast array of social and political roles. British rule in Singapore was “largely indirect and decentralized as a matter of necessity” given the unwillingness to invest in police forces and other infrastructure. The British relied, for instance, on voluntary collaboration from Chinese triad associations, Malay chiefs who exerted authority over trading communities, and other networks to control the rapidly expanding Chinese population. In the 19th century, Singapore-born Chinese merchants organized powerful kongsi organizations to ensure the wealth and welfare of their families and clans over the long term, providing for education, burials, support for the destitute and other social benefits.

Yet Mr. Trocki explains that there were unintended political consequences from leaving the masses to their own welfare and organizational devices. The influence of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC), labor unions and assorted student and cultural organizations expanded in the first half of the 20th century. Chinese schools also represented the largest and most vibrant education sector in Singapore by the 1940s. While the authorities selectively engaged with the SCCC, it was largely through other organizations that the postwar struggle for independence was conducted. This was a reality that Lee Kuan Yew and his faction in the PAP had to contend with, the ultimate solution to which was harsh responses to independent, critical voices.

Despite Mr. Trocki’s emphasis on class, he contends that the division between the Chinese-educated and the English-educated “lies at the heart of Singapore’s social fabric and has been one of the dynamic themes that binds the 19th-century history of the place to the 20th century.” In advancing this argument, Mr. Trocki submits an especially unflattering contrast between the English-educated middle-class nationalists aligned with Lee Kuan Yew and Chinese-educated nationalists:

It was the Chinese-educated, some of them communists, who had organized the labor unions in Singapore, fought secret-society thugs hired by the government, stood against police batons and, where necessary, gone to jail. None of these were things that Lee himself would ever have done. (emphasis added)

Significantly, once the PAP was in government and Mr. Lee’s faction in control of the executive, it was not just the organized working-class, Chinese-educated masses but also the local Chinese capitalists that Mr. Lee sought to politically neuter. On this point, Mr. Trocki makes a valuable contribution toward a better understanding of how early and strategically Mr. Lee thought about curtailing organizational structures outside his control. Nevertheless, his observations could still benefit from elaboration.

For instance, what were the “left-leanings” of such business people as Tan Kah Kee, Lee Kong Chian and Tan Lark Sye that formed the basis of links between sections of the Chinese-educated business elite and the Chinese-educated mass organizations in the late 1950s and early 1960s? Was it only economic nationalism that provided any basis for extending the shared language and cultural agendas of these different social forces?

Irrespective of the answers, Mr. Trocki is right to emphasize how the tag of “Chinese chauvinism” was used expansively by Mr. Lee to suppress legitimate debate about Chinese language and culture. Having played so decisive a role in the social, economic and political marginalization of the Chinese-educated, there is thus considerable irony in Mr. Lee’s championing of Confucian values during the 1990s — a point to which Mr. Trocki’s book gives acute expression. In this respect, the book’s target is as much the PAP’s version of Singapore’s modern history as it is professional historians who may have paid inordinate attention to elite colonial and postcolonial actors.

In the latter chapters of the book, Mr. Trocki offers a wide range of observations about the tensions unfolding in the present political economy of Singapore, including the growing dependence on new forms of immigrant labor. However, the real strength and originality of this book lies in the attempt to decipher the underlying nature and causes of social conflict over the last two centuries. Mr. Trocki highlights the surprising continuity, maintaining that the real legacy inherited from the British was not a parliamentary system but “130 years of autocratic rule by an unresponsive bureaucracy and an ambitious and exploitative economic elite.” For Mr. Trocki, contemporary power structures in Singapore have much deeper roots than are generally recognized.

Mr. Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University in Australia.

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