Constructing Singapore (2008)

Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project
Authors: Michael D. Barr & Zlatko Skrbis
: NIAS (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) Press
304 pp
ISBN: 978-87-7694-029-4
Available from: NIAS Press, and Select Books


“Constructing Singapore” studies Singaporean nation-building by focusing on two processes: elite formation and elite selection. It gives primary attention to the role that ethno-racial ascription plays in these processes, but also considers the input of personal connections, personal power, class and gender. It is a study of the progress of Singapore’s state-sponsored nation-building project to its current state whereby a Singaporean version of Chinese ethno-nationalism has overwhelmed the discourse on national and Singaporean identity. Based upon archival research and formal interviews, this study unpacks the culture of elite governance in Lee Hsien Loong’s Singapore today.

The main focus of this thoughtful and dense critique of Singapore’s post-colonial development policies is on some of the country’s shortcomings. Among others discussed are: elite formation, seen as consciously promoted by the gearing of all aspects of the education system and media direction, and by the sharpening of ethnic distinctions and identification in public policies. Efforts in these two areas are seen as having brought about a Chinese ethno-nationalism which dominates Singapore’s own identity and the perceptions and actions of both Singaporeans and others. With bibliography and index.

Book Review by Chee Soon Juan (FEER):

The “Singapore Story”—the title of the first volume of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography—is that a mandarinate elite built a bastion of political and economic success on twin pillars of good governance: meritocracy and multiracialism. “Chimeras,” say Michael Barr and Zlatko Skrbis, professors at The Flinders University of South Australia and The University of Queensland, Australia, respectively.

The authors tear apart the Lee mythology with commendable academic rigor and gusto, arguing that such propaganda serves only to “facilitate and legitimize rule by a self-appointed elite dominated by middle-class Chinese in general, and by the Lee family in particular.”

This issue is examined not just through the lens of Singapore’s political system. Messrs. Barr and Skrbis delve at length into the education system, documenting in extraordinary detail how from an early age students are molded into the People’s Action Party’s image of the ideal Singaporean. The PAP Community Foundation, which runs over half of the preschools in Singapore, puts five- and six-year-olds through a demanding kindergarten regime. Over the next 10 years, children are pushed to participate in a bewildering number of programs through which the “best” are identified and scooped up to join the elite.

These schemes are designed to support and enhance a political infrastructure where power is concentrated in a select few. If all this seems like social engineering at work, that’s because it is. Mr. Lee has never been shy about his intentions to rear future generations of elites.

A more in-depth examination of the programs and considerable resources used to implement Mr. Lee’s eugenics agenda would provide the reader with a better understanding of the extent to which the Party went to ensuring that the elite reproduced and that the “lumpen masses” (to use Mr. Lee’s term) did not. In the 1980s, the PAP sought to increase fertility among university-educated women through financial incentives and dating services, while providing major subsidies for the voluntary sterilization of poor and uneducated parents.

How public policy impacts ethnic groups in Singapore is also keenly examined. Ethnic discrimination is carried out at the highest level of government. One prominent indicator is Singapore’s government-sponsored overseas university scholarships to students. Citing statistics from 1966-2007, the authors note that of the 228 President’s Scholarships awarded only 14 (about 6.1%) went to minority ethnic students. The percentage dropped to 3.5% in the years between 1981 and 2007, even though minority ethnic groups make up more than 20% of Singapore’s population. The number of scholarships given by the Singapore Armed Forces to minorities is even more telling: only 2.2% of the awards given between 1971 and 2007 went to non-Chinese recruits. Messrs. Barr and Skrbis point out that it is not so much a question of whether, but rather of how consciously, these selection panels base their decisions on the wishes of Mr. Lee.

Both Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have openly stated that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese head of government. But in an irony that only autocratic systems can sustain, Mr. Lee has outlawed public discussions of race relations in Singapore. Using The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the government could interpret any discussion of religious issues as stoking racial sentiment, and could potentially detain without trial persons found doing so, putting any honest discussion of the subject in a deep freeze.

The system is so successful in inculcating the PAP’s values, Messrs. Barr and Skrbis note, that even “cynics and opponents have trouble thinking outside the parameters of imagination set by the ruling elite.” Such intellectual and psychological hegemony has exacted a price, however. The imposition of a narrow political culture has left a society which lacks the passion and conviction necessary to weave the fabric of nationhood: “It has oppressed the imagination without uplifting the spirit, leaving the regime in a position that is outwardly secure, but is relying upon emotional roots that are shallow and brittle,” they write.

Messrs. Barr and Skrbis cite an ACNielsen survey of 1,000 Singaporeans, which found that 21% indicated a “desire to leave the country permanently.” The authors missed out on a couple more statistics: In a survey of 800 younger Singaporeans (ages 15 to 29) carried out by Singapore Polytechnic and reported in January 2007, 37% of the respondents said they are not patriotic and more than 50% said they would migrate overseas if given the chance. Mr. Lee admitted in 2008 that the brain drain presented a “pretty serious” problem. About 1,000 of Singapore’s most talented people are giving up their citizenship each year—and the numbers are growing.

Despite these figures, the authors assert that the system works: “There is enough talent in the dynasty and enough truth in the myths of meritocracy, elite governance and pragmatism to ensure that the city-state is stable and profitable.” This begs the question: For whom does the system work? Can a national system that results in one of every three of its younger citizens feeling no loyalty to the country be considered successful? This dissonance is left unaddressed by the authors.

It is also curious that Messrs. Barr and Skrbis choose to measure the success of a political system in terms of profitability. The authors are evidently impressed by the economic growth that Singapore has experienced over the past few decades. But again that success story needs significant qualification. The income disparity in Singapore has widened in the last decade. Between 1998 and 2003, the average household monthly income of the poorest 20% of the population decreased by nearly 15%, while that of the richest quintile surged by 11.7%.

It would be foolish to argue that Singapore’s overall economic situation has not improved over the years. But to attribute this growth to the PAP system is equally foolhardy. As nobel laureate and economist Paul Krugman aptly noted: “When Asian economies delivered nothing but good news … it is easy to assume that so-called planners knew what they were doing. It is easy for government policy makers to look competent in a prosperous economy. But they may not have a clue!” Mr. Krugman’s statement (made in 1998) is noteworthy because 10 years hence, with the global economy unable to continue producing the kind of capital that has been flowing into Asia and Singapore, the pap leaders are now quite bereft of the star qualities they had been attributing to themselves during the boom years.

Constructing Singapore is worthy of the attention of analysts and policy makers. It is unfortunate, however, that the book already appears dated, as the economic upheaval has created vastly different circumstances. It would be interesting to see how, if at all, these changes will impact the elite-model in Singapore. A revised edition tracking and analyzing such developments would command even greater attention.

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