Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Recast the S’porean identity based on inclusivity, fairness — not materialism

[I clip and pasted this article to this blog because I thought it was a reader's letter. Only at the end, did I realise that it was supposed to be a commentary or opinion piece. But seriously, I found the quality of thought to be no better than some forum letters. And the verbosity hinted at some insecurities or immaturity.

Maybe I am being too harsh... NAAAAHHHH! 

Or, rather, why don't you decide. I found his writing rather pompous.]


APRIL 12, 2016

In a recent dialogue with youths, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing called on Singaporeans to foster a national identity beyond materialistic concerns. In particular, he invoked the spirit of the Pioneer Generation, who surmounted tough times, to drive the Republic towards SG100.

Such a call is not new. Concerns about rampant materialism and anxieties about the pace of life were discussed during the Our Singapore Conversation initiative from 2012 to 2013. One also recalls the Remaking Singapore Committee in 2002, whose mandate was to move Singapore beyond the “five Cs” of careers, condominiums, clubs, credit cards and cars — all integral elements of the Singapore Dream as understood then.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s success has always and still is almost exclusively understood in material and tangible terms. The city-state makes an impression on the global stage largely in terms of numbers, scores, rankings, and indices, and is mostly admired — and resented — for them.

It is ironic that a national identity deliberately defined in material terms, once unabashedly celebrated, is now being lamented in various quarters, including the Government. This is even more ironic because the Government played a major role in defining Singaporean identity in material terms. In 1959, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said:
“The mass of the people are not concerned with legal and constitutional forms and niceties. They are not interested in the theory of the separation of powers and the purpose and function of a politically neutral public service ... If the future is not better, either because of the stupidities of elected ministers or the inadequacies of the civil servants, then at the end of the five-year term the people are hardly likely to believe either in the political party that they have elected or the political system that they have inherited.”
Needless to say, “the future” is understood in material terms: Housing, schools, infrastructure, healthcare and so on. Our national security narrative is written in terms of defending our country, family and HDB flat. Even our defining cultural attribute, being kiasu, is understood as losing out on material things.

So therein lies the genesis of the Singaporean identity that is grounded in materialism and a transactional political contract, where citizens expect the Government to offer them a better life in material terms. And, of course, at some point, “the mass of the people” will start getting interested in “the theory of the separation of power”, along with the other intangible though no less important goods of progress.

[This is at some point in the future, perhaps? Or is this interest manifesting itself now? How? 

And yes, it is ironic that a critique of a government that had promoted a materialistic basis for a Singaporean Identity draws upon that same govt's Remaking Singapore Committee (2002) that sort to move away from a materialistic definition of the Singapore Identity, as evidence (?) that at some point the mass of people will... stop being materialistic?

I am sorry, that was a convoluted rebuttal to a convoluted argument.

Let me start again. It is a long leap from what LKY said (quoted above), to conclude or hypothesize that "the genesis of the Singaporean identity... is grounded in materialism and a transactional political contract." The leap in logic is so jarring, there is no way to debate this non sequitur conclusion except to point out the logical "leap into a chasm" reasoning.]


Why does national identity matter so much?

Identity is a source of meaning for people. It renders individual experiences into a collective one. It locates us in space and time, and provides the demarcation between “inside” and “outside”, “us” and “them”.

[That's one perspective. Here is another. Identity and belonging as a journey. BUT, I do appreciate that he is talking about National Identity, while the link is to a personal reflection on one's personal journey to (personal) identity. I submit that even for national identity, it is a journey. And we have only started the journey.]

A national identity defined in material terms is no less legitimate than one framed in terms of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or liberte, egalite, fraternite.

But the problem arises when growing numbers begin to feel disenfranchised by the very identity that was articulated to galvanise a people in the first place. For a materialistic identity, disenfranchisement begins with worries about jobs, homes and retirement adequacy.

[So, his hypothesis is 
a) if your national identity is based on material achievements, then
b) when your material achievements are threatened,
c) you will feel disenfranchised. Or your national identity will feel disenfranchised.
The flaw in the reasoning is firstly, that our national identity is based on materialism. Oh yes, I do not disagree that Singaporeans are concerned with material achievements, and Singaporeans pursue material achievements vigorously, and even relentlessly. But is that the sum and whole of the Singaporean's identity? Is there a Singaporean National Identity? Which brings us to the second assumption - that there is a National Identity. A Singaporean Identity.

I doubt so.

And if there is NO Singaporean National Identity, then any evidence of disenfranchisement may simply be evidence of a lack of national identity, rather than a threat to the basis of the assumed National Identity.]

Fears over children being left behind in a globalising and hypercompetitive world then manifest themselves in a high-pressure, high-stakes education system that stresses out children, teachers and parents alike.

Then, the ultimate act of resistance of the excluded is to challenge the status quo identity with alternative ones. Identities rooted in resistance arise out of a sense of alienation and resentment against exclusion, whether social, political or economic, real or perceived.

Historically, they have taken the form of religious fundamentalism, ethno-nationalism, and radical politics on both the left and the right. Marginalised groups have also retaliated by defiantly wearing as badges of honour terms that were used to denigrate them, such as “queer” for the LGBT community.

[And this is why this article seemed like a ill-informed, bigoted, forum letter written with pompous righteousness, and with a hidden agenda. Oh sure. Materialism led to people choosing LGBT identity. Oh wait. It's a little more complicated. Materialism, stresses out Children, who grow up to be LGBT as an act of "resistance" against the status quo. Notice how he switches from National Identity to Personal (or sub-group) Identity quite seamlessly. As if they were the same thing.

I do not think he understands what is National Identity. He certainly has not defined it, and takes it that everyone know what it is. That is intellectually lazy.

There is an intellectual indiscipline in his thinking. Maybe that is the nature of the question of a National Identity, especially if the National Identity in question is Singapore's. This essay, does not help to shed light on what is the Singaporean Identity. Instead it assumes that there is one, assumes that Materialism is one major if not defining aspect of it, and goes to town on it. Too many assumptions and presumptions.]

The voices calling for a more fulfilling pace of life and more diverse notions of success in Our Singapore Conversation are clearly nowhere close to being as violent or radical as what I described above. Still, can they be read as nascent gestures of resistance, or even surrender, by people subliminally uncertain whether they can attain the materialistic Singaporean identity?

And are Mr Chan’s comments an observation that a national identity based on materialism is becoming noticeably problematic, and that we need to transform our materialistic norms and values pre-emptively and progressively, rather than merely react to insecurity, anomie and possibly anger?


In this, Mr Chan is in good company with another founding leader, Mr S Rajaratnam. In his famous 1972 speech setting out his vision of Singapore as a global city, Mr Rajaratnam also warned about the “Achilles’ heel of the emerging Global Cities”:

“Laying the economic infrastructure of a Global City may turn out to be the easiest of many tasks ... But the political, social and cultural adjustments such a city would require to enable men to live happy and useful lives in them may demand a measure of courage, imagination and intelligence which may or may not be beyond the capacity of its citizens.

For those people who cannot develop the necessary capacities, the Global City may turn out to be another monster, another necropolis.”

As Singapore looks to SG100, as we cement our status as a global city, we must recast our materialistic Singaporean identity as one that fosters an authentic sense of solidarity, one which treats as equal those who might otherwise have been deemed the lost and the last in the current narrative.

Unless we renegotiate a Singaporean-ness that is underpinned by fairness, inclusivity and diversity, without naively denigrating material concerns, growing social cleavages and the ensuing instability will be the Achilles’ heel of our global city.


Dr Adrian W J Kuah is Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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