The piety of the tiger

The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore

October 4, 1996

Given the phenomenal success of the Southeast Asian "tiger" economies in the late 20th century, this seems an appropriate time to analyse the politics of citizenship and nation building in a country that is central to what the World Bank has called the "East Asian miracle".

The opening chapter of this book is an overview of various versions of citizenship and nationality, focusing on a "civic republican" version which emphasises duties and obligations rather than rights; which is the version adopted by Singapore. Much of the rest of the text attempts to show that civic republicanism is more viable and appropriate for Singapore than western-style liberalism.

There are several serious problems here. The first is the absence of any real methodology. Independent social science research on political attitudes and behaviour in Singapore is notable only by its absence.

Instead of citizens, the authors quote government officials and political elites who not surprisingly reinforce the model they seek to promote. This has an emphasis on duties "rendered meaningful by the practice of those duties within a community of similarly responsible and participating citizens".

From start to finish "duties" are presented uncritically, as directly aligned with the prevailing state ideology. For example, the authors criticise another academic, David Brown, who overlooked "the political background of the first generation [of independence] leaders who were committed to multiracialism". Debates are referred to in official terms with unquestioning acceptance, not subjected to analytical rigour.

Thus, the Singaporean citizen is in harmony with his/her government; the economic success of the supposedly "civic republican model" is sharply juxtaposed with the failure of western welfare systems and therefore liberal citizenship.

In the acknowledgements, the authors warmly quote a speech by the prime minister, Goh Chock Tong, about the importance of the family. The reader must wonder about the objectivity of a study in which the head of government is quoted with such reverence.

The language of the book is often self-congratulatory. The dust jacket asks the question "Can western countries learn from Singapore's success?" And in his preface, Michael Leifer argues that this volume will in part "illuminate the nature of social order" in Singapore which is of course precisely what it fails to do, in any critical sense.

The problem for elites in authoritarian societies is how to mould citizens to submit. Typically the "shared values" of citizens are no more than what the elite wants them to share in order to produce social cohesion and the efficient running of the system. For "consensus" substitute "coercion", for "harmony" substitute "order and control", and for "participation" substitute "submission".

Singapore is not as immune to the effects of rapid economic development as its government (and this book) would like us to believe.

Divorce rates are rising, support for the one-party regime falling and dissenting voices are starting to make inroads. These and the fact that government legislation is required to ensure children fulfil their "filial piety" obligations indicate that not everyone shares the same values.

Throughout the text there is little discussion of kiasuism (Hokkien for "scared to lose out"), which is now regarded as a central component of popular culture in Singapore. Kiasu means "me first" and is hardly in sympathy with community or shared values (indeed it stands in direct opposition to these).

Kiasu culture promotes jumping queues, hogging the road and bargaining for every last cent, among other antisocial tendencies; it has spawned a prolific series of magazines, plays and products, so deeply engrained has it become.

If the Singaporean elite really regards collective rather than individual values as essential to its survival, one wonders why these serious contradictions and problems are not addressed in this discussion of nation building. But this book never gets to grips with these problems.

Kenneth Christie is a lecturer in politics, University of Natal, South Africa.

The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore

Author - Michael Hill and Lian Kwen Fee
ISBN - 0 415 10052 6 and 12025 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 285

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