30 March 2015

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew IV

Lee Kuan Yew, the political realist and chameleon

The pre-merger consensus in Singapore in the post-war decades was for a pan-Malayan identity. Post-merger, Lee Kuan Yew the populist democrat honoured the desires of Singapore's populace and fought the battle for a Malaysian Malaysia and lost.

Therein lies a historical problem that is tangential to our study of (if you haven't guessed by part 3) Singapore's evolving language/bilingualism/multiculturalism policy: Why did the sage and political genius of Singapore fail to recognise the MCA-UMNO political contract—the foundation of the Federation of Malaya and hence the Federation of Malaysia—was not for a Malayan Malaya, that a Malaysian Malaysia was not what the populace in the peninsula wanted, and why did he fail to politically outwit and outmanoeuvre the ruling coalition?

As it so happened, Singapore was independent—booted out or amicably divorced, depending on Lee's initial, long-term narrative or his new retelling on Goh Keng Swee's funeral. Whereupon Lee insisted on a Singaporean Singapore but somewhere along the years, became a Sinicised Singapore.

Multiculturalism in Singapore before sinification
If the Chinese elites had ultimately won the war for the soul of Singapore despite losing the battle for its political compass, it was a victory that was borne out of a significant defeat and thus could not be acknowledged as a victory. We will prove that the brand of Sinification pushed by the elites has been reactionary, essentialist, and ultimately radical, then argue further that with the passage of time, changing demographics and shifting geopolitical realities have overwritten the initial appeal of Sinification to Singapore’s Chinese population, alienating this elite and its cultural programme from not just Chinese Singaporeans but Singaporeans at large.

Take for example the idea that a Chinese Singaporean who does not speak and write fluent Mandarin is somehow un-Chinese and not worthy of respect. In the years 1959—1965, this axiomatic statement and the assumptions it makes linking language, culture, and ethnicity (in effect, the assumptions underpinning modern ‘bilingualism’ in Singapore) would not have made sense.

Pre-merger bilingualism as promoted by the PAP consisted of Malay (the national language then and still today) plus either Tamil, Mandarin, or English, depending solely on one’s medium of education. The ‘second language’ one spoke did not have any bearing on one’s ethnic identity, and was not expected to.

Parangol├ęs, Helio Oiticica
In the late 1960s, Brasil embarked on an experiment of cultural fusion and creation
called Tropicalismo




Post-independence, Singapore multiculturalism was, under ministers Lee Koon Choy and S Rajaratnam, a matter of creating a fusion culture to create a distinctive Singaporean identity. The present-day understanding that bilingualism ‘preserves cultures’ and ties one’s identity to a ‘mother tongue’ would have been alien, if not an affront to the vision of multiculturalism and bilingualism agreed upon in the early days of Singapore. In the view of S Rajaratnam, a multicultural Singapore could not exist as a Singapore populated by hyphenated Singaporeans. A Singaporean identity could only arise out of the deliberate distancing of Singaporeans from their ‘ancestral’, ‘ethnic’ loyalties and identifications.
As a Singaporean I have no difficulty, in a single lifetime, forgetting in turn that I was a Ceylon Tamil and Sri Lankan though I was born there. I had no difficulty forgetting that I was a British subject, or the formative years as a Malayan and where most of my kith and kin are... Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice... Being Singaporean means forgetting all that stands in the way of one’s Singaporean commitment, but without in any way diminishing one’s curiosity about the triumphs and failures of one’s distant ancestors.
Witness how this radically opposite this hews from the PAP's latter-day concept of multiculturalism. It has been revisioned as an initiative of the elite, to build mini-sages and "bi-cultural elites" to trade, to enter a regressive, if profitable transaction with the now ever-present, pressingly relevant land of ancestry. It is a multiculturalism where the state prescribes and polices race and cultural identity, a multiculturalism completely at odds with Rajaratnam's race-blind Singaporean Singapore.

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