03 November 2014

Living with Myths IV: Multiculturalism

Being a review of the 4th in a year-long series of seminars

The previous Living with Myth seminars showed that despite exuberant accusations of historical revisionism by the political establishment, there exists an abundance of theoretically sound, evidence-based research within Singapore that easily refute the PAP government's ageing master narratives, and even catch the state and the political leadership in the process of rewriting and reinterpreting history.

Yet doing history isn't just about calling out Papalee on his national narrative of struggling with a series of communist plots in the 1950s to the 1980s but recognising the role these narratives have in the building of an authoritarian security state that run on rule by law rather than on rule of law. Similarly, doing history isn't just about identifying the triumphalist "rags to riches" narrative but understanding how such a narrative has been used to justify Singapore's plunging levels of social spending since the 1980s, how welfare exists in Singapore but is not acknowledged as welfare, and how programs for the poor more often than not become poor programs.

And if the New Singapore History project is about challenging the master narrative and expanding the space for other historical viewpoints and analyses, then the result is surely a more robust debate on public policy. That seems to be the case for this seminar's theme on multiculturalism.

Myths of Race and Place in the Fragments of Old Singapore City

From a critical perspective, the creation of heritage is equal parts remembering and forgetting, of elevating the heritage of the right people and diminishing the heritage of people who are out of place, out of time. In his presentation, NUS prof Imran bin Tajudeen presented a series of historical maps and city plans by the colonial government and maps them onto the modern day heritage spaces of Singapore, i.e. Little India, Chinatown, Geylang.

From the historical maps and plans from Singapore's early days, it is clear that today's heritage sites are designed in accordance to the modern CMIO model (that is, Singapore's official racial policy of recognising Chinese, Malays, Indians, and "Others"). What is unacknowledged is the larger diversity of ethnicity and space within these areas, the expanse and importance of these ethnic quarters (apparently the Bugis took up half of Singapore Town in the early days and had the most developed section next to the European quarters), and the urban roots of the word "kampong" and the sophistication of the kampong house, which was only eclipsed by the shophouse style later in the 19th century.

While Dr Imran uses maps of the colonial government and modern Singapore to identify the shrinkage of ethnicity, heritage and identity, one should be more suspicious and questioning of these tools. By planning and ordering space, and spatialising communities, a map is an instrument of governmentality, of claiming and exercising control over its subjects. Yes, there was much wider recognition of ethnicity by the colonials but the maps seem to suggest they're the first in Singapore to racialise space. A fuller, more counterhegemonic account would have to correlate these maps to accounts of life written by residents, merchants, laborers living in Singapore Town in those early years.

Maze and Minefield: Reflections on multiculturalism in Singapore

Instead of presenting from a piece of research, the presentation of Institute of Policy Studies and Asia Research Institute prof Lai Ah Eng began by identifying the first principles of her field of cultural anthropology and applying them almost extemporaneously to the current debate on multiculturalism in Singapore.

She argues that if one accepts that ethnicity is an elective, situational, and performative identity, then the state-approved CMIO model, if taken way too seriously and unquestioningly, will lead to a racist, over-racialised, or over-determined multiculturalism where reified, static concepts of race are offered as the first explanation or even solution to really-existing problems when other perspectives such as class, globalisation, colonialisation may be more appropriate. Singapore's success (and social problems like drinking, gambling, drug abuse, etc) are seen through racial lenses, defeating the purpose and spirit of multiculturalism.

Singapore's immigration policy is accused by minority groups as stealth Sinification; by liberals as racist xenophobia; by reactionaries as anti-national, but by no one as bad, unsustainable economics and development. The failure of new immigrants to integrate cannot be understood by a government who sees these people as the same race and ethnicity as the Singaporeans who choose to reject them. For Lai, belonging and identity exist as real things, even if they are mediated by self-representation, subject to state narrativisation, or are reified and simplified for consumption.

As a policy consultant to the state, Lai is naturally reluctant to divulge actual instances where a racial approach to dealing with a public policy issue turned out to be entirely appropriate, though she hints at it. As a counterpoint to the popular notion that class matters more than ethnicity and culture, I would offer the story of how Le Corbusier's layout of apartment flats in Chandigarh offered challenges to its inhabitants due to his lack of exposure to Indian culture and living.

Cosmopolitanism: Aspirations, Risks or an Everyday Disposition?

If Lai sought to illustrate how first principles of history and anthropology could guide our responses to Singapore's multiculturalism debate, Ho's presentation illustrates how a lack of theoretical and methodological foundations can easily lead one astray. Ho read aloud a commentary she wrote on the same set of debates as Lai, notably the Hong Lim Park protests against Minilee's population white paper. Like her fellow panelists, Ho has no love for the CMIO model. She however sees all narratives of identity and belonging (especially claims to being "local") as xenophobic and alienating the cosmopolitan immigrant.

By way of introduction, the presentation begins with a quote from Goh Chok Tong about multiculturalism and then launches into a theory-free, evidence-free, opinion-laden commentary on multiculturalism in Singapore. The Goh quote plays no significance in her commentary; it is neither a zero point of a state-sponsored understanding of cosmopolitanism, nor it used to contrast the multicultural vision, mode, and experience of people living in Singapore in the colonial and pre-colonial era.
Her fellow panelists were not convinced of the rightness of her presentation or commentary. I have excerpted their comments in the Q&A section to contrast their very polite, even passive disagreement.

Elaine Ho: Singapore is an immigrant society. What identity, belonging?
Imran bin Tajudeen: Actually the Malay-Nusantarans will laugh at today's debate over immigration. They were here 300 years ago and by the 1800s and 1900s, we get memoirs and accounts of how alienated and pushed out they felt by the new Chinese immigrants. It's the same thing today!

Lai Ah Eng: If we want to ask how Singaporeans should be more multicultural towards immigrants, shouldn't it be fair to ask that foreigners and immigrants be multicultural towards us?

A theoretically-sound and evidence-based response to the immigration controversy may lie in studying the historical narrative of Malayanisation process and contrasting it to the present-day narrative of what Lai Ah Eng identifies as the foreign talent-foreign immigration phenomenon. This will allow us to deconstruct the very ideas of "natural economic development", "nationalism", "xenophobia", "cosmopolitanism" that Ho raised but failed to examine critically.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An excellent exposition of the debates raging around us. However, the commonly used (or abused) statement that we are an immigrant society needs to be examined.Seems like a Whig interpretation of history. The early "migrants" did not want to settle down here although many had no alternative. Witness the wish to be buried back home - even LKY's great grandfather went home.