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.

23 March 2015

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew

The Apotheosis of Washington, 1865
"Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up."
-- Lee Kuan Yew, 1988 NDRS

As the authority and competence of the People's Action Party wanes, historians are starting to point out that Singapore has no proper history, only a hagiography.

While the authoritarian leader eschewed a personality cult, it did not stop generations of Singaporeans speaking of him in hushed, deferential, even reverential tones. Neither did it stop him from making a nation in his image, from adopting the rhetoric of the enlightened despot. Leaders like him do not pass on; they apotheosize.

Lee Kuan Yew is dead. We commemorate his passing not by declaring his divinity and author of all that is good in Singapore, nor by painting him as a folk-devil responsible for all the woes of Singapore. We are guided here by a firm sense of proportion, empiricism, and grounded theory that puts the man in his proper place.

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew III

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's populist leader

What can a politician do to win the votes of a demographic whose popular leaders were jailed, exiled, and taken out of the political process? We argue that as the purges against Singapore’s Chinese political elites continued, the PAP had to make an increasing number of cultural and social concessions to Singapore’s Chinese—in effect, to valourise “Chineseness”—in order to maintain their electoral competitiveness.

National Language Class, by Chua Mia Tee
In their push towards the merger in the post-war decades, Singapore’s Chinese elites on both the left and right had advocated a pan-Malayan identity for the future state of Malaysia. As the price for Singapore’s admission into an independent Malaya, they would go so far as to adopt Malay as a lingua franca.[1] Regardless of political affiliation, the political narrative of the Chinese population up to 1963 had been that Singapore and Malaya were “flesh and bone” which were destined for a reunion, that the Chinese people of Malaya would lead the way to forge a national identity that was not Chinese, not Malay, not communitarian but “Malayan”.[2]

Despite its growing unpopularity and near collapse in the initial years of self-government, the PAP outmanoeuvred its main political rival, the more popular Barisan Sosialis, by championing the merger—a pet issue of the Chinese community and its leaders. While the merger project would prove to be a failure, it was easy for the PAP to continue down this path in order to remain electable as the bearer of Chinese culture and politics in an independent and democratic Singapore, especially when its ‘anti-communist’ purges against the Chinese elites (who had been building an alternative power base in Singapore’s schools, newspapers, and trade unions) intensified.

This was achieved through the PAP government’s selective appropriation of the cultural and social agendas of the defeated Chinese political elite to fashion a “Chinese” identity that was acceptable to the PAP’s nation-building project, and the absorption of the Chinese cultural elite into the civil service and the surrender of ‘soft policy’ areas to this group.[3]

Relatively early, the PAP government discarded its idealist socialist rhetoric and fashioned Singapore’s national narrative in terms that would appeal to its Chinese elites. Singapore’s war on “yellow culture” took its cues from Mao’s appropriation of national self-strengthening initiatives to combat the moral decrepitude and corrupting influences of “Western” culture, and intensified in the 1970s to become a crusade against long hair, hippies, rock music, and drug culture. By the 1980s, a barely disguised neo-Confucian “Asian Values” was touted as the root of Singapore’s exceptionalism. And by the mid 1990s, Singapore made its play on the world stage as a “Third China”, laying claim as the heir of authentic Chinese culture and identity by recreating the Tang Dynasty as a theme park in Singapore for the benefit of Singaporeans and an outside world yet to access the real China.

A rare, if not only non-Sinocentric staging of Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education became the employers of last resort for graduates from Singapore’s only Chinese-language university[4]. The brazen purges and undisguised proscription of the Chinese political elites (largely Nanyang graduates as well) had deterred the private sector from employing Nanyang’s best and brightest, while the English-educated civil service saw them as no less suspicious than the alleged pro-communist Chinese political elites whom they were purging.

Barred from contesting the economic future or any substantial policy direction of Singapore from within the system, it is hence in the “soft” ministries of culture and education that Nanyang’s graduates were allowed to refashion themselves as Singapore’s Chinese cultural elite, protecting Chinese culture and values, subject to what the PAP government felt was necessary to its nation-building project.

In the crucial years of 1969 to 1989, the mandarins at the Ministry of Education had instituted or enacted policies that would shape an essentialist Chinese identity in Singapore: the wholesale adoption of the PRC’s Chinese orthography reforms, the bilingual policy, the intensification of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, and the promotion of tough standards for Mandarin education. Far from being seen as radical, most of these moves would have been comfortingly familiar to Singapore’s Chinese elites—who had looked to China as a harbinger of the modern and kept abreast with innovations in politics, culture, and education—and signalled the commitment of the PAP government to progressive and modernising ideas that were in vogue in China[5] and hence in vogue with Singapore’s Chinese elites.

From this, it can be argued that through the process of democratic politics and political accommodation, Singapore’s Chinese elites have won the battle for Singapore despite their political defeat, just like how the South had in fact won America despite losing the Civil War. As with the American case, the dominance by Singapore’s Chinese cultural elite goes unrecognised by that same elite, and cannot be spoken of or acknowledged. It is a victory shrouded in the myth of defeat, fought in a neverending war, by oppressive victors who forever see themselves as oppressed.

The literary output of one Wong Meng Voon, former civil servant, Cultural Medallion winner, and literary grandee, illustrates this point. An anthology of Wong’s short stories[6] invariably paint a caricature of English educated Chinese Singaporeans as race traitors who have lost their essential Chineseness and in so doing become less than human, and suffer, shamed, or are otherwise punished for it. The tentative advances of a Singaporean Chinese student in the States is rebuffed because the object of his affections, a Shiksa Goddess, is turned off by his poor command for Mandarin.[7] An English-educated civil servant feels shame when he miswrites his own name in Mandarin in a calligraphic piece for visiting Chinese officials.[8] A graduating class holds a vote to select a suitable country for a cultural tour; the sole student to vote for China is the sole non-Chinese student of the class.[9] Two Singaporeans who spurn China for New Zealand for a tour discover that their souvenirs are all made in China.[10] The haughty king of the monkeys demands his entire race undergo blood transfusion to develop superior, snowy furs; the entire race dies of leukaemia.[11]

Such essentialist notions and visions of a perpetually threatened Chineseness and Chinese identity would be alien and unrecognisable in the literature of Malaysian Chinese authors, whose literary output on Chineseness is centred on hybridity, self-refashioning, and ultimately nativist. These short stories from Wong and his literary colleagues cannot exist and would not be elevated as a dominant discourse if not for the cultural and ideological groundwork laid out by his fellow cultural elites at the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture.

1Chua Mia Tee’s 1959 painting, “National Language Class”, is typical of the willingness of Singapore’s Chinese elites to create a popular discourse for and about an imaginary, future Malayan/Malaysian identity on the island, which was not shared by the Chinese in the Federated Malay States.
2PJ Thum, “Flesh and Bone Reunited as One Body” in Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Volume 5, 2011-12.
3Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli, 2008. The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its pasts. I am indebted to the authors’ account of how under specific policies and initiatives, Singapore acquired its very specific “Chinese” identity in the post-independence years. While the authors narrate the roll-out of Singapore’s “Sinification” cultural policies as a product of an ideological process of negotiating with historical identities, this essay argues for a materialist critique that exposes the social, political, and most importantly, institutional roots of this negotiation process.
4Ibid. The founder of Nanyang University, the philanthropist and entrepreneur Tan Lark Sye who had lobbied for Singapore’s Chinese population to be granted citizenship, was accused by the People’s Action Party government of “supporting communist activists” and had his citizenship revoked in 1963.
5Preliminary studies for orthography reform had in fact been kickstarted under the KMT government in the 1930s as a means to increase literacy. It was only the KMT’s loss of mainland China and the CCP’s championing of the simplified script that put all orthography reforms in Taiwan on permanent hold.
6Wong Meng Voon, 2012. Under the Bed, Confusion Singapore: Epigram Books
7Ibid. “The Foreign Girl”.
8Ibid. “Michael Yang”
9Ibid. “Leisure Tour”
10Ibid. “Fine Print”

11Ibid. “Transfusion”

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew II

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's unsung democrat

Singapore's first prime minister has been called a dictator, not least by William Safire and other young, educated Singaporeans over the decades. Lee was not ashamed of the term; the statesman revelled in the patrimonial image of a strongman who did what was necessary for the nation.

Recently, the declassification of the British colonial archives has resurrected, or given credibility to an old charge against Lee: a politico whose undemocratic, underhanded, and cynical plottings leading to the Merger have poisoned the foundation of Singapore.

The undeclared civil war of Singapore between the alleged communists and the PAP (or as Dr Thum Pin Tjin might say, between the Chinese socialist left and the PAP's non-communist socialists) has left enduring scars on Singapore's political landscape, so much so that PM Lee Hsien Loong recently argued that Singapore could not afford to be divided along the red state, blue state lines of the US.

Political polarisation or political accommodation?

The younger Lee’s conceptualisation of America’s Red State, Blue State problem is not unorthodox; the discovery and subsequent branding of this phenomenon occurred in 2000 to describe what looked to be a state-level ‘sticky’ voting preference in the US presidential elections. Even though the stickiness dissolves and a “Purple America” emerges once the polling data is refined on county and district level, the longevity and appeal of the Red State/Blue State discourse can be explained as a conceptual extension of earlier political realities, namely the “Solid South” of the Democratic Party and “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party.

These political phenomena should be understood as the legacy of the American Civil War. Following the complete military and political defeat of the Confederate States (which had half the population of the Union), Reconstruction was initially proposed to disenfranchise the South[1] while reunifying the nation. If successive Republican presidents had stuck to the grand plan, the ironically-named Reconstruction project would have turned the United States of America into a nation where a quarter of the population would live and work in federally-administered or even military dictatorships.

Despite these plans, the victors of the civil war eventually accommodated the defeated South to preserve the legitimacy of their victory in a free, open, and democratic America—with all the elections that this entails. It is the necessary cultural concessions, the valourisation of the South and its agrarian values and religiosity[2] that when accreted over close to two centuries, looks like a Red State, Blue State “divide”.

In Singapore, the leftist purges conducted by the People’s Action Party from 1959 to the late 1970s were no less devastating and widespread. Pre-dawn arrests by the secret police, decades of detention without trial, televised confessions and recantations ensured the wholesale removal of several generations of political elites from the Chinese community.

Far from being the arrogant, bullying, conceited, dictatorial, egotistical folk-devil of popular imagination, Lee did not suspend democracy, impose martial law, and transform Singapore into a dictatorship. Unlike Latin America, Singaporeans were not kidnapped by paramilitaries and disappeared forever. Unlike Taiwan's White Terror, Singaporeans were not executed for treason. Lee's methods, however infamous, were not internationally infamous, and kept Singapore's place within the British Commonwealth.

Elections went on as normal, and that meant the PAP had to pay a heavy price to ensure its continued successes at the electoral box. Like Lincoln’s successors, the PAP had no choice upon winning its war against the Chinese political elites on the left but to politically accommodate Chinese voters in Singapore, then numbering over 70% of its population. As the purges against Singapore’s Chinese political elites continued, the PAP had to make an increasing number of cultural and social concessions to Singapore’s Chinese—in effect, to valourise “Chineseness”—in order to maintain their electoral competitiveness.
1The Radical Republicans had demanded a loyalty oath that would have disbarred the majority of state electorates and their representatives, while the moderate Lincoln would have accepted a 10% electorate plan that would render the ‘new’ Southern states undemocratic minority-run pro-Republican regimes. Under Johnson, the South was broken into 5 military districts.

2In popular narratives, every winning presidential campaign needs a Southern candidate, the metonym for America is not New York or DC but small town America (which is why Superman, defender of the American Way, is a farmboy), The Hunger Games is an allegory for the tyranny of Reconstruction, Gone with the Wind is the highest grossing film adjusted for inflation, etc.