23 March 2015

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”

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