06 April 2015

Living with Myths VIII: Danger and Development

Being a review of the 8th in a year-long series of seminars

Openness and reform under the shadow of danger

An authoritarian regime often resorts to a national narrative that begins with an existential threat to the State and ends with a taboo on certain discourses. Don't tempt fate by talking about race and religion in Singapore; these topics are so sensitive, any discussion will bring down our truly great but simultaneously fragile state.

Ian Chong turns his gaze away from Singapore, where this rhetoric hasn't yet been laughed out of society, to 1987 where authoritarian regimes in Taiwan and Korea ended several long-held taboos to free up political discourse and democratic participation. It is worth noting these measures did not lead to riots in the streets or the fall of South Korea or Taiwan, or even the ruling parties governing them. Roh Tae-woo succeeded Chun, while Chiang Ching-kuo's anointed successor, Lee Teng-hui, became president.

Chong argues what had changed was a recognition at the top that society had outpaced the state's ability to regulate its politics. Society had become so complex with multitudinous identities and loyalties, that anyone at any one time could be in a minority—and that the best path forward was to let people negotiate, compromise, and negotiate their rights, recognition, roles and responsibility in a more democratic mechanism.

Chong did not provide economic and social indicators comparing the trajectories of Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan post-1987. The trade-off might actually have paid off handsomely.

Lucius Sulla seized dictatorial powers, reformed the Roman constitution
then stepped down voluntarily.

Rethinking racial categories

Laavanya Kathiravelu recycles the keynote presentation she gave at the Singapore Heritage Society's Anatomy of a Riot seminar in September 2014. Which is resembles nothing like the writeup for Living With Myths VIII. But we'll deal with the presentation she gave, not the presentation she promised.

From her anthropological research on migrant labourers in Singapore, Kathiravelu magically takes aim at the nation-state's "CMIO model", even though their identities as migrant labourers here are shaped by both ethnicity and class. She shows powerpoint slides of recent controversies in ethnic relations (the Little India riot, STOMP complaints, etc) and presumes they are self-explanatory, and embody all that is wrong with the CMIO model, which somehow is the root of everyday racism in Singapore.

Yet listening to her speak, it is unclear if she even knows whether it is the act of classification, the inadequate description of finer, more sophisticated ethnic identities, or the very fact that master identities in Singapore are ethnically based that is her bugbear aside from her conviction that racism is bad; and it's all CMIO's fault.

Even the academic audience had fun with her unpresentation at the Q&A, where several postgraduate researchers suggested other readings of recent controversies, including the class divide, the growing disconnect between global migration and local identity, or even neocolonialism. Kathiravelu was unable to respond in a meaningful way, ironically privileging race discourse instead of rethinking it. Those interested in actually knowing about what the CMIO model really means and why it's a Bad Thing and inadequate for a modern Singapore may consult Nirmala PuruShotam's Negotiating Language, Constructing Race.

Innovation: smart nation, technology, and governance in Singapore

Arthur Chia's presentation is commendable; it is a close reading of state rhetoric from the past 3 decades on technology and innovation. He proves that it's never been about technology or innovation per se, but about attempts to define and demarcate Singapore's place in a globalising economy using the preferred frames of reference of its managerial elites on one hand, and on the other, to buttress the ruling party's technocratic, meritocratic virtues and hence right to rule.

Chia's presentation was so circumscribed to proving this point, we almost suspect the paper he's currently researching and writing on this topic has far more to say, such as correlating each attempt at reinventing technocratic discourse to earlier failed attempts at climbing the tech/innovation/productivity ladder. We wish him best of luck, and hopefully a return to the Living with Myths seminar before the end of the series.