18 May 2015

Living with myths: Singapore pastoral

Taiwan Review has published a few excerpts from Loh Kah Seng's new book, Squatters into Citizens. Followers of the Living with Myths reviews on this blog may remember the good doctor had based his presentation in Living with Myths VI on his new book.

Back then, we noted that sociologist Chua Beng Huat (an outspoken critic of the establishment for the past 30 years) took Loh to task for mythologising life in Singapore's rural kampungs and squatter settlements as ideal, free, and nobleand levelled the charge of academic irresponsibility at Loh.

Because Loh had presented a new myth: the Singapore pastoral.

Life by the River by Liu Kang
Then, we gave Loh the benefit of the doubt; perhaps his presentation wasn't a perfect distillation of the nuggets of research and analysis in his book. The excerpts from Taiwan Review suggest however that his presentation was a fair representation of the book. Let's just look at one of them.
One of the most crucial effects of public housing was the loss of Singaporeans’ social agency. The squatter population of post-war Singapore was a young and dynamic one. Living in an unauthorized wooden house was not merely an act of desperation, but also one buoyed by hope for a better future. When rehoused in HDB flats, these once-free-minded people were quickly socialized into disciplined worker-citizens, dependent on the state for their housing, and much else.

There are several howlers in this single passage which typify Loh's wrongheaded and irresponsible approach to the topic but we do not intend to deal with all of them here.

1. Does living in a HDB flat turn Singaporeans into mindless minions and serfs?

An academically responsible and critical sociologist would say: Well, perhaps we can look at HDB flats as a capitalist implementation of public housing; priced as they are in relation to the wooden houses of squatter settlements and kampungs, they don't encourage much economic idleness. But wait! Really even now, there are lots of housewives still in HDB flats—and there were far more housewives in the early decades of the HDB.

An academically responsible and critical sociologist would situate the urbanisation of Singapore's population against the transformation of Singapore's postwar economy and workforce, and say instead: HDB flats as a public housing solution encouraged more of the population to take part in the formal economy, rather than the informal, itinerant economy.

2. People lost their social agency!

What is amazing about Loh's formulation is the implicit assumption: People lost their freedom when they moved into HDB flats. More offensive is the other assumption that a young and dynamic population buoyed by hopes for a better future would never have included modern high-rise living in their plans.

This betrays Loh's complete and utter misunderstanding of the concept of agency. In sociology (where this concept originated), social agency is paired with and against structure. Whenever you try to describe the workings of society, how does your theory negotiate the balance between structures (like class and gender) that determine how people behave vs the capacity of people to act and think and make choices independently?

Agency is a given; something that always exists. Social structure is also a given; something that always exists. The question is not whether people become less free (they are always free until the invention of the mind control chip or mind control waves), but how your theory accords relative importance to structure or agency. Consequently, one can accuse a theory of "denying agency", of being too determinalistuc, or "denying structure", pretending that people are really free to do whatever they want and really do whatever they want.

There is no way to salvage Loh's passage here with regards to his amazing claims on social agency. Except to ask: What were people free to do as squatters, and what were people free to do as flat-dwellers? What structures shaped the lives and actions of rural squatters, and what structures shaped the lives and actions of urban flat-dwellers?

3. The squatter settlement and kampung constitute a paradise where people were free, freeeeee!

Rural life in Singapore was hardly free.

Shirley Yeo has an interesting story about how her "Grandfather wanted his whole family to vote for PAP. So he schooled everyone who could vote that there is only one party to vote: PAP."

The rural settlement in Singapore was an integral part of patrimonial and patronage politics: the headman of the village told you how to vote and you jolly well followed, and you told your wife and children of voting age how to vote and they jolly well followed.

Chua Beng Huat elsewhere talks about the kampung as a primitive surveillance society, where the itinerant employment of the masses meant that there would always be a crowd at the coffeeshop who saw and gossiped about whatever went on: you had no privacy and were constantly under watch by your own neighbours.

The gangsters that Loh talked about as heroes chasing away officious government inspectors keen to shut down illegal settlements? They were your primitive neighbourhood watch but they were also the ruffians who took a cut from your business and collected protection money, and also engaged in turf wars against other gangs.

Against this backdrop of harsh reality, Loh Kah Seng has managed to paint a Singapore Pastoral so vivid and nostalgic, the PAP might appropriate it for their Kampung Spirit narrative!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great piece but I have to point out, having lived my past nearly 80 years here, that the headman never told you who to vote for and you had to do that. In the early Legislative Assembly elections the various parties and the candidates offered the headman various 'incentives', literally an auction of votes. We, the voters are given these incentives, minus the 'cut' the headman took. We vote for the highest bidder. Kampong life is definitely not the romantic ideal that is depicted.