03 May 2015

The Apothesosis of Lee Kuan Yew VI

From Republic of Singapore to Republic of Nanyang

In the midst of the political purges of Singapore’s early post-independence years, the PAP government ditched its race-blind Singaporean Singapore ideals, subverted its own image of multiculturalism, appropriated key social and cultural policies of the Chinese cultural elites and absorbed them into the civil service as a form of political accommodation. This resulted in the sinification (whether intended or not) of Singapore by 1980. The mandarins and the political leaders of Singapore would then embark on even more ambitious schemes that would put the nation on the map as a Third China.

"Singapore is a Chinese country what", say just about every Chinese immigrant here
Beginning in 1982, life in Singapore took on phantasmagoric qualities as the country’s Chinese cultural elites attempted to remake the country according to their ideals. In 1980, most Chinese students in Singapore received a new name. They were no longer allowed to use the “dialect” names they were given at birth, but by the Mandarin reading of their names. The “correct” Mandarin names in hanyu pinyin romanisation. By 1982, parents were encouraged to give their newborns ‘correct’ Mandarin names. In the same year, students were encouraged to study “Confucian Ethics” in the newly created, compulsory Religious Knowledge syllabus in school.1 In 1986, new flat-owners in eastern Singapore lived in housing projects and streets fancifully named after the Four Great Beauties of China.2 In 1991, the statues of eight legendary and semi-mythical folk heroes were erected in a park, unveiled to great fanfare by the prime minister, who noted the eight represented classical Chinese virtues and encouraged the Indian and Malay community to similarly represent their heroes, cultures, and values. In 1992, a Chinese Singaporean could perhaps feel a little more Chinese strolling through the Tang Dynasty Village theme park, an ambitious re-construction of the Tang capitol of Chang’an. And throughout the 1980s to 1997, the economic success of an authoritarian democracy in Singapore was touted as the miracle of “Asian Values” (a thinly-veiled euphemism for Chinese neo-Confucian values) by the state’s leaders, leading thinkers, and top diplomats.

By all accounts, the dream of a Third China has fallen by the wayside and there will be no fourth. The government gave up persuading Chinese Singaporeans to give their children Mandarin names and by 1990, reinstated the birth names of all students.3 The fancifully named streets in Simei were renamed (or rather, simply renumbered), officially because the Housing Development Board found out residents had trouble pronouncing the romanised renditions of the street names.4 Strangely enough, the HDB did not bother to ask residents if they remembered Changkat, the original Malay name of the area, well enough. Elsewhere, historical buildings, streets, and neighbourhoods that received a Mandarin name in the 1980s were restored to their non-Chinese or dialect names following an outcry accusing the state of erasing heritage and history. The eight statues were removed from Marina City Park and eventually relocated to the Chinese Gardens, following accusations of Chinese chauvinism and the lack of interest by the Malay and Indian communities to produce similar statues that could be displayed alongside the original set. The Tang Dynasty City theme park was shuttered in 1997 and demolished in 2009.

While enacted with much fanfare after a generation of accidental sinification, the policies of the 1980s were abandoned in quick succession. Far from serving as the vanguard of society, Singapore’s Chinese cultural elite miscalculated how much sinification the Chinese community could stomach and how much of the community truly shared its ideological bent.

The experience of the 1980s have set a pattern of the cultural elite promoting radical Sinification policies, only to be rejected by a populace increasingly suspicious of a Chinese chauvinist agenda. The rejections, far from deterring the cultural elite, has only entrenched its tenacity at defending its earlier victories in the areas of sinocentric multiculturalism and bilingual education.

From Republic of Nanyang to Republic of Singapore?

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997 that demolished Singapore’s triumphalist narrative of Asian Values, its political leaders have continued to support sinification, albeit in a modified form. The promotion of Mandarin language and identity as a pragmatic decision to align Singapore’s Chinese population to benefit from the rise of the PRC economy has been shifted from a secondary narrative to a primary narrative, circa 1990. Singapore’s liberal immigration policy goes beyond economics, functioning as a tool to “preserve” the existing ethnic ratio5 of the country. Given the historic low birth rates of Chinese Singaporeans compared to Singapore’s Malays and Indians, this official admission means that sinification is unsustainable, and confirms popular suspicions of a racial agenda in immigration policy that has resulted in a flood of migration from the PRC in the recent years.

Far from solidifying the sinification of Singapore, these pragmatic policies are similarly unpopular. We posit that the initial success of sinification in Singapore was due to the distance afforded by economy and geography. So long as China remained a world and an age away, cloistered behind a bamboo curtain, it was safe to promote and valourise an invented, highly idealistic Chineseness. With the opening of China, with Chinese people living and working next to you, it becomes hard to accept such inventions and valorisations.

It is no surprise then that the biggest fissure in Singapore today is between Singapore Chinese and new immigrants and permanent residents from the PRC.

In popular imagination and anecdotal accounts, monolingual PRC Chinese working in the service sector either cannot or will not serve or respond to customers of other races and will insist Singaporean Chinese speak to them in Mandarin only. Increasingly, Singaporeans—Chinese or otherwise—take affront and insist on English or make a show of using the southern Chinese languages of Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, and Hakka.

While Chinese Singaporeans struggle with bilingualism and unrealistic testing standards for their second language that affect their university admissions, functionally monolingual students from the PRC often enter Singapore’s universities on free, fully-paid scholarships.

Most recently a train operator’s decision to announce station names in Mandarin for every stop created an uproar. Singaporeans took umbrage at the disrespect for multiculturalism, the mixed heritage of Singapore, and insinuated the move was for the benefit of Singapore’s growing PRC immigrant population and not elderly Chinese Singaporeans, as claimed by the train operator.

Taken together, these recent examples show current economic reality is inimical to the sinification of Singapore, and contributes to the perception of a deep ideological and cultural divide, with a doctrinaire Chinese chauvinist elite on one end imposing their radical education, race, cultural, and even immigration policies on a populace identifying more as Singaporeans than Chinese (or Malay, or Indian). This problem of integration and the failure of immigration policy has not been addressed as in the schema of the Chinese cultural elite in Singapore, there should be no difference between a Chinese Singaporean and a Chinese person from the PRC because Chinese Singaporeans should consider themselves Chinese first in a multicultural Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew's legacy?

It is only with the long historical perspective that Lee Kuan Yew's legacy in Singapore becomes clear. The more purges he enacted, in order to remain in power as an acceptable leader of a democratic state, Lee had had to make cultural and social accommodations to the Chinese community and its vanquished elites. These accommodations have derailed the PAP's commitment to its original vision of a Singaporean Singapore, and a race-blind multiculturalism. They have created a society where a Chinese cultural elite has been given power to enact wide-ranging policies without regard to grounded reality, shockingly even in the fields of education and immigration. Far less than creating new form of racial solidarity based on the CMIO model, the failures of their policies will ensure that Singapore remains a divided society, with divisions that threaten to last generations.

1 The Religious Knowledge subject formalised the religious instruction previously offered by a few schools. Students were required to take one of the following: Bible Knowledge, Islamic Religious Knowledge, Buddhist Studies, Confucian Ethics, Hindu Studies, and Sikh Studies. The Institute of East Asian Philosophies was set up at the National University of Singapore to develop from scratch the “Confucian Ethics” option in Religious Studies, staffed by more Chinese cultural elites working with an advisory panel of international Confucian scholars.
2 Simei [四美], literally “Four Beauties” was the housing project. The roads in the neighbourhood were Xishi, Diao Chan, Guifei, and Zhaojun. The east of Singapore has historic associations with Malay culture and Simei is the only estate in the east with a Mandarin name; sinification in this decade involved assigning Chinese names to erase both Malay as well as non-Mandarin Chinese languages from the landscape of Singapore. Other ‘victims’ include Tekka Market [renamed to Zhujiao], Bukit Panjang [renamed Zhenghua].

3 The policy missteps in renaming Chinese Singaporeans are discussed in Bokhorst-Heng, W. (1999). “Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign: Language ideological debates and the imagining of the nation.” Language ideological debates, 235-265. To wit, popular resistance was centred in the fact that entire families would have gone by different surnames, amounting to an insult to one’s parents and ancestors.

4 Hanyu pinyin romanisation of Mandarin was formally introduced in Singapore schools in 1980.

5 Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore. 2013. Population White Paper Frequently Asked Questions.

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