Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

"Authenticity" and "Foreign Talent" in Singapore: The Relative and Negative Logic of National Identity

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

"Authenticity" and "Foreign Talent" in Singapore: The Relative and Negative Logic of National Identity

Article excerpt

National identity has always been a problematic issue for Singapore. Situated in maritime Southeast Asia, the island historically formed part of various premodern Malay polities and was an integral, albeit marginal, part of the Malay-Islamic civilization of the region. However, the starting point of modern Singapore is commonly taken to be 1819, when it was established by the British as a trading post. Since then, this originally sparsely populated island thrived, continuously attracting migrant populations from around the region and beyond, most notably from coastal regions of southeast China. Into the mid-twentieth century, Singapore was a "settler country" (Chua 2003, p. 59), virtually all of whose population had descended from migrants. What made Singapore stand out in its largely Malay-Muslim vicinity was that it had become a predominantly Chinese society. Ethnic Chinese accounted for some three quarters of its population, in addition to ethnic Malays, Indians and a small percentage of "others"--hence the classic "CMIO" formulation (Siddique 1990). Under the "divide and rule" policy of the British colonial administration (Tan Tai Wei 1994, p. 62), a laissez-faire approach applied to education and social interaction, and there was limited social, cultural and linguistic integration among these various ethnic groups. The nature of Singapore's plural society, along with its lack of land and natural resources, fostered a belief that Singapore would be untenable as an independent nation-state. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew and his People's Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore since 1959, successfully forged the merger of Singapore with the Federation of Malaya in 1963, in the hope of securing a future for the island and its inhabitants. However, two years later, with the collapse of the merger, "the unimaginable had become reality" (Chua 1995, p. 9). As the Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat puts it, "Singapore as an independent nation-state was first and foremost a political reality foisted on a population under conditions beyond their control. Once this was a fait accompli, a 'nation' had to be constructed." (ibid., p. 69)

Thus, a sense that the Singapore nation was not intended to be has marked it from the very moment of its birth. It lacked various attributes common to peoples considered nations, such as deep roots in a relatively stable cultural tradition, relative ethnic homogeneity (or at least tight integration among ethnic groups) and a common language (Kymlicka 1995, Chapter 2). It might be said that, as a nation, Singapore lacked a sense of constitutive authenticity.

The precarious circumstances that attended its inception and its apparent geopolitical vulnerabilities left early post-independence Singapore very much preoccupied with survival. This preoccupation made imperative, in the minds of its leaders, the principle of economic pragmatism (Aaron Koh 2007, p. 181). Singapore embarked on an aggressive project of modernization that is by now a well-told, well-known success story (see Chong 2010; Lee 2000; Sandhu and Wheatley 1989). However, the city-state's remarkable economic success, which relied fundamentally on international trade and global flows of capital, knowledge and people, itself continues to present challenges to the state's efforts in the areas of symbolic and cultural nation-building. The official discursive construction of Singapore's national identity has rested on the principles of pragmatism, fluidity, and self-renewal, yet this official discourse does not go uncontested by other voices. These voices emanate from Singaporeans at both elite and non-elite levels who seek to anchor the Singapore nation in certain "regimes of authenticity" (Duara 1998). They invest in these regimes the hope that the latter will give rise to stable senses of national identity. Notwithstanding various projects, both official and truly grass-roots, of "manufacturing authenticity" (Chong 2011), the troubled nature of the island-nation's authentic identity remains. …

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