Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Actors and Arenas, Elections and Competition: The 1958 Election of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Actors and Arenas, Elections and Competition: The 1958 Election of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce

Article excerpt

This article discusses the socio-political behaviour of the ethnic Chinese business elite of Singapore. Contributing to the discussion of whether or not this behaviour should be understood primarily in cultural terms (along the lines of Chinese and Confucian values) or else in structural political and economic terms, it is argued that the two approaches should be combined. Culture lives and breathes in actual human behaviour that is organised and shaped through structural arrangements, and these structures are empty without that cultural filling. Culture and structure are so interdependent -- structures being embedded in culture, and culture having to operate within structures -- that they form two complementary and intertwined aspects of society that cannot be examined separately. Both cultural and structural patterns are continually influenced and reshaped by the larger social, political and economic environments in which they are embedded and both should be viewed in an historical context of continuity and change.

It is also necessary to look at more than just economic behaviour and organisation; social and political realms must be examined as well. This is possible analytically, because these realms are closely integrated and also because ethnic Chinese appear to display similar pragmatic and flexible strategies in each of them. From this case study of the internal developments in the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC), a picture emerges of the patterns and logic of individual and group action. This picture leads to the conclusion that the Chinese commercial leaders in this case assumed multiple roles and applied an array of strategies to realise their objectives. They drew on -- and no doubt subscribed to -- normative principles based on cultural patterns and behaviour, as well as hardball political strategies of dominance, power and competition, creating a system of socio-political behaviour that was both pragmatic and flexible.

Studying ethnic Chinese: problems and questions

The successful economic development of Southeast Asia has sparked much interest in the region's ethnic Chinese. In both journalistic and academic publications, writers have sought to explain the often disproportionate stake that the Chinese hold in trade, investment and manufacturing. Two approaches seem to dominate the discussion: explanations based on the cultural values and characteristics that distinguish the Chinese from their indigenous neighbours, and explanations based on structural issues of politics and economics on a global and local scale, highlighting comparative advantage and external developments that seem to favour the Chinese. Such a dichotomy is simplistic and misleading; nonetheless, it does serve to identify two dominant paradigms.

The cultural approach turns to 'Chinese-ness' as an explanatory factor for economic success. (1) These authors hold that the Chinese possess a set of values, processes of socialisation and a number of forms of social organisation that give them a competitive edge in commercial affairs over other ethnic groups in Southeast Asia. Filial piety, collectivism and concern for face are seen as important among this cultural baggage. (2) Open conflict is to be avoided and dignity and face left intact. In a more practical sense, when discussing ethnic Chinese business practices, S. Gordon Redding observes that the core of networking -- necessary to beat the inherent distrust of anyone or anything outside the immediate family -- is comprised of Chinese-ness, lineage ties, region-of-origin connections and the construction of dependable relationships. (3) Redding is by no means the only proponent of cultural explanations for ethnic Chinese behaviour, organisation and success; other academics, popular business writers and government reports have followed roughly similar approaches. (4)

Aspects of culture are no doubt important to our understanding of human behaviour. …

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