State-Civil Society Relations and Tourism: Singaporeanizing Tourists, Touristifying Singapore

By Seng, Ooi Can | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2005 | Go to article overview

State-Civil Society Relations and Tourism: Singaporeanizing Tourists, Touristifying Singapore


Seng, Ooi Can, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


At the height of the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Singapore in 2003, Singapore Airlines (SIA) pilots belonging to the Air Line Pilots Association of Singapore (Alpa-S) criticized their union's leaders for giving in too easily to management on wage cuts and lay-offs. When the leaders were eventually ousted, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (current Prime Minister), stated his support for the ousted Alpa-S leaders and issued this challenge: "the [new] leaders of this group have to think very carefully, do they really want to take on the Government?" ("Govt Will Not Let Pilots 'Do Singapore In': DPM", 29 November 2003). He echoed what his father--the then Prime Minister (now Minister Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew--said in a similar dispute in 1980: "I don't want to do you in, but I won't let anybody do Singapore in" (ibid.). Lee Hsien Loong's support for the ousted union leaders reflected government concerns that industrial unrest would threaten Singapore's position as an international air hub. The government warned that it would not tolerate a rebellious pilots' union ("Govt: We Cannot Afford Such Acrimony", 1 December 2003), and subsequently changed legislations to make it unnecessary for union leaders to seek approval from members on agreements ("SIA Pilots: Law to Be Tightened", 1 December 2003). The industrial dispute was resolved amicably between the new union leaders and the senior Lee ("SIA Pilots Pledge Amicable Solution", 24 February 2004). Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said the fact that the pilots agreed to lower wages shows that the country could do what many other countries could not because Singaporeans understand "we got here because we work on special rules" ("Staying Ahead: It's All in Teamwork, Says MM", 14 October 2004).

This example is important because it points to the central role that tourism plays in the Singapore economy. The SARS outbreak and the SIA pilot's dispute threatened the tourism industry. The actions by the Singapore government clearly demonstrate its willingness to intervene for the sake of the industry. Despite the significance of these events and the central importance of tourism in Singapore's economy, tourism is under-examined in research on state-civil society relations in Singapore. To address this gap, this paper explores state--civil society relationships in Singapore, paying careful attention to three recent issues that have affected the tourism industry--the re-branding of Singapore, the casino debate, and the introduction of health and medical tourism. In the business of governing Singapore, the People's Action Party (PAP) government has been able to close, absorb, re-define, and open up civil spaces, as a result of which the line separating state and civil society in Singapore is blurred (see chapters in Koh and Ooi 2000). Tourism has opened up important civil and social spaces that were once closed. At the same time, the tourism industry has played a central role in shaping Singaporeans' own understanding of their national and ethnic identities.

This paper is divided into two sections. In the first section I briefly review the body of knowledge on state-civil society relations and tourism. The short review provides a framework for understanding the situation in Singapore. In the second section, three examples--the re-branding of Singapore, the casino debate, and the introduction of health and medical tourism--illustrate how state-sponsored tourism development and civil society in Singapore are intertwined. The role of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in the Singapore society will also be discussed.

Tourism and Politics: Issues and a Framework

To many people, tourism is about having fun. For many governments, however, it is an important source of foreign revenue. It provides employment in restaurants, airlines, airports, hotels, and tourism attractions. In addition to their economic impact, tourists can also influence the host country's cultural and social environment. …

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