Hard truths on hard culture

Guest essay by Robox

I had been prompted to write this in response to a comment following this Yawning Bread article in which Alex Au reports Peter Lloyd as having observed in his book Inside Story, that three in four prison inmates were Malay or Indian. I would urge readers who have yet to read that article and the comments that followed to do so first in order to be able to follow this better.


The comment in question, by reader Christopher, proffered that in examining the causes of this gap, one would have to investigate it from two angles: circumstances – the “fault” or “shortcomings”, evidently cultural ones according to him, of Malays and Indians themselves – and government policy. Christopher arrived at the conclusion – somewhat pre-emptively without examining, even cursorily, any policy or administrative acts that might have been a contributing factor – that:

In terms of policy, I would hardly think that [there is] any socio-economic disadvantage faced by our minority groups [that] are the direct result of government policy. On the contrary, I believe that Singapore has good and fair policies in place in regard to race that not only do not discriminate, but they also promote multi-racialism, and serve to improve the social mobility of the minority races. In this regard, the government does subtly admit that there is a socio-economic gap that exists between the race majority and minority.


Hence we are left with circumstance. Adopting a pragmatic point of view, different races have different cultures and these will inevitably churn out different socio-economic outcomes. Closing the socio-economic gap would require one or more groups of people to adopt a different set of thinking, or adapt their lifestyle accordingly for progress…[Emphasis added]

I take a diametrically opposite position to Christopher’s: There is, to me, sufficient evidence existing in the public domain that point incontrovertibly to government policy being a possibly major cause of the disparity between the Chinese population on the other one hand, and the Malay and Indian ones on the other, in the prison population.

At the same time, I posit that, in the absence of any explicit admission by the PAP government to the existence of such a policy, and exacerbated by the lack of transparency by them even when queried in Parliament, we are left to a more unorthodox method of intellectual inquiry, though one that is in widespread informal use, to make these deductions. We perform intelligent guesswork by matching the following:

1.      the public opining of government officials;

2.      administrative acts, such as the police work that takes place on the ground; and,

3.      anecdotal evidence provided from a variety of sources, only one of which is Peter Lloyd’s book.

The pre-requsite for performing the above though, I might add, is a healthy distrust for the PAP government which I am happily and amply endowed with.

Public Musings

In his paper, Lee Kuan Yew: Race, Culture and Genes that is well known to Singaporeans in cyberspace, Michael D Barr recites a 1967 parable attributed to Lee Kuan Yew in which, out of three women – presumed to be Chinese, Indian and Malay – admitted into hospital in the same condition and needing a blood transfusion, only the Chinese woman survived. As Barr explains:

…”hard” and “soft” countries not only produce “hard” and “soft” cultures, but their people acquire “hard” and “soft” physiological characteristics. This explains why in Lee’s parable of December 1967, the woman from the “hard” East Asian society lived after her operation, while the women from the “soft” South Asian and Southeast Asian societies died.

(see footnote 1)

Neither would it seem that these idiosyncrasies are confined to only one man and would have been abandoned with the passage of time (footnote 2).

Fast forward to the present day, and by sheer coincidence, the same Yawning Bread article on which this one spins off from relates an observation made by Peter Lloyd in his book: “[Lee Wei Ling’s] first contribution of 2009 [to her Sunday Times column] was a startling assertion that Singaporeans are guilty of becoming too soft and comfortable in their affluence”. While Ms Lee did not attribute this softness to any cultural contamination of “hard” culture by the “soft” cultures, her comment does belie her uncritical acceptance of her father’s beliefs. Even more recently – just last week in fact – Goh Chok Tong would praise the “stoicism” that he observed in the Japanese in the face of calamity and personal tragedy, and then make the outrageous leap as to conclude that it was a necessary ingredient in nation building (footnote 3).

Indeed, Barr notes that, “[Lee Kuan Yew’s] speeches also reveal a fear that he and the ethnic Chinese of Singapore will lose the drive which has made them successful, not only because they have left the “hard environment” of their forebears and are now living in the tropics, but because they are also living in a more prosperous, but “softer” and thus inferior culture.”

While it is clear that Lee Kuan Yew is not alone in his fear, it is indeed frightening that what should have been denounced as just more of Lee Kuan Yew’s many idiotisms, instead permeates all strata of state and society, the latter of which was also exemplified in Christopher’s comment.

The Mounting Evidence

What then is to become of Malays and Indians who espouse “soft” cultures, and who are believed by government officials not to have contributed to the nation’s success nor to nation building itself? It stands to reason that the only course of action open to the PAP government, one given to punitive action to accomplish behavioural change, are exactly those reserved for all who betray their nation on any account: punishment and rehabilitation (footnote 4).

Sylvia Lim’s assertion in Parliament in that ‘the Government had been reluctant to publish figures on ethnicity and crimes’ was an expression of the disquiet that already exists on the Indian and Malay grounds. Peter Lloyd’s book offers some of his own observations; Alex Au‘s article itself should be viewed as an expression of that same disquiet. In response I cited  my own observations and those of others. Though there was one detractor in the discussion that ensued, another commenter Prison Volunteer wrote that, he could ‘vouch that there is an over-over-over representation of Malays and Indians in prison especially those under 25’. Indeed, the SDP website even published an email more than year ago from a Malay reader making the observation that Malays seem to suffer harsher sentencing in the justice system.

All of these constitute the anecdotal evidence. It would have been quite normal in a more mature society with democratic public institutions to have treated anecdotal evidence as raw material for further empirical investigation. The stumbling block here seems to lie in the not infrequent observation that the government insists on a monopoly in information as well as a monopoly on its flow: the hard evidence could have been made available in Parliament but wasn’t, leading one to suspect that a policy that could cause the government untold embarassment had to remain under wraps at all costs.

The information in this and the previous section leads me conclusively to believe that government policy does in fact play large a role in the disparity between the numbers of Chinese inmates on the one hand, and Indian and Malay ones on the other, in the prison population.


One possible rationale for the government’s evasiveness might be understandable, though only from the perspective of protecting their own backs. It could provoke questioning such as the type that I have already made. It could provoke the emergence of the true stories of police action. And it could result in accusations of government racism. Beyond just the matter of the lack of transparency, the flipside of this evasiveness goes far beyond. It does nothing to quell the disquet that is already on the Malay and Indian grounds, and which is moving beyond the two communities. It also has the potential to perpetuate the culture of rumor mongering so prevalent in all autocratic states

All in all, we have a government that cannot, even in our wildest imaginations, be described as possessing well-honed problem solving instincts. If anything, they are the net cause of more problems.


1. It has to be noted that Lee’s beliefs in “hard” and “soft” countries, cultures and the resulting physiological traits are at its most fundamental level sexist ones. Applied to cultures, “hard” or “soft” ones, and with no regard for the heterogeneity within them, it acquires all the connotations of ethnic superiority and inferiority, such as it does in the power disparity between the sexes; Lee’s beliefs are undeniably racist.

2. I have often wondered what Lee Kuan Yew could have meant by “hard” culture. While this is by no means authoritative, it would seem to me that he really refers to an orientation towards militarism, a culture complete with rigid hierarchies with room for exactly one person at its apex, unquestioning attitudes, blind loyalty, and a steely exterior suggesting a determined refusal to factor in feelings and emotions in the course of executing one’s public duties: the ingredients that predispose a people to autocratic rule. The belligerence that often accompanies militaristic attitudes would become immensely useful in fending off the Islamist hordes at our gates.

By sharp contrast, consider a possible reason for Indian cultural rehabilitation in Singapore. In Ethnicity, Gender and Entrepreneurial Tendencies: The Singapore Perspective by Ramin Cooper and Christopher Ziemnowicz, the authors cross reference Hofer (1997): “…Hinduism accepts the validity of many paths leading to the same goal.” This in effect precludes, in the average Hinduism-impacted Indian mind, a singular source as an absolute authority, a pre-requisite in democracy and anathema to Lee’s penchant for totalizing. Though I am not suggesting that this attitude is present uniformly in all Indians, it  is also that quintessentially Indian attitude that might have given rise to the common stereotype of Indians as being ‘difficult to control’, providing justification for cultural rehabilitation as well as for being denied employment..

I suspect that a parallel rationale for punitive action against Malays exists as it does with Indians. In the past, it could have been due to some Malays having placed the authority of the Malaysian government in their lives over that of the Singaporean one helmed by Lee Kuan Yew. Lately, it seems to have morphed into an antagonism against Islam as the penultimate authority in the lives of many Malays.

3. One would have thought that good coping skills might have sufficed to cope with disaster, however, I surmise that Goh fancied that the militaristic attitude I wrote about in the preceding note, ‘a determined refusal to factor in feelings and emotions in the course of executing one’s duties to the state’, would not only be politically expedient for his autocratic government, but it presents yet another opportunity to reinforce the notion that Singapore’s success could only come about by the espousal of East Asian cultural attitudes and behaviour.

4. It is in this light that the recent Thaipusam controversy might be viewed, with the event producing a bumper crop of arrests of Indian individuals annually by the Singapore Police Force for “crimes” such as drumming on plastic pails. It’s also a matter of curiosity that in the same Yawning Bread article, Alex Au describes rehabilitation services as such: “The daily routine of prison life was one of obeying orders. Roll calls came several times a day. Inmates had to snap to attention, saying “Yes, sir” this and “Yes, sir”  that when spoken to by prison officers.”

11 Responses to “Hard truths on hard culture”

  1. 1 prettyplace 21 March 2011 at 11:38

    These are the problems we will forever face, if we don’t have independent institutions.
    Firstly to release accurate & timely information.
    Then to allow such informations to be disected and probed by academics.

    If we do no do or have all these proper structures in place soon, Singapore is naturally going south.

    Good article.

  2. 2 Christopher 21 March 2011 at 15:19

    Hi Robox

    Your essay has given me a better perspective on the issue of culture and race here in Singapore. Certainly, you have taken the effort to research and quote empirical and anecdotal evidence that there is possibly a certain level of discrimination that exists.

    While I continue to stand diametrically opposed to the views which you have expressed, I would agree with you that “it would have been quite normal in a more mature society with democratic public institutions to have treated anecdotal evidence as raw material for further empirical investigation”.

    Whether these investigations occur or not, we do not know. The same conundrum exists with the lack of statistics previously mentioned in the comments of YB’s parent post. By and large all that we have to work with, are only derived from intellectual inquiry (as you have termed) and guesswork (which I would like to term).

    Your case that our government might not be completely non-discriminatory can thus only be taken so far – the possibly could exist, but one still lacks any concrete evidence. In all due respect, I speak from an entirely objective point of view, that I am not convinced by majority of your assertions, for the fact that I do not possess “a healthy distrust of the PAP government”.

    • 3 mike 21 March 2011 at 22:37

      What would count as ‘concrete evidence’?

      Statistics are hard to come by, and access to research venues can be hard, if not impossible. And if such a study does come up, I’m sure skeptics (not necessarily yourself) will wave it away as having improper sampling techniques or some similar critique.

      As a dimension of this discrimination that we are discussing about, how about we consider education. Specifically, think about the number of malay/indian children in the normal (academic) and normal (technical) streams, and also consider the kinds of jobs that students in these streams are ostensibly being prepared for.

      I do not have statistics with me now, but I have come across them at some point; it is a fact that malays especially are over represented in the N(A) and N(T) streams. The question here would be—how did this state of affairs come about?

      We could have an intellectual discussion, or we could also depend on empirical research done by others. In this case, Michael D. Barr and Jevon Low (2005) looked at the this problem of underachieving Malays, and they found that a significant reason was a difference in cultures, but on top of that, governmental policies have not been helpful in minimizing inequalities.

      Specifically, the competition in schooling starts as early as pre-school. Malay family cultures favour teaching young children about the value of relationships and religion, thus, they tend not to send their children to PAPCF kindergartens, where the overt emphasis is on test preparation and training children to be ‘good’ kids (able to sit down quietly for long periods of time, speak only when spoken to, etc).

      Crucially, and this is where the institutionalized discrimination comes in, there are subsidies that allow parents to send their kids to other kindergartens if they like, but considering the conditions attached to the subsidies (kindergarten must be: registered with MOE, no religious affiliation, good track record, meet MOE requirements for staff training, minimum paid up capital of $5M), the only places where one can spend this subsidy money is at the PAPCF kindergartens.

      Now, one can claim that, yes, we must be fair; money must not be given to schools with religious agendas, money must not be given to schools with fly-by-night, unqualified teachers, but it is just these sorts of ‘common sense’ decisions made by the dominant groups that can be carelessly discriminating. No, I am not advocating that groups need to bend over backwards to accommodate others, but how about a simple application of the golden rule when it comes to decision making at the social level? How about interrogating how ‘common sense’ is thoroughly infused with the ideologies of the dominant groups, with unquestioned assumptions about the status of others since ‘that’s how it’s supposed to be’?

      Now, back to this discussion, and here is where I depart on an unsubstantiated flight of fantasy—empiricists can ignore this if you like—How much is it a stretch of the imagination to consider the progression of a kid who enters mainstream primary school, not knowing how to spell his own name, is then labelled by the teacher as being ‘slow’, then labelled as disrupting/ADHD when he does not understand that he should shut up and not call for help whenever he does not follow the work, then shunted off to N(T), to low paying jobs, and then status as social outcast? At that state, when one feels that one has no stake in the ‘success’ of society, what exists to hold one back from performing ‘illegal’ acts?

      Barr, M. D., & Low, J. (2005). Assimilation as multiracialism: The case of Singapore’s malays. Asian Ethnicity, 6(3), 161-182.

    • 4 Robox 21 March 2011 at 22:43

      Hi Christopher, thanks for participationg in this discussion even though it was your comment that provoked this lengthy critique of mine. You said:

      “Your case that our government might not be completely non-discriminatory can thus only be taken so far – the possibly could exist, but one still lacks any concrete evidence.”

      May I ask exactly what type of concrete – could I interpret that to mean “hard”? – evidence would convince you that government discrimination exists short of an admission by the government that such a policy exists? I would expect that, if it were only the stats that Sylvia Lim probed for in Parliament that could constitute that concrete evidence, it would return us to square one of this discussion: Is the [expected] disparity due to “circumstances” or is it “policy”?

      It sounds to me like another spinoff discussion could take place as well: Can Indians and Malays be believed when they allege racism?

      If so, why? If not, why not?

      • 5 Continuum 22 March 2011 at 15:23

        Can the reasons for disparity be so clearly distinguished between circumstances and policy?

        I believe that if one questions further, the two may be distinguished but they cannot be separated. Circumstances can be both the cause and effect of policies.

        This is especially so at a time whereby policies take extra care to at least strive for an impression of equality. A categorization of factors for disparity may neglect the interaction between factors.

        E.g. Self-help groups/SHGs delineated by race.
        CDAC, MENDAKI and SINDA.

        For simplicity, let’s reduce the workings of SHGs to two functions: funding and networks

        Funding: Policy allocated or public donations
        Should funding be allocated based on needs or based on the national size of the ethnic group affiliated with the SHG?

        Networks: The access to resources and connections
        Could the SHG’s network be proportional to the national size of the ethnic group it is affiliated with? If so, might bigger networks lead to
        a) closer and stronger networks and
        b) more attention and hence, more funding?

        In sum, policy and culture are hardly separable. In fact, I argue that policy itself stems from certain kinds of culture.

        The hard truth is that there are no hard or soft cultures, only ones that are powerful and others less so.

  3. 6 Tan Tai Wei 21 March 2011 at 16:06

    I don’t know if this is directly relevant to this theme, but this observation is worth making somewhere within the spectrum of this issue.
    My impression is that,rather than minority races having been discriminated against, they have been favourably favoured. Starting from the Presidency, who amongst the Chinese ministers and NPs have the chance? But Tagmugi, they say, will be the next President, because we must have a Malay in line for the presidency. And so, all the way down the line, all that is needed anywhere,as long as he/she is Malay or Indian, he/she cannot be not picked, for fear that that were argued to be racial discrimination.
    All that done, to the disadvantage of better endowed Chinese?

  4. 7 anon 21 March 2011 at 19:53

    I don’t pretend to be even moderately acquainted with the issue discussed here, but would like to offer some comments:

    a. I have read elsewhere about roughly the same sort of situation existing in prisons in the US and Australia. In the former it was obviously the African Americans and the latter, the aborigines, both were disproportionately over-represented in their respective country’s prison populations.

    b. Another similarity shared by these people in Singapore, US and Australia prisons is an educational level that is somewhat below the average.

    c. Leading from b. we can also observe the common denominator among them of low social-economic status. Certainly, this is often also the case with (in Singapore at least) prisons inmates from the majority Chinese population (also the case in b). Most crimes are committed out of the necessity to fulfill a perceived need or want beyond the reach and means of the offenders.

    d. Prisons are generally built to house the unwashed and ‘unschooled’ masses, until white collar crimes made the scene.

    e. Someone mentioned the special privileges accorded the Malays, then how do you account for their ‘dominant’ presence in the prison population? What about the Indians, then? Special privileges that requires special efforts to enjoy look good only on paper when there is no commensurating enabling efforts made or implemented to help them reach them. It’s like dressing up jungle natives in modern clothes and expecting them to know the rules of civilization. Rotating the president’s post among the races is but merely window dressing. Only the naive would be convinced by this show of make-believe ‘multi-culturalism’. Only the cooperative incumbents and the ruling party benefits from this dressing up. It is no more truer than the claim that the members of a certain political party contesting in a GRC has the full support of the constituents of the GRC merely because there was no contest by the opposition.

    f. Just as the Malay in top SAF position is a rear if not extinct breed, one would note that there are no top Malays in the AG, DPP or the judiciary. Coincidental? Lack of qualified Malays?

    g. Back to the prison population – do we have data on the gender of inmates. That is, how many males and how many females?


  5. 9 Leuk75 21 March 2011 at 23:39

    If we just look from the point of national education system, streaming and exams, you see clearly that the style is sinocentric. It certainly benefits the segment of the population which favours a disciplined, precisely patterned teaching system where rote learning is a prized asset. A competitive streak also does not hurt in such a system.

    Culturally, I think the East Asian culture, including the Chinese, tends to this mould more than the South and South East Asians in a very general fashion. Based on observations on our public transport and regional travels, the Chinese also appears a shade more competitive.

    It is this competitiveness and a system that rewards this mindset that allows the majority ethnic group to better outperform the Malays and Indians. The issue here is that we have very little alternative voices and our government is very prickly when anyone challenges their revered system which inevitably resulted in the diaspora.

  6. 10 anon 27 March 2011 at 23:18

    No intention to shout, just wanted that segment to stand out.

  7. 11 D Shepard 13 June 2011 at 00:27

    I am a very well-educated, consummate professional, Harvard-educated and taught former Wall Street rocket scientist. I have been to 25 countries, and have lived in 10 of them. I include as school mates Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and am friends and peers with those who have run America for 20 years, as well as the heads of other nations.

    I spent 2 days in Singapore. And in those two days, I clearly experienced discrimination. I came away from that one visit feeling that I would NEVER want to go to Singapore again.

    And I consider myself to be a citizen of the world.

    How is that, for an anecdote!

    An Unimpressed American

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