Like distant thunder rolling in, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech in Geneva marking Human Rights Day (full transcript) should make Singapore pay attention to the changing international weather. She chose as the main theme of her speech, the question of equality and human rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered people, announcing a new US government strategy to combat human rights abuses (including criminalisation) against LGBT persons.
Discrimination against gay people is becoming a leading issue in international affairs and Singapore is caught on the wrong side again.
“The United States will use all the tools of diplomacy . . . to promote gay rights around the world,” ran the opening sentence of Straits Times report on this, 8 December 2011. Based on a syndicated news stories from the New York Times, Washington Post and Agence France-Presse, the local newspaper’s story said that after her speech to the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva, some in the audience gave her a standing ovation. Others sat stony-faced; possibly they were from African and Arab countries that continue to persecute gay people. The Straits Times noted that “Singapore, which deems sex between men illegal, is not a member of the council.”
But that is no comfort when economic links and political goodwill with the world’s largest economy and superpower are considered vital for Singapore.
Being caught on the wrong side is something that has been happening to Singapore a lot lately. We earned international notoriety over our death penalty record and then capped it by taking on the role of the world’s champion for executions when our ambassador to the United Nations led rearguard action against a global trend towards its abolition.
On a regional note, when the Indonesian government began drawing up a list of approved countries for sending its migrant workers to, Singapore was not on the first draft of that list because we did not have enough legal protections for foreign workers (Straits Times, 20 Sept 2011). What Singapore families are going to do when we can’t get maids from Indonesia is hard to imagine.
Is this tendency to be wrong-footed by international trends on different fronts just coincidence? Or is there a deeper, underlying common factor? I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend, and the possibility that struck me is perhaps that our conception of what a country or society should be is obsolescent; we are a nineteenth-century state buffetted by the headwinds of the twenty-first century. Each of these examples of being caught on the wrong side is simply a manifestation of our overall misalignment.
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What do I mean by “a nineteenth-century state”? If we look at compact nation-states of that period, e.g. France, Germany, Britain, and a nascent modern Japan, certain features stand out. They were organised along lines of language, ethnicity and descent; the word “nation” itself is related to “native” and “natal”. This conception, predicated upon social homogeneity, was further reinforced by a stress on economic discipline — it was the height of the industrial revolution — seeing in discipline a competitive advantage against other states. Things would go to the extent of demanding social and militaristic discipline as Prussia, Imperial Germany and modernising Japan would prove.
There is little to distinguish such ideas about what nations should be from glorified tribalism.
To what degree did Singapore, in our “nation-building” effort try to emulate such forms? Certainly, doing so would be coherent with the worldview of strongman Lee Kuan Yew, whose demands for discipline, top-down if necessary, are legendary. His racially-coloured and eugenistic views would not have been out of place in the nineteenth century either. The result is a series of fetishes. For an immigrant society that continues to receive immigration, we keep thinking in terms of CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) with respect to identity and as foundation for many policies.
Then, there’s an obsession with hard punishment (ban this, ban that, hang ’em all!) for transgressions against social norms, but one that contrasts with great latitude for economic exploiters. Singaporeans work perhaps the longest hours in the world; our low-wage workers toil in Dickensian conditions.
In trying to remain a racially-based society hung up on social discipline and competitive economic alarmism, we’re really trying to be a nineteenth-century nation-state. But neither our internal evolution nor external environment allow for this.
We’re always going to be an immigrant society. All cities are places of transmigration and because our state is little more than a city, it is unavoidable, if we want to remain a vibrant place with a role in the world, that our state cannot define itself in static racial, tribal or nativist terms. Moreover, even among those born here, there will a trend towards cross-ethnic family formation. We therefore need to find a language and a set of common ideals that everybody can ascribe to, without reference to ancestral identity.
To a degree, the United States, and increasingly, Europe, has found it: higher ideals rooted in self-actualisations — liberty, rights, social solidarity, and so on. And I would suggest that they are better examples of what Singapore should be aiming for than all the rubbish about “Asian values”, “mother tongue” and “multi-racialism” (which is a euphemistic form of racialism).
Likewise, our external environment is changing. There is greater attention paid to rights issues, be they LGBT rights, the death penalty or workers’ rights. And mark my words — there will be greater focus on economic inequality and exploitation. Yet each of these trends rub against the grain of Singapore as a nineteenth-century state. We valorise social homogeneity because how else does one define ethnic or communal identity? We pride ourselves in sacrifice and harsh punishment because we instinctively see discipline, whether judicial or economic, as essential for competitive advantage, if not survival itself.
If we want to be relevant to the twenty-first century, we need to reinvent our very conception of what Singapore should be. A good start would be ask what it means to be a post-racial society (as opposed to a multi-racial one) and what values might prove inspirational to a new generation of locally-born and naturalised Singaporeans, whose perspectives are shaped by contemporary concerns rather than old tribalisms.
That way, we don’t have to fear being caught out again when the US speaks out about LGBT rights, Europe speaks out about capital punishment or Indonesia and the Philippines speak out about low-wage workers’ rights.