A 19th-century state trying to make it in the 21st

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.

* * * * *

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.

22 Responses to “A 19th-century state trying to make it in the 21st”

  1. 1 Poker Player 13 December 2011 at 15:00

    This sort of thing makes me say – “Thank God for the rest of the world”.

    This is true even if I were American and the glare came from the Soviet Union: a whole book written on it “Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy” – Mary L. Dudziak.

  2. 2 ricardo 13 December 2011 at 21:37

    Singapore is a 18th century state in matters of Church & State.

    James Madison, at the end of the 18th century said,

    “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

    But in Singapore, all have to Dignify our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers and friends multi-million times.

    Large parts of the civil service and even public service bodies like the People’s Association are priests & acolytes to this, keeping the faithful on a tight leash less they stray, and punishing sinners.

    Unbelievers and heretics are severely disadvantaged and even imprisoned indefinitely without trial. All are compelled to tithe.

  3. 3 yuen 13 December 2011 at 22:17

    singapore used to force long haired male visitors to have haircuts at the airport, and still bans chewing gum import and has caning for vandalism on the law books; each of these aroused criticism and ridicule when first introduced, with dire consequences being hinted at but not actually developing

    while the criminality of male homosexuality, and other socially restrictive practices, are issues at another level, they need to be critiqued in more substantive ways than just “they make Singapore different from modern practice”

    • 4 Poker Player 18 December 2011 at 14:14

      >> while the criminality of male homosexuality, and other socially restrictive practices, are issues at another level, they need to be critiqued in more substantive ways than just “they make Singapore different from modern practice”

      More than a decade of yawningbread articles is not substantive enough?

    • 5 Poker Player 18 December 2011 at 14:18

      How much critique does the White Autralia policy need before you consider it substantive?

    • 6 Poker Player 18 December 2011 at 18:43

      “each of these aroused criticism and ridicule when first introduced, with dire consequences being hinted at but not actually developing”

      Errmm…this actually applies to the “other” side…

  4. 7 missbossy 13 December 2011 at 23:26

    I’m not sure this will be very persuasive for the powers that be. Many are just waiting for the US and Europe to finally implode in financial ruin. The future is China… whatever century they are living in.

    • 8 yuen 19 December 2011 at 10:19

      china is a feudal state but equipped with modern technology and propaganda tools; to a considerable extent, so is singapore, but with a large doze of british colonial administrative methods mixed in as well; how well such entities survive in the current world depends on the skills of the rulers

    • 9 Jonno 25 December 2011 at 14:30

      @ missybossy
      The financial ruin in the US and Europe that you talk about is the Public Sector finances ie. Government debt/borrowing capacity and for Europe – restricted to PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain)! However, being in the Euro Bloc leads Euro-powerhouses eg. Germany and France to intervene. It’s not the end of the world for the US & Europe!
      The US and Europe (alongside Japan) are still the world’s leading economies with industry and technological giants. Until China introduce a smartphone & tablet company called “Loquat” to rival Apple and car companies to rival BMW and Mercedes Benz – they are not going to be the “future” …whatever century they are living in.

  5. 10 iemfi 14 December 2011 at 02:49

    Was waiting for you to write about this, and I was not disappointed! Excellent article. A question, what would be your 10%/50%/90% (years you think with 10%, 50%, and 90% probability it will happen by) prediction for the following in Singapore?

    1. abolition of 377a
    2. some recognition of same sex partnerships
    3. full marriage
    4. abolition of death penalty

  6. 11 Change of heart 14 December 2011 at 17:39

    One thing that has struck me since my return to Singapore after spending several years in Canada, was how the concept of race is still so entrenched in our society. I’m defined as a Chinese – I have to give that “correct” answer when asked (though I am somewhat tanned and could be Malay to some Singaporeans) and I have to write my “race” as Chinese in forms asking for my background information.

    When I first moved to Canada, one of the first few modules that I took in University was Anthropology 101. In that class, I learnt that the concept of biological races is nothing more than a social construct and that in fact, it is possible for 2 people that are of the same “race” to be further apart genetically compared to 2 people of different “races”. The idea shook me to the core, having been brought up to believe that there are real distinct and immutable differences between humans. Over the years I lived in Canada, I encountered all kinds of peoples, from all over the world. I realized that it is very naive and simplistic to sub-divide people into “racial” groups.

    For example, what is the “race” of a person who is Indian on his mother’s side and Caucasian on his father’s side? The “following-the-father’s-race” rule does not make sense because the reality is that the person is just as much Indian as he is Caucasian. What happens when this person marries a Chinese? What then is the “race” of his/her child?

    People in Singapore have often asked me if I felt discriminated against in Canada. The answer is no. Not even for a moment. I felt that I seen as a person first, no matter who I interacted with. My mother (who in my opinion embodies the “traditional” ways of thinking) when talking to me over the phone would always ask me who my friends are and whether they were Chinese. To that I would respond, that my friends are my friends and it really doesn’t matter whether they are White, Brown or Pink. Just as how I want to seen as a person first, I must also see people as people first.

    Now, I am not trying to suggest that all people are same. There are of course real differences between groups of people, and these differences do tend to go along ethnic lines. However, I have repeatedly encountered Singaporeans who see people in “racial” groups outside of their own as being “all the same” while of course, each person within their own “racial” group distinct and unique. To me, that is very disappointing. Even though in Singapore each “racial” group is not openly hateful to one another, we are pretty much a racist society.

    To be a truly post-racial society, we need to see people as people first. A good way to begin would be to stop legitimizing the idea of “race” by having us list it on our ICs, fill it in on all kinds of forms and recite it in the pledge.

    • 12 Rajiv Chaudhry 7 January 2012 at 16:02

      Pertinent comments.

      One must remember that the nation-state is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, geographical boundaries were not as clearly defined as they are now, so if you visit the fault-lines between major racial groups, you will find many racially grey areas. This is true of the Chinese far-west where there are strong muslim and Caucasian influences, the Soviet far-east (Khazakstan etc) where Mongolian features are prominent, noth-west India and Afghanistan where people display light-coloured skin, light eyes and reddish hair, north-America and Canada where there is strong Innuit influence, the Mediterranean region where Arabs display European influence and so on.

      So race is, as you say, an artificial construct. To fossilise it, as our government is attempting to do, is both an exercise in futility and an attempt to stall the pace of history. Race is going to become increasingly more churned in our shrinking world. Our government would do well to recognise it.

  7. 13 Arthur Ta 14 December 2011 at 21:37

    I completely agree with you and Singapore needs an attitude makeover. Excellent piece!

  8. 14 wikigam 15 December 2011 at 10:36

    The Result from the May GE2011 proof that PAP will be out of politic-control soon. They have to legal the LGBT RIGHT asap.It should be the fist priority task to be complete for the fake elite Teams.

  9. 15 gear_sg@yahoo.com 15 December 2011 at 12:41

    Singapore Goverment always code : we (govt) donot promoting gay life-style . In fact , if Gay right are Human Right , Human Right are Gay Right.
    We should promoting Gay life-style as how we promoting Human life style.

    Goverment have to remember that we (gay) are also the taxpayer.

  10. 16 rezipping 15 December 2011 at 15:14

    Keeping our fingers crossed, but Thailand might soon legalise same-sex marriages.

    • 17 wikigam 22 December 2011 at 02:11

      I wish singapore govt donot follow thailand have to wait till HIV have been majority problem then decide to legalise same-sex marriages.

      Our govt should do what is ” RIGHT” rather that wait until ” No chooice, must do it “

      • 18 Poker Player 22 December 2011 at 22:50

        What does HIV have anything to do with same-sex marriages?

        In Africa, HIV affects mainly heterosexuals. Legalized different-sex marriages there pre-dated the AIDS epidemic.

      • 19 wikigam 24 December 2011 at 09:50

        To : Poker Player

        It’s a multi relation between HIV Spread with the country’s religious, education level, economy wealth and society structure.

        Basically, the country you mentioned in africa are 3rd world economy country. In the 1st world economy country, Hiv negative person are donot mind to have sex with hiv positive person !

        It like what you may watch in the Movie series ” Vampire Dairy” , How a human insist want to having sex with a vampire : “… I love you …. come, suck my blood……”

      • 20 Poker Player 24 December 2011 at 23:23

        “It’s a multi relation between HIV Spread with the country’s religious, education level, economy wealth and society structure.”

        A theory with many moving parts – but where is “same-sex marriage”?

  11. 21 wikigam 19 December 2011 at 00:55

    Motif of this old lady

    1) Political point for herself
    – in view of hiv to be cure soon, she need suport voice for the lives’ hiv population. so ” LGBT Right” is the best dong for her to sing.


    2) Military benefit of USA in ASIA.
    – “……..China has developed its first aircraft carrier, which has undergone two sea trials this year…..”


    I prefer her “action” rather that her “talk” in supporting LGBT RIGHT world wide.

  12. 22 bernieleong 4 January 2012 at 16:06

    This is a great article and I agree with you on Singapore still being a very race-conscious and racist state. It is far better for people to organize around ideals and aspirations than around tribal notions of race and culture.

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