Industrialized Singapore or ‘Singaporean’ for Industrialization?

Written by: Kotono Sagane

“Singapore you are not my country.

Singapore you are not a country at all.

You are surprising Singapore, statistics-starved Singapore, soulful Singapore of tourist brochures in Japanese and hourglass kebayas.


Your words are like walls on which truth is graffiti.

This has become an island of walls.

Asylum walls, factory walls, school walls, the walls of the midnight Istana.

If I am paranoid I have learnt it from you”

Singapore You Are Not My Country by Alfian Sa’at

Captured in the words of Alfian Sa’at – a Malay Singaporean poet – is a representation of the delicateness of Singaporean national identity. Perhaps this mirrors the government’s hardship in uniting an ethnically diverse population; made up of Chinese, Malay, Indian and other ethnic groups. But if a fixed ethnic or biological claim to a nationality does not withstand, what comprises a ‘Singaporean identity’? To investigate the composition of Singaporean national identity, we need to explore how Singaporean government has been imposing meritocracy as a defining normative framework to sustain its multiracial dynamic.

The embedding of meritocracy – a utilitarian formula that asserts those who purposefully contribute to a system’s well-being will receive greater rewards – is one of the foundations for its project to reinforce national identity. By convincing its population of the fairness of merit-based system, it not only depoliticizes race-related discrepancies, but also cultivates a desirable work culture amongst its population. Yet, as Alfian notes, there are visible growing fractures. While Singapore advances itself as the world’s leading global city-state, it progressively is becoming a victim of its own success in promoting meritocracy.

At the heart of the construction of the Singaporean identity lies the persistent concern over its economic viability. Arguably, Singapore was not conceptualised as a ‘nation’ even after its independence in 1965. In fact, even as late as 1984, Lee Kuan Yew – the first Prime Minister of Singapore – stated that the idea of an independent Singapore was “a foolish and absurd proposition.” This conception derived from the harsh reality of resource scarcity as well as the absence of viable domestic market for industrialised goods at the time. But it is exactly this economic consideration that pushed for the need to underscore national identity.

What was crucial was the increased awareness over the importance of mobilizing national identity to sharpen its economic edge. By narrowing who qualifies as a ‘Singaporean’, the government established a civic nationality wherein the participation in the productive work force became an indispensable criterion. Interestingly, the urgency for their contribution was effectively communicated through the idea of state survivalism. The introduction of Total Defence Day on February 15th and the historical parallelism drawn between Singapore and the city-state of Venice are just to name a few. Rhetorically, the prominence of external threat is also often invoked by state politicians: “Singapore will always be a pressure cooker. You can’t close down.” (Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong)

While the economic logic behind the promotion of meritocracy can be understood, the chain reaction sparked by such societal structuring has been aversive. To unfold the individual-level reception of the nationwide endorsement of meritocracy, perhaps there is a need to lend an ear to the voices of Singaporeans today. Clare Cho, a respondent to our interview who studies in London, mentioned that meritocracy is “a system that is clearly biased towards some demographics – so perhaps it’s meritocratic for [the ruling elites].” On a similar note, Ada Chong – Singaporean primary and secondary school tutor – refers to Teo You Tenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like, shedding a light into the hypocrisy in the societal belief that educational opportunities reside equally in every individual regardless of differences their background. These respective points of view entail the visibility of cracks within the Singapore’s symbolic meritocracy.

No wonder why there has been an increasing criticism that Singapore is simply “statistic-starved,” demanding its population to pay a human price for its economic prosperity. One of which is the consequential stratification of society. As Clare clarifies, “There are very clear economic, political, and social divides in Singapore – we have the ultra, mega-rich, but we also have very poor people.” The over-reliance on the meritocratic narrative obscures the reality of inequality – racial and socio-economic inequalities which affect the extent of merit that one can achieve. For instance, despite the multiracial nature of Singapore, the government shifts the responsibility of handling the issue of disparity to racial groups – such as Mendaki. By assuming the full responsibility of race-based self-help groups, the government turns the blame away from meritocracy and asserts that their current system is functioning perfectly fine. Shockingly, they instead put the blame on is the cultural and traditional traits of the respective racial groups.

On a more individual level, the demoralization brought by the cult of materialism suggests that the indoctrination of meritocracy was not so great after all. The colloquial term, “kiasu” – originally a Chinese term which translates to ‘having a selfish attitude arising from a fear of missing out’ – is often identified as a key Singaporean trait. The government’s accelerating engagement with foreign talent (FT) for national prosperity is a momentous force driving the intensification of kiasusim. Although Ada notes that, “[Singapore] do need the foreigners, especially if we look at the current statistics of our birth rates,” influx of FTs has heightened job insecurity and depressed wages for local Singaporeans, fostering an ever-more competitive environment due to the fear of missing out. The nurturing of individualism and survivalism followed, putting into question if meritocracy was really the way forward in uniting an ethically divergent country.

The individualistic awareness was accompanied by the lessening sense of responsibility to the social sphere – a tendency identified by the government as ills of ‘Westernization’. Responsively, the government took the initiative to call for the revitalization of Asian values, most prominently via the implementation of Civics and Moral Education Policy from 2000. By outlining the desired outcomes for Singaporean youths, they implant the next generation’s emotional attachment to Singapore while reinforcing the importance of traditional values relating to family relationships, heritage and community.

Perhaps such an attempt is deemed a success given that according to the survey conducted by the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, 98% of the respondents claimed that they consider Singapore to be their ‘home’. Additionally, the nationally-beloved song, Home by Kit Chan – sang at the 2010 National Day Parade – recites,

“Whenever I am feeling low

I look around me and I know

There’s a place that will stay within me

Wherever I may choose to go

I will always recall the city

Know every street and shore

Sail down the river which brings us life

Winding through my Singapore”

The sharp contrast between Sa’at and Chan’s illustrations of Singapore perhaps demonstrate how the self-identification of being ‘Singaporean’ is a constant balancing act with skirmishes – the inherent contradiction residing within the government’s advancement of meritocracy is not making things any easier. As the Singaporeans’ complicitly to the government’s response to COVID-19 measures was uniformly characterized by “an occasional eye-roll but a mostly very compliant attitude,” (Ada) – undoubtedly ‘obedience’ is a defining trait of Singaporean identity. Only time will tell how this nationality identity unfolds, reconstructs and solidifies.  

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