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Friday, March 04, 2005

Scared what?

Insecurity as a national trait.


A old joke in Singapore tells of how Singaporeans (particularly men) in general, have four fears. In Hokkien, (one of Singapore’s main Chinese dialects) these are “Kiasu”, Kiasi”, “Kia-bor”, and “Kia cheng hu”, which translate into “fear of losing”, “fear of death”, “fear of wife” and “fear of government” respectively.

But of these four fears, it is “Kiasi-ism” and its consequent “Kiasu-ism”, that has shaped Singapore today. We shall examine how this insecurity has played, and continues to play in the city state’s national character. Readers would be advised, in the course of this work, to remember that insecurity is not a trait that can possibly explain how everything works in Singapore. This essay would argue, however, that insecurity has become an integral part of our national identity. It will also attempt to explain how this may have come about, and further examine its consequences for our future.

One of the classic manifestations of Singapore’s insecurity is a campaign called Total Defence. Initiated in 1984, and commemorated every year since the mid 1990s on the anniversary of the conquest of Singapore by Imperial Japan, it seeks to encourage Singapore’s citizens to unite under an esprit-de-corps to ward off all possible menaces.

Thanks to the nagging persistence of National Education, a programme introduced in the mid 1990s to alleviate the widespread ignorance of our nation’s historical and political context ( and jointly run by the Ministry Of Education and the Ministry of Defence) most teenagers, when pressed, can probably identify the hand-like red logo of Total Defence, and at least some of its five components. The choice of each of these components, however, is revealing. Singapore worries about its economic viability, it worries about its ability to mobilize its civilian and military resources in the eventuality of war, it worries about its diverse, multicultural society coming to blows on the street- it even worries about whether Singapore would worry too much and descend into mayhem should hard times prolong.

Taken together, this gives some inkling of the root of our insecurity; the question of whether this land continues to remain a de facto sovereign state tomorrow. The public and personal insecurity of Singaporeans, is what drives us to excellence. Singaporeans build and maintain some of world’s best airports and seaports; for who needs to transit goods or passengers here if you’re only number two in the region? Insecurity is also what drives Singaporean parents to demand exacting academic standards from their children from the time they start school; it is naturally assumed that few prospective employers, local or foreign, would need the services of young Singaporeans if they are effectively illiterate.

The causes of Singapore’s insecurity lie in both our geography and historical circumstances. As it happens, our political boundaries were created, initially through a peace settling agreement between the British and the Dutch, which cut off Singapore from the rest of the Riau archipelago, and later on, through a British attempt to run an “Empire on the cheap”, awarding a co-operative local aristocrat with Johor, and thus making it a state politically separated from Singapore. So Singapore ended up with no real natural hinterland of its own, and became one little red dot on the map.

Within these boundaries, there were almost no natural resources to speak of, apart from Singapore’s convenient location and decent harbour. Singapore could never dream of growing rich on the riches of oil like Bahrain or Brunei, or off phosphates like Nauru. Singaporeans couldn’t even live off the land itself; the poor soils yielded nothing much but tapioca and vegetables. Plus they certainly did not have the space for plantations of pineapple, rubber and palm oil; not in the 1960s when the population was already approaching 2 million upon a main island less than 300 sq miles, and certainly not in present times.

Naturally, none of the neighbours, who were in the possession of quite a tidy bit of the earth’s riches, were inclined to share some of their natural wealth more equitably when Singapore was shown the door out of Malaysia on 9th August 1965.

There was hence no way Singaporeans could make a living but to remain relevant to the rest of the world; indeed in 1965 Singapore had already experienced almost 150 years of nothing else but just that- it wasn’t as if this land of fortune-seeking immigrants could just seal itself off from most foreign contact and live in noble poverty like the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. For world powers care little about small, distant islands unless they prove useful to them.

But the facts of geography and the historical circumstances of the island up till self-government do not tell the full tale of how this country came to be such an anxious land. Indeed, up till 1959 it seemed that this territory’s majority Chinese population would not rid itself of its romance with revolutionary politics, in the fashion of Mao Zedong’s 1949 triumph, contrary to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s belief that the Chinese would always tend towards pragmatism and stability.

Much of the credit for a national culture of insecurity can be taken by the ethos of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in the wake of the shock that was independence. No one, least of all Minister Mentor Lee himself, had intended Singapore to be a state on its own; the plan had always been to attach the island to some larger political entity, which would, it was assumed, provide the island with more opportunities to make a living. At independence, Singapore’s political leaders knew that the tiny city-state, with its multi-ethnic immigrant mix, was the ultimate sovereign anomaly in Asia. But they had made their geo-political choices when they chose to be cut off from the peninsula. They had chosen the freedom of national direction together with the inherent vulnerability of Singapore’s position that this entailed, as opposed to a probable alternate future as a charming but mediocre port city in Malaysia, frequented by tourists but indistinguishable from other exotic, rambling former colonial outposts from Goa to Melaka.

Initially, the PAP government, did not actually have to try very hard to bring home the message of vulnerability to the people, for events outside their control, like the 1969 racial riots on peninsula Malaysia and the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore by 1971, helped strike a chord. A mood of co-operation with the government in the face of this apparent life-or-death situation prevailed. Very quickly and with little bloodshed, Singapore’s notoriously militant unions were tamed to become one of the most pro-government in the world; from 1968 to 1981 there was also not a single opposition party member in parliament.
It was in the 1980s that, from the point of view of the PAP government, action became necessary. By then, Singapore had experienced a decade or so of sustained economic growth, and had achieved a measure of prosperity. A younger and more affluent generation had grown up with, at best childhood memories of the turbulent 50s and 60s, and nothing of the harsh 40s. Younger workers were getting choosy about jobs in a tight labour market; there were growing demands for more private and public freedoms, and the first opposition member of parliament in 13 years had been elected.

This was ‘softness’, in the eyes of the conservative PAP government- signs that this new generation was taking Singapore’s prosperity for granted. Not surprisingly, this became a decade when efforts were started to imbibe schoolchildren with greater awareness of how vulnerable Singapore was; in addition to Total Defence, 1984 also saw the production of a TV documentary entitled “Making Of A Nation”, which portrayed the difficult circumstances of our nation’s birth, and continued to be shown to schoolchildren and afternoon slots on public television up till the mid 1990s. The anachronistic arrests of alleged Marxists in 1987 was played up to great effect; it seemed that the motherland was still under threat from internal enemies even in at a time when Glastnost in the Soviet Union and economic liberalization in China was discrediting Marxism-Leninism everywhere. Finally, in 1988, the government came up with the Five Shared Values that Singaporeans were supposed to share, namely;

Nation before community and society before self
Family as the basic unit of society
Community support and respect for the individual
Consensus, not conflict
Racial and religious harmony

If nothing else, this could be interpreted as a declaration of offensive intent against other values that were supposed to weaken the Singaporean will to survive. For what a tragedy it would be were Singaporeans to assume that additional help for the poor was a non-antagonistic value that would not compromise our economic competitiveness!

Subsequent governments under Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister) and Lee Hsien Loong have made even more vigorous efforts to imbibe insecurity into the populace, and consequently to agree to measures which were supposed to provide better defences against natural vulnerabilities. New projects, such as National Education were launched to teach an even younger generation about Singapore’s basic vulnerability. External events outside of official doing made the job easier than in the 1980s. Singapore suffered recessions in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the dot-com bust of 2000. Then there was the political instability in Indonesia and a period of strained relations with her as well as Malaysia, renewed awareness of Islamic terrorism following the events of September 11th and the resurgent activity of the Jemaah Islamiyah, and the SARS crisis of 2003. While each of these crises in themselves was enough to remind ourselves of our inherent insecurity, there is no doubt that the government and the state-owned media went to some length to play up these problems for propaganda value.

But has the government done too much to play up our insecurity? For this we turn the spotlight on the government’s efforts in this respect on the young. While the fundamental goals of National Education are laudable, its dogmatic conclusions and an emphasis on making these pre-concluded messages more ‘appealing’ as opposed to leading youths to think for themselves about Singapore’s real problems may have served to undermine the very cause it seeks to promote. Many youths, particularly the more academically able, are inclined to see the whole package as mere propaganda. And rather than refute certain claims made by the government, they would rather throw out the baby with the bathwater.

This reaction is not just caused by the inclination of youths towards positions of extreme black or white, but has also come about through a perception that the government does take advantage of the issue of insecurity for its own ends. The government’s current efforts to get youths to be more involved with public affairs is perceived as an exercise in hot air simply because suggestions on reform are often dismissed as being too “sensitive”. Hence not a single legal gay rights group exists; Muslims continue to be excluded from certain vocations in the armed forces for their implicitly questionable loyalties; never mind the repeal of laws in Singapore that would have thrown a putative local Michael Moore in jail for making a Fahrenheit 9/11. Instead, we are treated to a moralising sideshow on the consequences of having a casino in Singapore.

This situation is a pity because a significant number of the best and brightest young Singaporeans have concluded that they are no longer comfortable with living in a country that seems to be irrationally paranoid. Others, having concluded that any argument put forward for the country’s insecurity must be a lie concocted by a sinister PAP government, seem to be willing to introduce loony public policy should they be placed in positions of responsibility. The author has personally listened, with some dismay, to seriously posited arguments put forth by otherwise highly intelligent peers, about the viability of replacing our entire armed forces with a few dozen nuclear tipped missiles- never mind that such a plan would never be endorsed by our military partners, let alone any of our neighbours.

To paraphrase Andy Grove of Intel, only the paranoid survive; the fear of death as a nation has always been with us from the moment of our birth, and probably will be ever present, so long as Singapore exists. An acknowledgement of the country’s miniscule physical limits, as well as the world’s fickle tastes, provide a sufficient check on any misguided hubris about the country’s first-world achievements. Appreciation of why this is so should be part of each succeeding generation, but it should not be allowed to crowd out what it means to live.

1 Comments:

Anonymous MGR said...

Hi,
We are a group of Nus undergrads doing a study on political blogging and need your help in completing a questionnaire. Your opinions will be kept strictly confidentional. We appreciate your participation and look forward to your prompt reply by tues(08/3)so that we could send you a copy of the questionnaire. Please email us at this address- klavier_supps@hotmail.com
Thanks.

March 07, 2005 3:40 am  

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