Singapore: Harnessing Centrifugal Tendencies In Nation-Building


Eugene Tan

Nationhood has never been easy for Singapore since it was suddenly thrust into it in 1965. Creating an overarching national identity that supercedes the separate racial identities has always been a challenge for a state that feels insecure given its sensitive geopolitical context. In the past year, there have been intimations of a more concerted state-led effort to create, in Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s words, ‘a Singapore tribe’.

In May last year, PM Goh stated that Singapore was ‘not yet a nation’. To aid the nation-building process, national heroes would be identified in the near future. Local World War II heroes are ruled out; only those from the independence era onwards would be eligible for elevation into the pantheon of heroes. Allied with this is the establishment of a National Portrait Gallery that would display portraits and paintings of prominent Singapore personalities as well as definitive moments of Singapore’s historiography. At a more general level, sports have also been recognized to have the ability to bond Singaporeans and are actively promoted.

Education is a key socialization vehicle in Singapore. The massive National Education Programme, launched in 1997, is a key ingredient in Singapore’s education curriculum from primary to tertiary levels. It seeks to educate the population on its shared history, survival instincts, and principles of good governance that have underlined Singapore’s success.

A common feature in all these projects is Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. His first volume memoir, entitled the Singapore Story, was launched in 1998 to much fanfare and was touted to inject a much-needed sense of national consciousness of Singapore’s vulnerabilities, nimble-footedness and determination against the odds. Lee’s second volume of memoirs, which will cover events from 1965 onwards, is due to be released later this year. It is likely that Lee’s views on Singapore’s neighbours and their leaders will provoke more controversy. Although the government has stated that Lee’s memoirs are not the official history of Singapore, abridged versions of Lee’s memoirs and his biography were launched in May 2000 as part of the National Education Programme.

Yet centrifugal tendencies persist. With a population that is not reproducing enough to replace itself and the need to attract ‘foreign talent’ to maintain its economic competitiveness, Singapore struggles to avoid been seen as a hotel where people come and go without planting any significant roots. In the knowledge-based economy, wages would also widen substantially between those able to plug into the global opportunities and those unable to do so. PM Goh has spoken of the heartlander-cosmopolitan divide, which would cause the social fabric to tear apart. While the former forms the core of Singapore’s cultural ballast, the latter is indispensable in extending its economic reach. The challenge is to engender a consensus between the two groups of their symbiosis. Furthermore, racial and religious issues continue to be potentially divisive. The current debate over madrasah (Islamic religious) education within the proposed compulsory education set-up is an example.

The Singapore 21 vision, which started off as the ruling party’s election manifesto, is another nation-building tool. The S21 Committee was launched in August 1997 by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, with the role of strengthening the "heartware" of Singapore in the 21st century - the intangibles of society like social cohesion, political stability and the collective will, values and attitudes of Singaporeans. The New Economy will bring with it new threats to the avowed goal of building ‘one people, one nation, one Singapore’. More tangible state-initiated nation-building developments can be anticipated.

WATCHPOINT: The launch of the second volume of Lee’s memoirs will certainly be used to galvanize the putative Singapore tribe but will incur strong criticisms from some of its neighbours.


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