Order and Control in the City-State

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In everyday life in Singapore we see the intersection of two sets of forces. On the one hand there are the quite complex negotiations of everyday life: determining what language to speak, to whom and when; how to identify oneself; what to wear or to eat in what circumstances; and so forth. These negotiations are fueled by the complex multiethnic and multireligious nature of Singapore society and are intensified by its very small size and high level of urbanization. On the other hand, there are political forces that maintain this order. It is easy to imagine a society as socially and culturally complex as Singapore degenerating into chaos along ethnic or sectarian lines, yet this has not happened and there are no signs of this occurring in the future.

There are, of course, internal factors in this order—a society of migrants with ancestral memories of poverty and political violence in their places of origin hardly wants to reproduce those same conditions in the new homeland. But politics has a great deal to do with it, too. At least one scholar has referred to Singapore in terms of “social engineering” (Wilson 1978). This refers to the constant tinkering with the social order, not only to retain the political domination of the PAP (the People’s Action Party that has been the only party of government since independence), but equally to experiment constantly with means to maintain social order in a society that precisely because of its diverse origins and internal complexity has no common value system except self-interest (Yao 2007; George 2008). Indeed, in 1988 the then prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, attempted to introduce a “National Ideology” based on the idea of “Asian Values” in an attempt to create just such a value system (Clammer 1993). By comparison with life in many other Southeast Asian societies, everyday life in Singapore is comfortable—safe, clean, and with all the amenities for shopping, eating well, sports, recreation, and, increasingly, the arts.

Responding to the frequent criticisms that since its independence Singapore has been a “cultural desert,” the government has put tremendous energy into developing a good (if not yet world class) symphony orchestra, hosting a major annual arts festival, and, among other efforts, building a new dedicated concert hall–theatre on reclaimed land on the sea front. The social and cultural complexity of Singapore has, however, manifested its own problems. These include the issue of social exclusion and poverty, which does exist in Singapore. These were problems that had been masked to a great extent by the language of multiethnicity, which posits colorful ethnic differences as the main differentiating factor between groups rather than actual socioeconomic inequalities between them (Clammer 1997; Kipp 1993).

Underlying such social and cultural pluralism is the constant fear of ethnic or religious conflict, as has happened in so many other parts of Southeast Asia. The result is remarkable social harmony, but a political culture that some have locally called “soft authoritarianism.” Managed elections are held, but there is effectively only one party to vote for; political opposition and criticism is repressed, and “deviance” in dress, behavior, religious or cultural views, and artistic expression is strongly discouraged, helped by pervasive media censorship and self-censorship (Gomez 2000). But it is these paradoxes that make Singapore such an anthropologically interesting society to study.

Singapore is a highly managed (and intensely urbanized) country built upon the foundations of colonialism, having a history of in-migration with none of its current communities being indigenous to the place except for some of the Malays, and with a fragile economic base that has no natural resources. Its uniqueness in South�east Asia is as a tiny city-state. Yet Singapore shares, through its ethnic and religious composition, much of the cultural heritage of the rest of the region and beyond to China, India, Europe, and the Middle East. Its commitment to modernism and technology while it strives to preserve something at least of the fabric south. With a population density of 4,263 per sq. km it has one of the highest population densities in the world. More than 75 percent of households in the country have Internet access.

 

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