Singapore is an island / chinatown
In fact, I was thinking about the Malaysia Cup and what it really means for Singapore. I’m thinking about the paradox of Singapore being a “major hub” in the system and yet being so distant and separate from the rest of the world. There is a Singaporean exceptionalism in the sense that we are totally different from any other place in Malaysia and Indonesia, which is the sea that we swim in. This is in contrast to a place like Hong Kong which has a more natural existence living in a more coherent place called “East Asia”: different from the rest of Guangdong, no doubt, but still a Chinese city in a Chinese part of the world, a modern city in a region where there are many other modern cities – Shenzhen, Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai. Singapore is almost out of place – an almost East Asian city in the middle of Southeast Asia.
And our region is not really well known abroad. In America, people have heard of Thai food and Vietnamese food. But Malay and Indonesian food is relatively less well known. There are a lot of Filipinos in America, but also for reasons best known to themselves, they are not famous for food.
We just don’t have much of a cultural presence in the world, let’s face it. And I don’t think that it’s going to change much. We’re going to be one of those “exceptional places”, one of those “civilized place in the middle of a less developed region”, like maybe Dubai or Qatar. We are a village, and I sense that there is a great sense of identity with the city that you’re in, owing to the fact that we’re not only a city, but also a country. To an American, probably a place like LA is where you might go to seek your fortune, but you can always leave it when you’ve had enough. “Do you know the way to San Jose?” is that song about people who have given up on their Hollywood dream. In Singapore, because you’re more likely to be forced to stay there, you’re more likely to stay put.
One way to think of it, Singaporean Chinese are imperfectly integrated into the region. Somebody on my facebook page gave me a brief history lesson:
“There were those who stayed on and intermarried the people of Southeast Asia. They were the ancestors of the Peranakans. There were the later generation / batch of overseas chinese, after the peranakans, who came to Singapore and kept looking to China (as the HQ) for a sign. China was then embroiled with internal conflicts and wasn't attentive to the Chinese overseas. They weren't China's priority. And the overseas chinese felt lost. I watched a play once that portrayed these lost chinese (which was then having tensions with the Japanese in SE Asia), and I was made to wonder, throughout the play, why don't they just return to China? Cos their predecessors were able to stay on and settled in SE Asia. It's not like there was no precedence. If they are so averse to being in SE Asia, why is there a tension; why do they feel conflicted, why were they looking at China for instructions/ directions? Is their inability to integrate evident in the numerous chinatowns all over the world which provides adequate insulation so they are at home away from home?”
Well that’s the unique situation of the Chinese in Singapore. Let’s talk about them first, because by understanding the Chinese better we can then deal with the rest. Singapore’s Chinese quarters was the first in the world to be described as a “Chinatown”. In fact, we can think of much of Singapore as a Chinatown – a Chinese enclave living in a Malay sea. There are 2 forces pulling us – we could have gone back to China, but we didn’t. In fact, Singapore is probably the biggest Chinese enclave in the world. We’re a nation of settlers, just like America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Unlike other places like South America where so much intermarrying goes on and most of the people are Mestizos, in Singapore, the Chinese, the Indians and the Malays assume their distinct identities.
The Singaporean Chinese in that play were caught in a bind. They had adapted well to this place. There are a few places which are good models for harmony between races: Andalusia, where Muslims, Jewish and Christians lived in peace and harmony until the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. The Ottoman Empire, where people of different races lived in the same empire, even though it was a fairly weak empire. Palestine, where Arabs and Jews lived side by side in peaceful co-existence until somebody came up with the brilliant idea of a Jewish homeland.
And then there is Singapore and Malaysia. Yes, Southeast Asia is a place which is exceptionally hospitable to Chinese people, judging by how much Chinese have thrived in Indonesia, Philippines (Amy Chua, the Tiger Mum is from the Philippines btw), Thailand and Malaysia. Especially Malaysia, where the Chinese have managed to form the Peranakan community which probably convinced the new Chinese immigrants that it was feasible to have a home a few thousand miles away from China.
So it shouldn’t be that surprising that the Chinese in Singapore are probably closer to the Malays than those from the mainland. Even though that fact is probably very uncomfortable to mainlanders, as well as the concept of Chineseness. There are 2 big tugs – the imagined ties to the Chinese mainland due to our ancestry, and the more tangible citizenship in the place you spent most of your life. It is something I’m sure that the Chinese Californians can relate to as well.
The other point that was brought up is this sense of alienation and otherness that we get from being Chinese. The fact that there was a Peranakan community in the Straits settlements (mainly Penang / Malacca / Singapore), it shows that the Straits Chinese have managed to survive and thrive in those places. But it also shows that they did not completely integrate into the community. There were still barriers, even though these are barriers between friendly neighbours. My guess is that one side is Islam and another side is Chinese, and they don’t mix. But they don’t really have to.
So I do think of Chinatowns as being some kind of local enclave where we’re like a satellite of China, and you can preserve as much of your Chinese culture as you like inside there, while you can also walk out and integrate and meet with members of your local community. But the Chinatown is always there to keep you rooted and to remind you that you’re Chinese. It’s just a vessel to keep on pumping the “Chineseness” into you even if you maintain that delicate balance with also being more Singaporean, more Malay, more American.
And I suppose this out of place-ness is something that truly makes Singapore think of itself as an island. New York does not think of itself as an island, even though 4 of its 5 boroughs are on islands. Neither does Hong Kong. Singapore being an island is a great state of mind, which is something that makes it think of itself as being apart even though Johor is just 1 km away. The mental difficulty that people have in thinking of Singapore – JB as being twin cities is just astounding.
Yet, even when you want to integrate yourself fully into a community - there's this very overlooked aspect of integration. It involves renouncing your past. Inasmuch as you still call yourself a Chinese in Singapore, that means you're holding back from being more Singaporean. To the Chinese, this isn't that much of an issue since there is so much overlap between Chineseness and Singaporean-ness. But even if it's not a zero sum game, these are undoubtedly opposing tendencies. And that is why I have always believed in something less than total integration. Amsterdam have always thought of their different communities as different pillars of society. The pillars don't meet, but collectively they hold up the structure. Singapore should never cease to have the Chinese, the Malay and the Indian bases. We should never be a melting pot. The 3 communities should continue to have their own identities. The national identity and the racial identity should co-exist, no matter what the tension between them is. No, it doesn't really matter if being a Chinese Singaporean is also totally different from being a PRC / Taiwan / Hong Kong / Malaysian Chinese. It is not possible to know what it means to be a Singaporean once you lose sight of what being a Singaporean Chinese, or a Singaporean Malay or a Singaporean Indian is all about. They are the mooring ropes that hold the vessel in place.
Imperfectly connected to our roots
There's something really paradoxical about being Chinese. Being Chinese means you're from a really big place. But being Singapore means you're from a really small one. There's something I see in Chinese and Americans. They are from big countries, but they run the gamut from being totally insular and being shut off from the rest of the world, and the other extreme - being very worldly and cosmopolitan. It's true. China and America are large enough that they seem to span the whole universe. Even in Chinese, there is a phrase "tian xia" whose meaning is very vague as to whether it refers to "the entire universe" or "the entire China". But the thing is, the very vastness of China or America has made it possible for the well-travelled Chinese or American to be very worldly and cosmopolitan. That is because the extent of Chinese / American experience is broad enough that there is really not very much out there that is truly strange. If you present something novel to a Chinese or an American, he'll be able to find something similar in his own culture to relate it to. Enchiladas? Well that's just like Chinese rice dumplings. Bouillabaisse? That's like Laksa. Proust? That's like "Dream of the Red Chambers". Big cultures are like cannibals - they just swallow everything.
So it's very difficult to think about whether Singapore is a small island or a satellite of something larger. Little India is a satellite of India. Singapore itself could be a satellite of China, or America, depending on how much their cultures have influenced us. And considering that any claim that Singapore has invented any kind of food can be disputed by Malaysia - I don't see why they can't look on the positive side and view Singapore as a launchpad for showcasing Malaysian culture to the world.
Yet I look at an article recently and I can't quite help thinking that we have a "copycat" culture, which goes back to our roots in absorbing all manners of foreign cultures. We are the ultimate postmodernist society. We steal from all cultures, all over the world. Our main contribution is combining it in a unique way, and it is a very significant contribution, considering how not-contiguous we are with our neighbours.
But I feel that we understand the foreign cultures in a very superficial way. I think we used to put "the arts" on a pedestal, as though we cordon an exhibit with velvet rope and then think about its exceptionalism: this is a pinnacle of civilisation. This is a shining prize. We should stop behaving in our own boorish ways and learn some artiness from real civilised people. After a lot of reflection, it suddenly occurred to me what great art is all about: it is about the genuine-ness of experience. It should be something as unglam as looking at your shack face in the mirror the first thing in the morning. Well that is not something that is sold in Singapore. Art has to be sold as some kind of prize. To be fair to Singapore, that is something that Asians are guilty of. That is why you always see Asians doing stuff that is hard to do. Acrobatics. Ballet. Classical music. Because if it isn't something you can't do without practicing 6 hours a day, and suffering greatly for it, if it doesn't involve jaw-dropping technical difficulty, it isn't art.
Now this is from a biased perspective - I am a punk, I have a propensity to enjoy the punk aesthetic. But nevertheless I just feel that there is not really a tendency to think very deeply about the meaning of the art - and a more shallow appraisal of what is pretty or glamorous or that which represents whatever idea happens to be in vogue / is the zeitgeist tends to dominate. Because we are not the creator of this art, people don't have this notion of what it means to be an artist, or be an audience of a work of art. It's just a bunch of foreign names that you can throw out to show how hip you are, and when you view art like that, divorced from its context, you tend to have a very shallow view.
Imperfectly interacting with the rest of the world
Another thing that is a consequence of our insularity is that there hasn't always been this drive for excellence. Yes, we are number one in a lot of things. In fact we are probably number one among all cities in Malaysia and Indonesia. Maybe that is the most important. We don't think that hard about competing with the rest of the world, we have excellence in our part of the world and that may be enough. We are number one in Southeast Asia.
We have a fairly distorted way of viewing the concept of what excellence is. First, we perversely view excellence as something that conforms to just a few performance metrics. It is no surprise that Singapore students are among the best in the world when it comes to academic test results.
There is no doubt that this emphasis on test results has served us well in the past, when we were just a very underdeveloped backwater. I think about how standardised testing has turned American universities into one of the best systems in the world. However, we haven't moved beyond that. From my working experience, I know that we haven't really mastered the art of innovation.
There has been a lot of emphasis on going through the motions. Which is the dark side of "due process". Everything is done pro forma. Everything is bureaucratic. There is a bigger fear of not doing what you're explicitly told to do, than having your entire industry wiped out because you failed to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. The over-emphasis on test results means that you will produce a lot of robots and parrots. I could see that when I was in secondary school and while things are much better today, a lot more could be done. Just get straight As. It's good to learn real life skills in secondary school, we were told. It's good to build character. But remember, the baseline are scoring plenty of As, and then you can build all the character you want after that.
That's why, in our culture, and in our very shallow absorption of foreign influences, form matters so much more than substance. In the army, we are told, wayang wayang can already. Just make sure that all the forms are filled in, because we need a paper trail.
Because Singapore doesn't really live in the real world. We've never had a really stern test of what our paper qualifications really mean. We've never really had to compete with the best in the world, until fairly recently. All the people with their paper qualifications never had the chance to get exposed against real competition.
It would have been different if the Malaysians were real competitors. If we weren't so much better than them at getting our shit together. If it was Shenzhen across the border from us, I think we would really try to focus on the real issues of what it takes to be innovators. If being innovative were really a matter of life and death, or of survivors. As it is, Singapore is better than Malaysia and Indonesia solely based on the fact that we are better at scoring As than they are. And as long as this continues to be the case, we're golden.
But that is obviously only one side of the story. The other side is that people everywhere else are fairly envious of our lucky situation. There aren't that many places where it's that easy to be ahead of the curve. Just get your fucking As. Frankly speaking, the Malays are lucky people because they never had to slog their asses off like the Indians and the Chinese, in order to get by. They were special, they were protected and they were privileged. And us Chinese and Indians are really lucky to be sharing the soil with such lucky people. Come on - does anybody ever have a bad word to say against the Malays, other than the occasional accusations of laziness? Such cheerful, easy-going, relaxed people. Don't mean to be offensive, but this was what it was like 50 years ago. The times could be changing.
Why do we have to be world number 1? Why can't we all go through the motions, do a good enough job, satisfice all the time, and then go home, relax and enjoy the rest of the day? Yes, in that article, the Europeans are always asking how to better themselves, better their careers. Singaporeans are still looking out for number one. They haven't sacrificed everything for their careers - yet. People don't have to worry about not meeting ridiculous standards, not going to worry about how the world sees them, because - let's face it, the world doesn't really give a shit about Singaporeans - yet. You are not standing on the world's stage. Even if you become a joke, you're only an inside joke.
Singapore does not have similar cities nearby to measure itself against. Liverpool and Manchester, in spite of their fierce rivalry, have so much in common with each other that they are almost brothers. LA and the Bay Area trade friendly jabs at each other. The rivalries between the Chinese dialect groups reflect a very deep, if unfriendly relationship between each other. But who is Singapore's "brother"? It is an utterly unique city in the region. The ones nearby are Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. But we don't regard them as peers. They are different, to be politically correct. Maybe less developed and educated. Yet people can say of them that they have a little bit more soul than we do. KL is the obvious "brother". But because it is a "Malay" city, it's too culturally different from us. (Let's leave aside the inconvenient fact that KL was founded by a Chinese and Singapore was founded by an angmoh.) We are usually mentioned in the same breath as Hong Kong, two maritime cities which were former British colonies. But we don't have very close relations with them, because we are so freaking far away from them, and because they are simultaneously more Western and more Chinese than we are.
One other place in the world which is similar to Southeast Asia is Europe. Just like Europe, we have a lot of peoples of different cultures and nationalities squeezed into one place. Europe is a place with a lot of geographical barriers that prevent any one political entity from uniting the whole continent under one banner - in their case it is a lot of mountain ranges. In our case, it is the South China Sea. It is a place with a great diversity of cultures, but sadly not a place where these cultures have a lot of meaningful interaction with each other. You can say that Singapore is a Chinese island in a Malay sea, but that's not that accurate: Malaya is Malay, maybe parts of Sumatra, Borneo and Java are culturally similar to Malays. But what about the Javanese, the Dayaks, Minangkabau? They are not Malays. It is just that Malay is the lingua franca of the region, and therefore a lot of them speak Malay. It's not merely that we are an island people. We are also an island people in a region full of island peoples, whose relationship with each other, other than a lot of trade, is somewhat akin to passing ships in the night. We never had a chance to develop strong national identities on the same level as European nations, and thanks to globalisation, we may never have the chance to do so.
The Airport Lounge
If I were to choose a national symbol for Singapore, it would be the airport lounge. It's a stopover for weary travellers. It is climate controlled, a waiting room for people passing by. There is a whole world outside of it, but you may not go there, or you may not really be aware of it. The whole place is like a securitised compound, and there are cameras everywhere. The facilities are typically superb, and you will most likely be meeting your own fellow travellers. In fact, when I had to explain to people what Singapore was, I would tell them, "sail a ship from India to China. Singapore is the halfway point." It reminded me of Snowy Hill, which is a great university, but in the middle of nowhere. Except that Singapore is not in the middle of nowhere. We are close to Java, an island which has a larger population than Japan. We are close to civilisation. But we are not close to places that are as economically developed as us.
We absorb all kinds of influences without really thinking too much about where they come from. I've met people from India and they are amazed when I say that curry is not merely an exotic food, but a real local dish. (Then again they probably haven't heard of the Malays either). I've had people from China finding it amazing that I eat with forks and spoons. (Chinese people eat rice with chopsticks, and Westerners use forks). I've had to explain to people that English is my native language, but that's OK - I didn't know that for many people in India, English is their native language too. When I look at the names of many Asian Americans, I know we have the same Southern Chinese ancestors, and they are certainly more similar than other Americans. But they're still foreigners. Singapore is something vaguely familiar to other people, but there will always be one or two details that will surprise them.
When I went to St Louis, it reminded me of Singapore. It's a big city that suffers from not being near to the rest of civilisation. It is obviously the biggest city in its region, and used to be the 4th most populous city in the US, and once important enough to have hosted the Olympics. Most pertinently is the symbol of the city, the giant gateway arch, which reminds me of Singapore's desire to be a gateway between the east and the west (or vice versa). St Louis is supposed to be the midpoint between the eastern and western part of the States. It is an important stop on the Mississippi. But it's not a great city unto itself. Maybe it is living in Chicago's shadow? It has its own accent (check out "Country Grammar" by Nelly who is from St Louis), even though its accent is not as unique as the Singapore / Malaysia one.
But is Singapore really living in a little bubble? I think about Hong Kong sometimes. But I think they are more British than us. The British know they are slightly different from the rest of the Europeans. But they understand the Europeans better than we understand our neighbours in Southeast Asia. They are cosmopolitan in that sense. They absorb influences from everywhere, and after all the history of their treatment of black people, things are looking better. You could even say that they are more racist than Singapore, but on the other hand, they've internalised all the foreign influences to a greater extent than Singapore has. Hongkongers may be culturally Chinese, but there is still a sense than they are separate from the mainland. They understand democracy much better than Singaporeans do - and Singaporeans are the ones who actually have a democratic system, not Hong Kong! But while they will never ever think of themselves as anything other than Chinese, we have lost a greater portion of our Chineseness than they have. A lot of Singaporean Chinese will tell you that they can understand a Singaporean Malay better than a mainland Chinese.
So the thing is - are we living in a matrix? Are we living in a Truman Show? A Potemkin village? or a bubble? That is an extremely interesting question. What is the future for Singapore - for us to be more cosmopolitan? It is a paradox that you have to understand yourself better in order to be truly cosmopolitan. And even if you become more cosmopolitan, what it's going to be? Are we going to be more like Jakarta? KL? Hong Kong? Or are we going to keep on pretending that we are a nation? We've only been a nation for a short period of time. For most of our history, we have been a city, but then again, never a city within a nation, like most cities. But a city with a moat. Are we more interested in blending with the region, or blending with the outer world? Are we blending in with travellers and visitors, or are we blending in with the real world? If it's the region, are we blending in with our neighbours, or are we blending in more with the Chinese among our neighbours?
I don't truly begrudge Singapore's lean towards having more foreigners in our midst, even though I side with the prevailing mentality that it's happened far too quickly. We have to think a lot about where we are going to, and what we're going to become.