Book review: Living with myths in Singapore

Singapore is a mythic nation. It is mythic in the sense that what Singaporeans take to be ‘reality’ and ‘common sense’ are in fact shaped by a group of myths. The popular idea that good, robust government policies are the main reason for Singapore’s success – and thus should remain mandatory – is an example of a such a myth. This myth astutely combines fact (Singapore is successful) and claim (the success is due mostly to government policies) to make a strong case for the country’s future orientation (the policies should continue).

The title “Living with myths in Singapore” may be misleading. It might conjure up assumptions that this book is about local mythical legends our grandparents tell us. However, it is not. This is a collection of essays that challenges the common consensus, or outright fictions that the political incumbent has created out of practicality or as a strategy to keep political power.

Singapore is one of the few nations that has been ruled by a single political party for over 5 decades. The incumbent has managed to neatly and carefully craft a singular narrative that has provided us with a manageable and clean account of the past. While at the same time instilling unfounded fears of being a ‘vulnerable’ nation that lacks the historical maturity nor resources to confront contentious issues or the mythical ‘racial riots’ that were in fact disputed in numerous essays written in this book. While this book aims to challenge the half-truths or outright fictions that we grew up to believe, I must emphasize that it does not attempt to impose an ‘alternative’ tale. Nonetheless, it is important to challenge the chronicles we were taught, in order to see which were written and told for political control and reasons.

One of my favorite essays was written by historian, PJ Thum. PJ has been consistently active in civil society and has continuously worked to revise the standard and often problematic history we are taught. In most talks and dialogs that I have attended with him present, he advocates for active participation in politics, that is: to hold powers accountable and to constantly challenge unjust practices. Simply from being vocal about our opinions or to write letters to ministers. These are simple procedural active citizenship that Singaporeans do not think they have power in (especially since protests are illegal, people would then naturally assume that any form of vocal dissent can lead to punitive actions taken against them). Recently, PJ has received a little bit of fame of those outside of those who keep tabs on civil activism. He was grilled and interrogated for six hours on live television by the law minister for his recommendations on why Singapore should not implement the new “fake news” law; which would essentially clamp down on free speech and discourses online. He garnered alot of support from citizens who thought that the minister’s mistreatment and uncalled interrogation was unjustified. This session was meant to be a period which citizens voiced their opinion and aired their doubts about this new ‘law’. In his essay he perfectly draws parallels between the punitive actions and criminalisation enacted on the citizens by their past colonisers – the British! He argues that it is important to properly contextualise the governing systems in place:

Properly contextualising the governance of Singapore enhances our ability to analyse, critique, and reform our government for the future. In particular, understanding the continuity of the present government from the British colonial regime – that in some important respects Singapore remains fundamentally colonial in nature – suggests that while the country in physically independent, decolonisation of our intellectual and psychological sphere has yet to take place.

In my previous review of Alatas’ book on Raffles, I lamented on the fact that Singapore intends to commemorate 200 years since colonisation. Something I feel does not need any form of occasion nor celebration. No matter how neat or attractive you intend to wrap the gift, the intent is still on celebrating this despicable past… So “commemoration” in this context is still a celebration to me. We see this ‘coloniser’ mentality still present in the way the incumbent governs the nation. PJ crudely puts it as:

As Franz Fanon observed, colonialism has serious ramifications for the psyche of the colonized, who are stunted by a deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority. The myth utilized by the British and PAP governments aim to teach and mould the colonised and the coloniser into their respective roles as slave and master. Thus the myths help establish a social order in which the colonised collaborate in their own subordination

On the other hand, one thing that I found disappointing was the lack of diversity in the ethnicity of the writers, there were only 3 writers who were minorities. And the essay touching on the myth of multiculturalism, or diversity was written by a Chinese (the majority ethnic group) person whose writing fell incredibly short. It was essentially a cop out that hardly tackled the failures of multiculturalism that we experience here. Nor did the person call out those who continuously perpetuate the inherent and systemic racism that minorities face every day. For context, for those who are not Singaporean, the majority racial group here is Chinese and they do enjoy privilege that is often unquestioned, unchallenged and unacknowledged (think white privilege). Minorities comprise about 30% of the population here. And racial discourse is still in it’s infancy or probably non-existent at all due to the punitive action that can be taken if anything considered ‘harmful’ to racial harmony is said. Now, the writer argues that categorising groups into the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’ just reinforces labels and does not contribute to healthy discussions on race.

But viewing inequalities in ethnic majority-minority terms has its own dangers – it implies that majority equals oppressor and minority equals oppressed and stereotypes members of both.

I have to disagree. When we categorise and ask the majority group to acknowledge the privilege that they inherit based on their immediate inclusion into the majority group, it is not to place blame on who is the oppressor. It is to get them to understand and acknowledge the form of supremacy that they hold. It is to hold them accountable to their actions, conscious or unconscious, to the persistent discrimination that the minority experience daily or face under the powerful forces of the bias system. It is only when those in power and with privilege understand this can they then sympathize with the struggles minorities face daily. I would suggest you skip this essay, and read the essay on Chinese privilege in Budi Kritik.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I felt like it is a great pairing to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the common consensus.

You can purchase your copy of Living with myths in Singapore and Budi Kritik at Ethos Books.

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