Singapore’s Story(s)

What’s the story of Singapore, that we live, and tell our friends about? What is the ‘Singapore’ story that we know and compare with in other countries? How is the ‘Singapore’ story different from the stories of other countries? How do different Singaporeans encounter and live that ‘Singapore’ story?

The above are the motivating questions to this post. To begin thinking about our what needs to change in SG, and what needs to stay the same, I hope that telling and acknowledging Singapore’s dominating narrative could help.

  • We are a vulnerable country, and we must do what we can to survive and stay prosperous in the world.

Immediately after 1965, the only aim was to survive. And survive meant having a working economy. ‘Survive’ these days also means to stay rich and prosperous.

This ‘survive’ narrative has always been the overarching narrative behind our society and our political dynamics. Hence, the election manifestos offer differing views on how to continue surviving.

One interpretation of ‘survive’ is to have a dim view of human nature. This to say that people cannot be inherently trusted – large amounts of social controls and sanctions need to be established to restrict the freedom and the abuse that would otherwise happen. This could also refer to a perspective that a small minority of people will have extra intellectual capacities that the large majority would not have. There is a need to identify and ‘capture’ that small minority of people with extra intellectual capacities and put them to use in administering the country to ‘survive’.

To identify that small minority, construct an education system that streams people according to different ‘capacities’. This  creates a small minority of people that are deemed to have that capacity. Where possible, incorporated them into an ‘inner circle’ of elites and privilege.

In this narrative, economic rationality is the single biggest driver. To ‘survive’ meant a strong military, and a strong military in itself requires a growing economy. By not trusting the capabilities of the local population, the self-selected group of administrators turn outwards to attract the MNCs. Economic rationality becomes also the main measure of material well-being, which becomes the main indicator for well-being on the whole.

Hence, a national compulsory savings scheme is implemented. The material pursuit becomes ingrained in society, and becomes the main measure for individual status. The national narrative becomes ingrained in the personal – the measure of the person boils down to material gains, and pretty much nothing else. One gets educated to ‘survive and prosper’ – to hold their own in a world that recognises only material results.

Since there is no trust of the majority of the population, there are little social safety nets. People end up not trusting each other much, although they trust the administrators because of the recognised divide in the difference in people’s intellectual capacities. What they do must be right for the rest of us. The family becomes the only social unit (and one that is fraying); civil society is restrained in part also because people are too busy pursuing material gains. Religions become one conduit that legitimises the pursuit of material gains.

Not all of is bad or unjustified. Conflicts and riots remind us of the grim reality that others experience – safe in our air-conditioned buildings, away from danger and poverty (largely).

I do think there are alternative expressions of ‘survive’. I hope to write about them in future posts.


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