17 Aug 2004

Making sense of Singaporean policies

(Singapore Studies)

Ever wondered what it means to be a Singaporean? The reason why this could be a difficult question, even for Singaporeans, is that contemporary Singapore is open to the ongoing dialectics of both local and global processes.

Monday, 16 August 2004


by Victoria Yew

Coming to grips with these forces has prompted Singapore to adopt numerous policy changes to keep up with the times. Indeed, the impact is often immediate, particularly given its diminutive population size, an approximate of a mere three million.

Yet, playing the role of the ancient chameleon is not simply a matter of colour management for the awkward fledgling lion. On a national scale, even for a city-state, this requires ongoing reflections and adjustments in policies and practice to cope with global changes.

In Singapore, such ongoing monitoring has been compared to deliberate socio-engineering. More importantly, the effects of these changes are often felt unequally by different groups in society.

For example, a diminishing fertility rate prompted the Graduate Mothers Scheme in 1983. This came as a surprise, especially after two decades of unabated commitment to a two-child family policy.

Even more surprising was the claim that graduates produce better babies and are more likely to be proficient at parenting given their scholastics merits. In practice, the scheme granted privileges to children of graduate mothers.

As for their less-educated, and low-income counterparts under 30 years of age; they would be given $10,000 if they had themselves sterilised after their first or second child. The scheme went unheeded and was abandoned shortly after its implementation.

When the birth rate continued to dip, the government did a volte-face and encouraged all citizens to go forth and multiply.

Another similar incident concerning the rights to citizenship: As from May 15, 2004, children born to Singaporean women abroad are able to obtain Singaporean citizenship by descent.

Singaporean men residing abroad, have always been permitted to pass on their citizenship to their children born overseas. In a statement released by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), it was claimed that the law will become gender neutral to reflect the trend of increasing numbers of Singaporean men and women traveling overseas.

Arguably, the declining birth rate among Singaporeans might have inspired the change. Suffice to mention that a large number of Singaporean women living abroad include university graduates or the equivalent.

Misplaced perception

To date, we witness growing discourse concerning Singapore, in an effort to make better sense of this tiny champion of modernity. In fact, to use a sociological catch-phrase, Singapore is under siege by post-modernity and its discontents. As a result, the meaning of contemporary Singapore is anything but predictable.

Take, for instance, the common assumption that the shape of modern Singapore is a direct consequence of stringent policies and censorship via deliberate socio-engineering, as cited in the cases above.

The claim is further mooted on a civil society in absentia and that any attempt to promote its development has been futile in the past.

Despite its meteoric rise to economic success, the member of the Asian Tigers is often criticised for promoting capitalism and material well-being in exchange for personal freedom, political stability for expression, and so forth.

This is open to a variety of critiques. Most common among them being the case of excessive socio-engineering, particularly of a society fresh out of its colonial clutches.

This is often compared to the transference of political subservience from the foreign (then British Empire) to the local governing elite minority.

While this may be a misplaced perception and its independence from British rule has generally been viewed positively, given its post-colonial economic success, many are still uncertain if Singapore has truly arrived as a developed modern nation.

Given this interesting development, there remains many unexplored avenues in the study of the Singaporean phenomenon.

For example, many studies can be broadly grouped under two strands, political and cultural. While the first may be categorised in the light of the above comments, the latter is often relegated to discussions of consumption habits that banish Singaporean society to the realms of materialistic pursuits.

This discussion challenges the above assumption and proposes an alternative view of Singapore as a post-modern and multifarious society that far eludes rigid categorisations.

This is not to suppose Singapore as a society removed from the discontents of modernity. On the contrary, being Singaporean is only a point of departure.

Pragmatism

The forces of modern instrumentalism have hitherto driven the making of Singapore, thus relegating all activities to the criterion of economic effectiveness and pragmatism. Such rationality has been embraced as the essence for progress.

It is also the cornerstone underlying the transformation of the pre-modern pre-industrial Lion City to the modern industrial Singapore. The family policies discussed above reflect these sentiments.

It would seem that Singapore has indeed emerged a winner by global standards, having arrived as a forerunner amongst other developed counterparts within a period of just over three decades.

Indeed, the progress of Singapore is no foregone conclusion. Singapore's hardline attitude towards modernisation via socio-engineering, beginning with language policies, economic re-structuring and the like, seeks to counteract every socio-cultural pressure that stood in the way of modernity.

Undoubtedly many benefits were reaped, such as better standards of living and education. But just as other nations that have done likewise, Singapore did not escape from its unpredictable outcomes.

In the push for progress through the instruments of capitalism, other aspects of modernity have been neglected or even sidelined.

Thus, to make sense of Singapore, one must examine this curious case of modernity without the sentiments of Western ideals. Singapore uniquely challenges these rigid Western categorisations and continues to elude a simple analysis.

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