Sunday, November 12, 2006

Post No. 92: In Response To MM Lee's Comments On The Singaporean Culture

Yes, I am quite aware of the fact that much has already been said about this topic which I intend to discuss here in this essay and that perhaps I will have nothing new to add to what have been already been said by others. However, after having attended a monthly current affairs discussion session organised by the NUS Democratic Socialist Club (of which I am not a member though I did consider joining it), earlier this week on Monday (6/11/2006), that had this topic as its main topic of discussion and having learnt more about Singapore's model of “multi-culturalism” (or what most people know as the “CMIO” model) from my Singapore Studies module (SSA2204: Nation-building In Singapore) this semester, I took a closer look at the comments made by MM Lee with regards to the unlikelihood of an unique Singaporean culture emerging here in Singapore and it seems to me that contained within his comments were several questionable points. And I just thought that I should perhaps point out these questionable points to you all though you all may perhaps be keenly aware of these points already.

However, before I move on to actually discuss these questionable points contained within MM Lee's comments, I suppose it is in order for us to be reminded of what he actually said. As you all would surely be aware, it was reported in the Straits Times on 6th September 2006 that, speaking to the audience present at the Forbes Global CEO Conference 2006, MM Lee made the following comment.

“We try in a pragmatic way to take in what we must take in to survive as a people, which means we've got to keep abreast with the changes in technology, the changes in lifestyles which technology brings with it, and at the same time accommodate the different races, religions and cultures that comprise Singapore society... Hence, the Singaporean is not a homogeneous product. Neither does Singapore have the confidence to create its own culture... The basis of our culture is what we inherited from our original countries, our original culture...” (emphasis mine)

He also added that: “In the old days, meaning before this digital age, you had the time and the isolation to develop on your own and create something distinctive. Now, you have to synthesise all the time. And out of the synthesis, make something which is relevant to yourself and your future” and predicted that Singapore would most probably evolve into an “amalgam” of different influences, rather than become a society with unique characteristics. (emphasis mine again)

Moving on, it seems to me that one questionable point in the abovementioned comments by MM Lee would be his idea that because Singapore, in today's digital age, no longer enjoys the necessary amount of isolation required, it would not be able to create a distinctive culture of its own. This proposition by MM Lee is problematic, to say the least. Just think about it: which culture has emerged out of isolation? The answer to this, I believe (though I may be wrong about this), would be: “None”. I mean, even Japan, which I think would qualify as one of the most “isolated” countries in historical terms, had interactions with China and Korea, long before US Commodore Matthew Perry forced it to open up to foreign trade in 1853, and was culturally influenced by the former. Yet, who amongst us would claim that Japanese culture is not distinctive? And just look at the great civilisations/cultures that emerged in history (e.g. the Chinese civilisation, the Egyptian civilisation, the Mesopotamian civilisation and the Greek civilisation): which of them can we say was isolated from other cultural groupings and was never influenced by them? Thus, considering that there may perhaps be no such thing as an “isolated” culture, past and present, it is difficult to see why Singapore, as asserted by MM Lee, cannot create a distinctive culture of its own because it is not “isolated” from the world and/or other cultural groupings.

Another questionable point in MM Lee's comments would be his claim that “the basis” of the Singaporean culture “is what we inherited from our original countries, our original cultures”. Putting aside the fact that MM Lee has indirectly acknowledged the existence of a Singaporean culture when he made this statement, the question that emerged in my mind when I read this statement was this: what are the “original cultures” that MM Lee was referring to? The simple answer to this, considering that under Singapore's “CMIO” model of multi-culturalism, a person's ethnicity is equated to what culture he/she belongs to, would be that these “original cultures” that MM Lee was referring to would be the cultures that originated from the ancestral homelands of the various ethnic communities found here in Singapore. In other words, if a person is an ethnic Chinese, his/her “original culture” would be the Chinese culture while an ethnic Indian's “original culture” would be the Indian culture. And the same goes for the other ethnic communities.

However, things, in my opinion, are not that simple. I mean, what is the Chinese culture? Or what is the Indian culture? For the former, is it the Confucian culture that we are speaking of? If so, which Confucian culture are we talking about: the one propagated by Confucius (i.e. the culture of the Western Zhou dynasty), the one that became popular in the Han dynasty or the neo-Confucianism that became popular in the Sung dynasty? As for the Indian culture, are we talking about the culture prevalent in Northern India or Southern India? Or are we referring to the Hindu culture? Or perhaps we are referring to the culture put in place by the Mughal dynasty (1526-1857)? The point I'm trying to demonstrate here is that there is perhaps no clear “original culture” which can link the various ethnic communities found here in Singapore with.

Things will get even more complicated if we are to consider the Eurasian and Peranakan communities found here in Singapore. While we may perhaps still link the cultures of other ethnic communities to those of their ancestral homelands, this is perhaps impossible for these 2 communities. I mean, what is the “original culture” of the Eurasians: European or Asian culture? And what “original culture” does the Peranakans belong to: the Chinese or Malay culture?

In addition, one may ask: how much of these “original cultures”, which MM Lee asserts that we have inherited, are actually still prevalent in the countries that they supposedly originated from? For example, if we say that the Chinese culture is Confucian culture, how much of the Confucian culture is actually still prevalent in modern China? Though I may perhaps be wrong about this, it would seem to me that in the countries which these “original cultures” supposedly originated from, these “original cultures” hold limited sway. With this in mind, I wonder: if these “original cultures” are no longer prevalent even in the countries which they originated from, why is it that MM Lee speaks of them as though they still hold much sway in the various ethnic communities found here in Singapore?

This brings me to another question. And this question would be: how much influence does these supposed “original cultures” still actually have on the members of the various ethnic communities here in Singapore? Well, from what I can observe, I would say that these supposed “original cultures” (whatever they may be) have quite limited influence here in Singapore. I mean, besides the fact that we perhaps still celebrate some of the traditional festivals, it would seems to me that we Singaporeans inherit very little of these “original cultures” which MM Lee claims form “the basis of our culture”. Hmm... I wonder: how can something which we inherit very little of actually be the foundation upon which our Singaporean culture is based on?

Moving on, let us for the moment accept that we do have an “amalgam” of different “original cultures” & other cultural influences here in Singapore and we “synthesise” these into something which is relevant to Singapore. Why wouldn't this be considered as a Singaporean culture? Yes, it may perhaps not be a “pure” or “homogenous” culture but why wouldn't it be considered as an unique and distinctive Singaporean culture? I mean, when we mix coffee and tea together, don't we get “Yuan Yang” (“鸳鸯”), a beverage which people see as an unique & distinctive beverage on its own? As Mr. Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist, has put it in the Straits Times Insight feature on 7th October 2006: “It is the ‘mix’ that counts, even if none of the components are uniquely Singaporean”. We may perhaps have a “mixture”, or to borrow a local term, a “rojak”, of cultures but, in my opinion, it is an unique & distinctive mixture of cultures, for it is a mixture which can only be found in Singapore. After all, to use another analogy involving beverages, Espresso, Cappuccino & Mocha may all be coffee but they are distinctively different types of coffee because they all have their own unique blend of ingredients in them. Hence, with all this in mind, I find it difficult to understand why MM Lee would think that because Singapore wouldn't have a pure and/or homogenous culture, there wouldn't be a Singaporean culture.

All in all, I find it somewhat heartening that despite what MM Lee has said about the unlikelihood of an “unique” & “distinctive” Singaporean culture emerging, 91% (which is much higher than 66%) of Singaporeans polled by the Straits Times (though one may dispute the accuracy of this poll since it only sought the opinions of a hundred Singaporeans) respectfully disagreed with him and said either: i) there is a Singaporean culture, ii) that it is still developing or iii) there isn't one but it can be developed. The reason I find this heartening is that it shows that, despite what MM Lee has said, we Singaporeans do have the confidence to create our own culture. Of course, it would be asking for too much if we expect MM Lee to retract the comments he made about Singaporean culture, wouldn't it?


YCK said...

Thanks for the thorough treatment. I needed that. Keep on writing!

Anonymous said...

I shall not hold my breath for Lee KY's retraction. Like George Bush, he does not err; neither does his son.

And remember even an apology from this is a political statement meant only to further their cause!

Aiya, why like that one?

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