December 9, 2008
Sometimes when pigs do fly we should just sit back and gaze in awe at the inspiring sight of such aerodynamic bacon. These last couple of weeks have been surreal. The PAP government actually talked about the need to protect Singapore middle class workers from globalization! Minister Lim Swee Say went public to urge companies to retrench Singapore workers last. Earlier he expressed disappointment at DBS’s quick-trigger retrenchment of employees. The consequences of globalization are revealing interesting economic trends with potential political ramifications.
Ten years ago, in such a situation, you’ll never hear of a PAP minister telling local and international companies to save Singaporean jobs. Instead, the most likely response from the government would be to scold its citizens for being so unproductive and useless, and then urge them to go for re-training where they can value-add to their economic worth. This would put them in a better position to take advantage of the next economic upswing.
But times have changed. In the past, all politicians had to worry about with globalization was the hollowing out of low wage jobs. Today, it’s increasingly clear that globalisation not only threatens low-wage workers in developed countries but the middle class as well. Many studies in Europe and America have exposed one of the fallacies of globalisation, that is, the middle class would always beat the competition by re-educating and re-training. Instead, these studies have shown that white collar ‘new economy’ jobs have flown from high-wage to low-wage countries, especially to low-wage countries that educate and train their own workers in order to attract high-value investment.
About a year ago, PM Lee Hsien Loong made two important announcements that addressed the concerns of the middle class. Firstly, the needy sections of the Singaporean middle class will get government assistance and, secondly, Singaporeans will pay less than PRs and foreigners for education and health services. These announcements, designed as systematic policy initiatives to bluffer the more vulnerable sections of the middle class from the side-effects of globalisation, also signal a change in the government’s relationship with its middle class. Collectively, these announcements are the equivalent to a “piggies to flight deck” call.
In the past, although the middle class received sweeteners from time to time in the form of the Progress Package or Singapore Shares, it had generally been left on its own with regards to government assistance because it had, unlike the working class, been assumed to possess the necessary skills and qualifications to survive global market trends.
The PAP government’s new initiatives and rhetoric suggest that it is now politically trickier to tell the needier members of the middle class to lower their expectations to meet their income means. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the recession in 2001 it was not uncommon for Singaporeans to be told that the government could not be expected to provide financial assistance to maintain their pre-recession lifestyles. However, there were many other genuine cases that were turned away because their monthly household income exceeded the quota to qualify for help.
The recession from the global financial crisis has hit the middle class first, with the working-class feeling the trickle down effects. How the government plans to address the middle class casualties of recession will come clearer on Budget Day early next month. The details of the Budget in Jan will tell us if the piggies are cleared for take off.
Nevertheless, the acknowledgement that the middle class needs financial help and protection suggests two paradigm shifts. The first is in the government’s thinking. The middle class is no longer thought of as some Hollywood action hero who can be shot, kicked and stabbed a million times by the baddies and still ride off into the sunset with the girl. The middle class can be wounded, and what’s more, many of these wounds are not inevitable.
The second paradigm shift is a bit more fundamental. It goes straight to the heart of the myth of meritocracy. What we have learnt is that globalisation and neo-capitalism have little regard for talent and merit that do not help sustain them. Hence, while Singaporeans believe that all our talents will be justly rewarded, globalisation is a fussy benefactor that only rewards what the market demands. The section of the middle class increasingly marginalised by the capricious market trends will wonder what happened to the mantra of an honest pay for honest work. For them the ideology of meritocracy will ring hollow. Soar Piggy soar!
September 2, 2008
The romanticisation of the working class is a universal past-time. It begins when specific everyday actions of the working class are interpreted as acts of resistance, heroic struggle, or tragedy; actions that are framed with linear time and unfolding towards self-realisation. Such actions are taken to characterise the sentiments of an entire, often diverse, group; turning the romanticisation process into an erasure of complexity and the expression of homogeneity.
Jack Neo has emerged as Singapore’s most popular and populist film-maker whose work has become synonymous with the Singaporean heartland. His stories about the plight of the Chinese Singaporean working class in the fast-paced global city are often soaked in socio-political critique and cultural moralism, and presented straightforwardly in a conventional style. His protagonists are predominantly Chinese males who are poorly educated and dialect- or Mandarin-speaking, and are often portrayed as victims of global capitalism and/or the PAP state’s education, bilingualism and foreign talent policies. While his production values are considerably lower than his contemporaries like Eric Khoo or Royston Tan, they exude an economical aesthetic that coats his films with a patina of no-frills authenticity. Meanwhile, his success at the box office has not only established his commercial viability but also shows that his stories about heartland life have struck a chord with the average Singaporean. A large chunk of Neo’s charm and box-office success has come from his romanticisation of the Singapore working class.
All of Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists are essentially well meaning, even if sometimes morally misguided, but nevertheless always redeemable and thus able to achieve absolution or reprieve through self-realisation by the end of each film. Hence, whatever struggles, hardships and luckless escapades they go through, his protagonists are guaranteed of a happy ending. In Money No Enough (1998), Ong (played by Mark Lee) is a happy-go-lucky renovation contractor who borrows a large sum of money from illegal money-lenders. He is confident he can repay the money-lenders because his friend is supposed to return him some money borrowed earlier. However, when Ong’s friend absconds, Ong is unable to pay the money-lenders and gets a beating from them. These money-lenders later interrupt a funeral but are conveniently arrested by the police. Having avoided the nasty consequences of illegal money-borrowing, Ong goes on to set up a car-polishing business with his friends, and the film ends with the business achieving some degree of success.
Another example of Neo’s luckless-working-man-trying-to-make-good narrative is found in The Best Bet (2004), a cautionary tale on the evils of gambling. Tan (Mark Lee), a hawker and incorrigible gambler, dreams of striking it rich. After several attempts at lottery and gambling, Tan starts a business with his two friends, Yong Shun (Christopher Lee) and Richard (Richard Low), which very quickly folds up, landing all of them in debt. Tan is arrested for trying to borrow money from illegal money-lenders but eventually and facilely strikes it rich with a winning lottery number. The film closes with Tan partnering Yong Shun and Richard in a bak kut teh (herbal pork rib tea) business which prospers. In One More Chance (2005), a story about convicts and second chances in life, Zhou (Henry Thia) is a factory supervisor cum burglar. Though a criminal, Zhou is also a filial and devoted son who cares for his senile mother. After a spell in prison, Zhou decides to turn over a new leaf but finds that he is not accepted by society. To top it all, his romantic overtures to a warden officer is rejected. Driven to desperation and fuelled by the desire to fulfill one of his mother’s wishes, Zhou gathers a couple of his ex-prison mates to plan for a burglary. Nevertheless, everything works out for the better in the end and the film closes with a heavy dose of moralising.
Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists in all three films fall into the cycle of misdemeanour and redemption. It is a formulaic account of human failing, self-realisation, struggle and finally the endowment of material largess as signifier of success. This is not surprising given that economic status is one of the most recognisable and respected signs of legitimacy in capitalist Singapore. Neo’s Chinese male heartlander is vulnerable to hardship yet resilient, crude yet kind, materialistic yet sentimental, able to overcome his socio-cultural disadvantages through hard work or sheer luck. In their everyday struggle against state institutions and structures, they offer themselves as heroic figures who can overcome socio-economic adversity, serving as metaphors for rebirth, self-awakening and self-purification for a nation of consumers devoid of a ‘golden past’. Hero-making, Anthony Smith informs us, is necessary for the transmission of values, culture and customs from generation to generation.
Neo also laces his heartlanders with authenticity by contrasting them against middle class English-educated and English-speaking characters. In Singapore theatre, television and film, several stereotypes have emerged as literary devices to encapsulate different cultural groups and socio-political interests. One of the most persistent and recognisable stereotype is the English-speaking middle class character, typically as the epitome of political and bureaucratic power (civil servants), or Western values (proponents of liberal democracy and freedom issues), and economic success (well educated professionals and beneficiaries of global capital). Neo may lionize the heartlander by highlighting “Western values” as foreign and alienating.
Take for example a scene in I Not Stupid (2002), where a young precocious female Chinese student stands up in class to declare that she wishes she was a Caucasian because “if I am a Caucasian, I won’t have to learn Chinese anymore”. This prompts the Mandarin teacher to launch into an impromptu lecture on how Mandarin is the key to personal and national identity, and without mastery over the language, the young anglophile would not understand who she is or where she comes from. Explicit in the teacher’s discourse is that ethnic Chinese who are better versed in English and the ‘West’, like the young student, are likely to be rootless and unauthentic.
Lastly, Neo is fond of illustrating heartlander authenticity by setting up clashes between Chinese- or dialect-speaking protagonists and English-speaking middle class characters in order to accentuate the contrast between the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of globalisation and PAP state policies. In Money No Enough (1998), Keong (Jack Neo), a Mandarin-speaking, senior and more deserving worker, is passed over for promotion in favour of his new colleague, Jeremiah Adolpher Lee, who has an overseas (read: Western) education. As the film unfolds, it is revealed that Lee’s command of English and overseas education triumph over Keong’s qualities such as industriousness and sincerity in the corporate world. This perhaps echoes the sentiments of the Chinese-speaking majority who may feel that their nation-building sacrifices have been glossed over by the English-speaking elite who have made the Singapore Story one that celebrates only the achievements and successes of the English-proficient Singaporean. Neo hints at this in the film by having the overseas educated Lee deploy his command of English to embarrass and put down his Chinese-speaking colleagues.
Neo’s celebration of the Chinese-speaking working class must be framed with the cultural politics of globalisation. Individuals, groups and communities who claim authenticity are, in effect, positioning themselves as an embedded quality against deterritorialising and delocalising forces. The local-global and heartlander-cosmopolitan binaries not only draws attention to the spectre of loss and transience in the global city, thus reaffirming the human need for a sense of the real, but also highlights the vacuum in the Singapore national identity that has not yet been filled.
[This is an excerpt from a longer paper. Footnotes and references have been removed.]
August 11, 2008
Given nearly half a century ago, Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture – Two Concepts of Liberty – as Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory still echoes with relevance for the Singapore condition. In an attempt to untangle elements of coercion from liberation, Berlin introduced the concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty.
According to Berlin, ‘positive liberty’ – the freedom to achieve certain ends – may legitimise coercion. An individual’s arduous journey towards self-mastery may lead to ‘positive liberty’ whereby the inward triumph of rationalism over desire results in personal liberation qua personal enlightenment. Occasionally, this individual may, according to Berlin, substitute the ‘self’ for ‘society’ or some organic group such as “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn”. The individual’s interests becomes the interests of this whole; and lesser individuals who have not experienced the personal triumph of rationalism can and should be coerced into fulfilling these interests for their own good. (This is pretty compatible with Weber’s ‘charismatic’ authority).
In effect, the ‘charismatic’ individual endows himself with the right to speak for others – for their own good. This underlying logic of positive liberty invariably privileges the role of the state, especially Asian ones where respect for authority and hierarchical structures are the norm.
The Singapore government makes no qualms about interventionist leadership. (It has also been described as a “corporatist state” where the managerial superiority of state elites convinces them that their intercessions are necessary for societal betterment, and that the masses are not to be trusted with rational political participation). Indeed it sees it as a hallmark of good governance. According to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in his 1986 National Day Rally speech, “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today” (The Straits Times, 18 August 1986). He went on to assert that economic progress would not have been made if the government had not intervened on very personal matters so much so that one may even argue that the Singapore story is the triump of positive liberty.
The political transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong to Lee Hsien Loong is popularly portrayed as the gradual passage towards greater inclusion and liberalisation. The discourse of liberalisation began with the Goh administration’s slogan of a ‘kinder, gentler society’; a discourse accentuated further by Goh’s warmer personality, in contrast to the sterner disposition of Lee Kuan Yew. To be sure, overtures towards this ‘kinder, gentler society’ from Goh was also a political necessity given that emigration figures showed middle class Singaporeans leaving the country in droves. Many emigrants cited the country’s stressful lifestyle, high cost of living and its authoritarian government as reasons for leaving. Throughout the 1990s, it became increasingly clear to the government that the country’s growing middle class, many of whom were increasingly widely travelled and cosmopolitan in outlook, made it impossible to return to an overtly authoritarian mode of governance. This careful and moderate transition towards liberalisation and inclusion looks to continue under Lee Hsien Loong’s new administration. There are broad hints that the state is willing to loosen its grip over the daily lives of citizens and reduce its presence from the personal sphere. In his inaugural 2004 National Day Rally speech, Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the need to engage the youth of Singapore.
We’ve got to involve them in the community and in national affairs, to take ownership of the country and of the problems. Don’t ask what the Government is going to do… No, get up, do it. Nike says, “Just Do It”. Engage your ideals, your ideas, your energies, build a new generation, build tomorrow’s Singapore. Don’t wait or depend on the Government. Find your own leaders, organise your own solutions, move.
(Singapore Government Media Release)
The opposite of positive liberty is negative liberty, or freedom from – that is, freedom from external intervention into personal matters or, simply, the absence of imposition. Berlin asserted that the state’s role was to create the public circumstances in which individuals were left alone to do what they want, provided that their actions did not infringe on the liberty of others. The advocate of negative liberty understands that human interests invariably differ and many times come into conflict. Thus the advocate of negative liberty is, by necessity, a pluralist. As the prime minister advocated in the same speech:
But we have to be prepared to accept the diversity of views and to listen to the debate and to have this discussion, always with a view to moving Singapore forward (ibid.).
It is from pluralism and the toleration of differences that arguments for negative liberty draw moral strength though they have been criticised for their penchant for moral relativism and the laissez faire market. And though there are hints of market liberalization and regulatory concessions such as the easing of previously draconian censorship laws, negative liberty remains just beyond the distant horizon.
However, the Singapore government continues to play an influential role in the lives of Singaporeans while the pluralism and diversity promised by Lee Hsien Loong’s administration seems only applicable to selected public issues such as the need to incorporate the youth in the nation-building project and the broadening of education syllabuses. Meanwhile more contentious issues such as ethnicity, religion, freedom of the press, and the autonomy of trade unions remain out-of-bounds.
The Singaporean middle class is thus at an impasse. On one hand, there are signs that positive liberty is losing its authorial appeal in light of a higher educated and more cosmopolitan middle class. The incumbent ruling party, in recognising the changing expectations of more widely travelled and well-informed generation, has made overtures towards consultation and consensus. Yet, on the other, the social compact between the middle class and the government, as well as the firm belief of the ruling party that only the government can lead the way, necessarily makes the journey from positive to negative liberty one of disjuncture and incompletion; a pathway suspended in an ideological formaldehyde that freezes the progression towards individual liberty. In other words, the existentialist mindset and independence demanded in any exercise of negative liberty is daunting for a middle class accustomed to the guiding hand of the interventionist state as well as the material rewards won from its political compliance. How does the Singaporean middle class cope with this impasse?