Singapore’s ‘Culture Wars’: Fragmenting Politics

April 28, 2009

liberal_boy1Every Singaporean longs for the day when ‘race’ and ‘religion’ cease to be markers of difference in society. And to a large extent they have. For most post-1965 Singaporeans, the politics of ‘race’ and ‘religion’ are but ancient and anecdotal lessons hermeneutically sealed in history textbooks unlike the stark realities of a bygone era their parents grew up in. Through a combination of stern warnings from the People’s Action Party (PAP) government and institutions like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of 1991, race and religion have never played a significant role in civil society or electoral politics since independence. That’s the good news.


The not-so-bad news is that new issues have emerged over the last decade or so to replace the traditional faultlines of ‘race’ and ‘religion’. A growing list of hot button issues like homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, the casinos, censorship and so on, has become integral to the politics of identity in contemporary Singapore. These hot-button issues have a tendency to divide Singaporeans, irrespective of age, gender or ethnicity, based on their ideological worldview of these lifestyle choices.

Such politics of division are, of course, not new. The American ‘culture wars’ first caught the popular imagination when presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan delivered his famous campaign speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992. Referring to liberal ideologies over controversial issues as abortion, affirmative action, and arts funding, Buchanan urged Republicans to declare “a war for the nation’s soul.” In his book Culture Wars: The Struggle for America, sociologist James Davison Hunter examined the phenomenon as the struggle between the ‘orthodox’ (conservative or traditional) and ‘progressive’ (liberal or modern) camps in spheres of interests like law, education, arts, the family, and politics. For Hunter, the ‘culture wars’ were unlike conventional religious and cultural conflicts that historically divided the nation between the religious and the secular but along ‘orthodox’ and ‘progressive’ ideological worldviews that cut across established moral and religious communities.

These hot button issues are complex because they contain a wide variety of polarities. Take the AWARE saga for example. The conflict currently playing out is not just a straightforward struggle between the pro-gay and anti-gay camps, but also between orthodox and progressive Christians, not to mention between civic secularists and cultural conservatives. The 2007 debate over Section 377A of the Penal Code was similarly complex. The casino debate in 2004 was also more than a conflict between religious and non-religious people but also between moral conservatives and cultural libertarians, and between conservative economists and economic pragmatists. On the immediate horizon is the workshop on so-called ‘end-of-life’ issues by the euthanasia expert Philip Nitschke to be held next month. Dr Nitschke, head of Exit International, a centre that promotes euthanasia, will speak on concerns such as advanced medical directives and will be sure to provoke a backlash.

Simply put, as Singapore confirms its status as a global city, as it engages with the growing influx of ideas and institutions, it will be increasingly become more fragmented along ‘orthodox’ and ‘progressive’ worldviews which, in turn, have a multitude of agenda and interests behind them.

This is why Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan’s recent observation in the wake of the AWARE saga misses the point. He was quoted in the local media as saying: 

If you allow these single issues [the gay issue] to dominate and hijack your agenda, I think you are not going succeed and it’s going to be counter productive.

But such ‘single issues’ are both deep and wide in terms of the agenda behind them. 377A and the casino debate were also ‘single issues’ that carried deeply held beliefs by a wide variety of camps. These hot button issues are not ‘single issues’ or one-off debates but symptoms of an on-going conflict between orthodoxy and progressives.

This conflict may not necessarily be a bad thing. These hot button issues will make policy-decisions more complicated. It will make Singapore politics more sophisticated because the PAP will have to speak to a variety of constituents and decide which to court. There would be more bargaining and negotiating as the ruling party will have no choice but to bear in mind the deeply held values of a wide array of people. This fragmentation of identities will lead to a fragmentation of politics.



One Response to “Singapore’s ‘Culture Wars’: Fragmenting Politics”

  1. sushibar Says:


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