Heartlanders: Singapore’s Progressives

August 25, 2009


Aunty Lucy deserves more respect. The Chinese-speaking heartlander has long been a poster child for moral conservatism. Every time anything morally controversial crops up, whether its censorship regulations, topless shows, or 377A, the debate is always lazily poised between the more liberal cosmopolitan and the conservative heartlander. The “liberal cosmopolitans” being the convenient label for the English-speaking well educated middle class and “heartlanders” for the uncles and aunties who live in Toa Payoh. This is class politics at its most deceitful. 

Labelling the heartlander ‘conservative’ has been very useful in demonising the Chinese-speaking working class as the socio-cultural laggard in a progressive global city. Painted as unsophisticated, uncouth and resistant to change, the heartlander is the cosmopolitan’s country bumpkin cousin who needs to be patronised and shielded from the decadent forces of globalisation. 

However, even a quick glance at how the Chinese working class views “morally controversial” issues will force many to reconsider its reputation for conservatism. When it comes to issues of sex and sexuality, it’s clear the heartlanders have a far more enlightened attitude towards homosexuality and cross-dressing. Channel 8 is filled with cross-dressers from Liang Po Po to Aunty Lucy. Homosexuality is not a big deal when drama serials and comedies have their fair share of effeminate characters. Do we have their equivalent on Channel 5? Can you imagine Kumar in full drag with his own show on Channel 5 at primetime? The English-speaking moralists will have a collective heart-attack (right after penning a million outraged letters to the Straits Times and Mediacorp). 

It also seems as though the heartlanders have a far healthier attitude towards sex. Pick up any issue of the Lianhe Wan Pao and there’ll be sensational sex scandals, racy celebrity gossip and titillating pictures to send any puritan into a full-blown epileptic shock. 

Even euthanasia is not taboo subject for the Chinese-speaking community. When Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan broached the topic of euthanasia late last year as a topic of debate in the context of an aging society, he was citing an on-going debate that was already taking place in the Chinese press. Such a debate would not have been possible in the English-language press because of the high levels of moralising that would invariably overwhelm the discussion. [http://www.asiaone.com/Health/News/Story/A1Story20081020-94922.html]

Over a variety of issues, the heartlander holds more enlightened and progressive views than the English-speaking middle class. There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, the Chinese-speaking heartlanders are predominantly Buddhists (still the biggest religion in Singapore) and Taoists. Both religions are generally very tolerant of contrary morals, and often possess a more pragmatic syncretic streak, thus allowing them to adapt to liberal values and lifestyles. Secondly, as more economically marginal they do not presume a great stake over the political and moral character of the country or state, and are thus more ambivalent to trends in liberalisation or liberalism.  

So who are the ones patronising our heartlanders? There are two groups who do this. The first are segments of the English-speaking pseudo-nationalist middle class who view the heartlander as some sort of house pet who needs protection. They are the ones vocal about saving Singlish in the name of preserving the Singapore identity but then turn around and exaggerate the way heartlanders speak it to make fun of them. Think Gurmit Singh’s Phua Chu Kang. The mole, the perm, the yellow boots, the unreal accent – Singh’s portrayal of Phua Chu Kang was not an attempt to find comic elements in the nouveau riche but a straightforward caricature of the working class by the English-educated. Phua Chu Kang is a cartoon figure to poke fun at and to make people who speak good English feel better about themselves. 

The second group consists of middle class moral and religious conservatives. This group has long sought to forge a morally conservative society. It is very uneasy with increasing liberal trends such as the casinos, ‘R’ rated movies, topless shows and so on. Sometimes it campaigns against these trends on moral grounds. However, most of the time, it campaigns on the behalf of the poor helpless heartlander for whom society is moving too fast. This group of moral conservatives use the heartlander as its proxy to construct a conservative society. And by doing so, issues of religion and morality are magically disguised as class issues, where uncompromising religion-influenced doctrines are hidden behind the ignorant working class.

Anybody who says Singapore doesn’t have class politics doesn’t know Singapore. The politics may not be pronounced or manifested in violent clashes but they are there nonetheless.


6 Responses to “Heartlanders: Singapore’s Progressives”

  1. sushibar Says:


  2. brick Says:

    如果heartlanders真的比其他阶层的民众来得保守,那《联合晚报》和《新明日报》早就买不出去、关门倒闭了,怎么会销量不断逆势攀升,而且还是《The New Paper》读者量的好几倍?这些小报的内容几乎天天都充斥着近乎soft porn的图文和耸动的标题,怎么都没被大家所排斥呢?

  3. I wonder if one can consider the presence of cross-dressers and effeminate characters on Chinese TV as progressive.

    After all, such characters are stock characters for comedy and the reason why they are even funny in the first place indicates the presence of a taboo which signals conservativeness.

    But of course at least bringing that taboo to the screen does signal some form of liberalization, yet at the same time, laughing at effeminate men does not really seem… liberal…

    And by the way, this is a really well written article as usual from you 😀

  4. (Late to discovering this blog, but thought I’ll comment anyway.)

    Well, I believe Kumar did appear in drag on Channel 5 TV before? Or at least spearheaded a comedy show in the mid 90s called The Ra Ra Show, which featured at least one definite drag persona, Bibi Belacan, who constantly welded a brinjal.

    The idea that the larger community of Chinese-speaking heartlander is much more morally relaxed than expected was first brought up my PM Lee Hsien Loong in his address to the floor. If I recall correctly, he noted quite pointedly that all the arguments on S377A were made in English, and none of the members presented the case in other languages, especially in Chinese if we were to look at addressing the base of the majority race. He also briefly suggested that the likelihood is that the moral argument of decriminalising homosexual acts stood very low, therein rather indifferently, in priority for the average Singaporean.

    A friend made a similar argument about the class-religion point when we discussed the rather open disdain for temple mediums, as opposed to speaking in tongues which probably happens much more virally in a random week. “Because speakers in tongues = christians = english speaking = upper middle class/ mediums = chinese speaking = not so upper middle class”, though obviously adjusted by exceptions, etc.

  5. groundnotes Says:

    Kumar jumped around in drag but it wasn’t too long before the moral Eng-eds got the Ra Ra Show canned.

  6. i think that everyone would love to watch some comedy shows because it is very entertaining ~..

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