Whence change?

Do you have to be a politician to change society? When Goh Chok Tong became Prime Minister in 1990, he dreamed of creating a “gentler, wiser society”. Four years into his Prime Ministership, Catherine Lim worried that his “gentler, wiser voice” had become quieter than a whisper. She wrote about it. She said that as long as his predecessor’s heavy-handedness continued to prevail, the dream of a “gentler, kinder society” would remain fiction. Her words stung Mr Goh. His press secretary wrote to say that Ms Lim, as well as “journalists, novelists, short-story writers or theatre groups” – in other words, people giving a voice to civil society – should join a political party, get support, and run in the elections to change things. Otherwise, Ms Lim should shut up.

When Vincent Wijeysingha resigned from the Singapore Democratic Party yesterday, he reignited the almost two-decade-old debate: Does change come within Parliament, or does it come from people represented in the Parliament?

Mr Wijeysingha said that with the Democrats, he could contribute to “bread-and-butter policy issues,” but he also wanted to “be of service to the wider cause of… civil liberties”. His announcement on Facebook suggests that he wants to eliminate discrimination against people who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans-gendered. Left unwritten in the announcement were others he has long worked with and probably wants to continue to help: mistreated and abused migrant workers.

We all want a gentler, kinder society. Maybe Mr Wijeysingha wants to realise this dream by convincing society that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or national origin, is just as human, and just as deserving of fundamental liberties (such as the right to the recourse of law) as you and I. Perhaps he wishes to free himself of political party affiliations so that his efforts are not tainted by suspicion that he is merely seeking the vote (and so that his efforts do not cost votes for his party).

Still, could he not have effected change by trying to become a Member of Parliament? Mr Wijeysingha told The Independent that even if he eventually became one, he would be only part of “a small number of non-government MPs (that) does not change the legal framework but rather responds to public sentiment outside”. He also said:

…Parliament (is not) the place where social change is initiated. It is the place where social change is ratified. Social change occurs in the community. When a question arrives on the floor of Parliament, it has already been progressed outside.

Which begs the question – if everyone thought like Mr Wijeysingha, when would Singapore ever have an opposition large enough to challenge the ruling party in Parliament?

But this question misses the point. Of course policy changes are made in Parliament; laws to protect fundamental liberties have been passed all around the world in Parliamentary (or Congressional, or Dietary) chambers. Many countries have at least in law recognised workers’ rights, children’s rights, and women’s rights, among many other rights.

Still, these are rights of the majority. Every voting adult was once a child, almost everyone is, or has been a worker, and roughly half experiences womanhood 1. Protecting the rights of minorities is much harder because the overriding incentive for political representatives is to seek popular support. To protect the minority, especially the vote-less minority, the voting majority has to believe that minorities are just as human, as just as deserving of rights as themselves.

This is not to say that representative democracies cannot respect fundamental liberties. Some enlightened democracies have shown that the opposite is true. Post-war Germany has attempted through its constitutional courts to protect secularism in schools. The Nordic constitutional democracies have reached far beyond majoritarianism to express their peoples’ admirable belief in the equality of humanity.

Singapore too has attempted to respect some fundamental liberties. The Presidential Council for Minority Rights was created to ensure that the law does not discriminate against racial minorities. Yet we have not publicly debated racial discrimination, much less broader issues like gender discrimination, sexual discrimination, language discrimination, religious discrimination – the list goes on.

A few select politicians have led change – like John Stuart Mill who in 1866 became the first Member of Parliament to openly support women’s right to vote. We have to remember that giving women the power of the vote was once seen as an absurdity only a fool would support. So politicians can lead change. But more often in representative democracies, the incentive of the politician is to pander to the majority because that is their key means to survival. Even then, very few succeed in changing things because they lack support. John Stuart Mill had half the population rooting for him though they were not yet voters.

So citizens must take the lead where fundamental liberties for minorities are concerned. The American civil liberties movement had leaders who were activists, not Congressmen or Senators. For more than half a century, no one would listen because they were fighting for the minority. A century later, America has a black President.

These changes have come over time, but they always began with a small quiet voice in the wilderness. The peoples’ representatives usually follow, but rarely before the idea of change had taken root among the majority of the voting public. Mr Wijeysingha’s task is made more difficult because the people he supports are not of the majority and will never be. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered are unlikely to exceed more than a fifth of the population (the popular estimate is 1 in 10). Transitory migrant workers by definition are not citizens and will never have the vote.

Furthermore, Mr Wijeysingha has chosen to help people who carry a social stigma. Parliamentarians who speak out for people with autism, mental illnesses, and single parents are worth celebrating because they champion the causes of a small minority. But the majority can empathise because people with autism, mental illnesses, or people who have somehow ended up raising children single-handedly rarely end up doing so by choice. On the other hand, ultraconservatives use phrases like ‘gay lifestyle’ to insinuate that people are gay by choice, not by circumstance, and also to suggest immorality. Migrant workers, often brushed off as uneducated country bumpkins, are blamed for flooding the job market or for causing the crime rate to soar. As a result, these minorities are hardly people the majority would approve of, much less identify with.

It remains to be seen what Mr Wijeysingha actually does in the coming years given the uphill struggle he faces, but we should keep in mind that change comes at a crawling pace. Change comes quickly only when public opinion reaches a tipping point. This tumultuous period, when everybody and anybody jumps on the bandwagon, is often mistaken as change itself. We must never forget how change only really begins when a small quiet voice speaks of ideas the shortsighted think absurd.

Jeremy Boo contributed to this commentary.


  1. In 2012, 49.2% of Singaporeans were recorded as female. See Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore’s Demographic: Sex Ratio – Males to Females.

Walmart and The Little Lady in the Shack

It was sunny out so I thought I would go for a jog. Normally it would have been a round in Hikarigaoka Park but I opted for something more interesting. There was a little lane around a bend near the entrance of the park. I was never there before, so just a look, I thought. In and around Tokyo you find things just by thinking like that. Tokyo seldom disappoints.

Last week I got off the bicycling path along the Arakawa in search of a cold drink. Going a little further beyond a row of three vending machines outside a shuttered factory led me to a paddy field with half a dozen straw men impeccably dressed in checkered shirts and tattered straw bonnets. A month ago on an aimless trip with Jeremy towards the west brought us past grapevines and a potato and gobo vending machine (actually less of a machine than little lockers where you drop off ¥100 to open cubicles stuffed with local produce). That time we bought a sack of mud-caked potatoes but we forgot that the plastic bag that the potatoes came in was full of holes to let them breathe. When we got home, we found the bottom of the pannier dusted in dirt.

This time the lane around the entrance of the park brought me past a little lady in a small wooden shack, large enough for just her and her bags of potatoes, carrots, turnips, and daikon. Behind her was a farm, presumably hers. There was lettuce everywhere, and a few stalks of sunflowers. Her plot of land was little bigger than the large playground opposite the junior high school I live next to. This is still Tokyo proper by the way, not the boondocks of Saitama, so every little bit of land is preciously expensive. I noticed little else about her and her shack and her farm other than the placards with 「じゃが¥100」scrawled on them because I didn’t stop to buy anything. Even if I had, I couldn’t have bought anything – I only take my phone with me when I go jogging. Anyway we exchanged nothing but a smile, so it is curious why her presence, and the presence of her shack and her small urban farm made me feel like Tokyo was being nice and Japanese as usual. Now knowing about them, Tokyo would be less like Tokyo if she had disappeared along with her shack and her farm. It felt right to have them where they were, between two houses in a quiet neighbourhood beside the park.

Maybe it feels right because I now know where some the potatoes in the ‘local produce’ corner in the supermarket could have come from. But I shop at another supermarket called Seiyu half the time, where most things are not even from neighbouring prefectures. And half of whatever that’s not Japanese-made, caught, or grown is flown in from across the Atlantic because Seiyu is actually Walmart in disguise. If you look closely at the posters by the checkout counters you see ‘Walmart’ peeping from the corners. My wallet forces me to shop at Walmart Seiyu because things are usually cheaper there. Like the heads of American broccoli that go for ¥98 (the Japanese grown ones are typically ¥128 but more often ¥198) and the American squid that sell for ¥98 (Japanese squid: ¥158). Seiyu also carries a variety of Australian or New Zealand beef, which goes for much less than wagyu. Most Japanese-owned supermarkets have tiny selections of the cheaper foreign beef (or pork or chicken for that matter), so overall shopping at Seiyu is lighter on my already-thin wallet.

Family of bean farmers

A family of bean farmers.

It makes little sense for potatoes trucked and flown thousands of miles over vast oceans to cost less than those grown in the next prefecture, but perhaps their anonymity lowers their price – potatoes grown in Saitama don’t taste very different from potatoes grown in Oregon, but the potatoes grown in more often are not even labeled ‘Product of Oregon, USA’ but simply ‘Product of America’. In Japan, where food can come labeled according to prefectures and even towns, villages, and hamlets, these potatoes of relatively anonymous origins cannot compare. Sometimes farmers even print their names and faces on packaging so that consumers know exactly who were responsible for their food. The detail that goes into the labelling makes people feel just a little bit closer to the farmers.

Yet the primary reason why foreign produce is often cheaper is not anonymity or reputation. It is because costs in Japan are so high. Again there are a variety of reasons why Japanese produce costs more – living costs are higher here, farmland is scarce and plots of farmland are usually very small because of the American post-war land reforms which were designed to transfer land from the hands of landlords to as many ex-tenant farmers as possible. The land reforms of the late 1940s worked; Japan became extremely egalitarian immediately after the war because farmers did not have to share their profits with their landlords, but today the small plot sizes are working against them because large-scale farming is more cost-effective. Arguably, Japanese farms put in more effort into their crops; my Japanese neighbour who pops by with nihonshu every once in a while insist that Japanese farmers don’t believe in genetic modification. According to him, Japan-grown fruits and vegetables taste much better than foreign-grown ones because Japanese farmers prefer selective breeding. But you have to pay more because all that takes more work.

There have long been calls to reform the agricultural sector. Calls for corporations to operate farms and for the government to get rid of part-time farmers who put in less effort than their full-time counterparts. There are also calls to open up the Japanese market to foreign competition. In any case, consumers will get to pay less, and that cannot be bad for my wallet.

Competition leads to cheaper, and cheaper can be better – or is it really? I am not against cheaper food. Obviously millions of people have benefited from Momofuku Ando’s invention of dehydrated ramen (imagine the tediousness and cost of making ramen by hand). Instant ramen means more students can sleep on a full stomach, and cheaper broccoli means I can have more vegetables. So cheap does really seem to be better.

But maybe, just maybe, cheaper would one day make the potato lockers disappear. Perhaps the grapevines and the straw men decked in all their splendour would too. And so would probably the little lady in the little shack in her little farm by the park. Because they wouldn’t be able to compete. Aomori apples would probably survive, and so would Yamanashi peaches, and Kagoshima mikan, for these are the best Japan can offer and they will always be in demand no matter the price. But Hokkaido onions? Saitama potatoes? You may imagine them to taste marginally better, but they would otherwise hardly be worth the premium over cheaper US produce. Arguably competition gets rid of mediocrity and competition would force farmers to improve the quality of their produce. But how far can potatoes be ‘improved’ upon?

The lesson of Walmart is that people do not pay for the best, all the time. We go for cheap most of the time, even if we can afford something better, because we choose to reserve the occasional splurge for something that tastes drastically better, like Aomori apples (each at ¥320 or S$4.20). The truth is that little lady in the shack by the park will fall to the competition.

I am not sure if I want that to happen. Back home, corporations have taken over wet markets, canteens, and even SAF messes. Standardisation brings efficiency, and mass-production cost-efficiency. Instead of a hotchpotch of flavours, we get a sameness. Food Republic at Vivocity tastes the same as Food Republic in Wisma Atria. In contrast nasi lemak in Hendon camp’s canteen tastes different from the one in the Bedok North market, and vastly so from Adam Road nasi lemak, but that is why I eat at all three places when I can. I am just as guilty as anyone else who shops at Walmart instead of paying more for local produce at a local grocery (greengrocers have largely disappeared in Tokyo). Why should I pay more for something that could have cost me less?

The trouble is that our collective behaviour destroys that little bit of individuality 1: Oregonian potatoes may taste as good as Hokkaido potatoes as they do Saitama potatoes and even the potatoes the little lady tend to, but the difference is that the little lady grew those potatoes, that she lives just around the corner, and that I once ran past her farm.


  1. Not saying that I’m going to stop buying Oregonian potatoes from Walmart Seiyu, but perhaps I will cycle to buy potatoes from the little lady in the shack whenever I can. And nor I am going to buy Japanese broccoli when US broccoli tastes just the same – that’s the way competition works. I’m just trying to write about what it means for all us.

A Trickle for the Rest Of Us

Last night the Prime Minister spoke for 133 minutes. Today people are falling all over themselves, calling it a “landmark speech” and a “big, bold speech”. Some say it is a “brilliant speech” that offers “hope”.

Mr Lee was right on the mark when he said, “Singapore is at a turning point.” The trouble is his speech had little evidence of that belief. His promises for Changi Airport alone are dazzling: a fifth terminal that will dwarf the existing three terminals. To top it off, there will be a ‘Jewel’ for the crown. Yet all that glitters is not change, but more of the same.

Prof. Cherian George wrote about how Mr Lee sidestepped political change. Quoting Russell Heng, he said Mr Lee’s plans are but a continuation of “give me liberty or give me wealth”. He adds: “Many argue that a new generation of Singaporeans cannot be so easily bought.” I agree with “many” he speaks of, but I will not rehash their argument.

For this is about another one of Mr Lee’s ideas.

Mr Lee says many are calling for the government to spend more on social insurance, and especially healthcare. He says those who are calling for more spending will surely regret it in future when healthcare costs balloon beyond control. He insinuates that the Budget will burst its banks. Instead we should be saving for future generations, just as our predecessors have saved for us.

Singapore has turned into a nation of savers. We were not so before the 1990s, but at present we squirrel away more of our wealth than even the Japanese, who themselves are well known as great savers. Basic economics textbooks highlight a conundrum – saving produces wealth for the future, but saving too much produces pain and suffering that may outweigh the benefits of having wealth in the future. The Japanese are slowly learning of their past mistakes but we are different. We must save more.

It is akin to telling a goldfish flopping around in a puddle, “Wait, suffer a little more today for a better tomorrow. I’m digging you a pond now.” Before you know it, the goldfish would have breathed its last breath. Tomorrow will never come for it.

Mr Lee’s goldfish are Singaporeans who are stuck on the bottom rungs of the income ladder. Mr Lee is relying on the trickle-down effect to save them. He wants to bring in more millionaires – no, billionaires (at least 10) – in the hope that the trickle-down effect will benefit Singaporeans. I do not deny that the trickle-down effect works. It does. Today Singapore collects a fifth of its taxes from corporations, and it is arguable that much of the income taxes are salaries multinational corporations pay out in Singapore.

Still, the trickle-down effect is just that: a trickle.

Observe how sunlight and rain trickles down in a forest (you can go to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to take a look first hand, but make sure you go before a gaping hole is bore through it). The lush canopy of the trees captures the bulk of the sunlight. They also capture the rain, which flows down their branches, their trunks, into their roots. Some sunlight and rain falls on the huge bird nest ferns that rest atop the branches. But very little of either reaches the forest floor. There are crawlers that attempt to move upwards for sunlight, using the giant trees as support. But many more plants in the rainforest, mostly on the forest floor, are short and stubby. Things begin to decay quickly here, and they decompose fast. It is for a reason – very little of anything trickles down to reach them. All they get are dead leaves.

The spoils from this year’s National Day Rally will benefit the canopy the most – top income earners in Singapore. Investors will rejuvenate the area surrounding the soon-to-be-gone Paya Lebar Airbase. They will build a new Southern Waterfront City for their peers. They will relax in the Jewel. Middle-class Singaporeans will benefit too, just as they have from the airport and the seaport. Perhaps some will crawl up to enjoy the same as those on top. Those on the bottom will undeniably benefit in some way, but we all know the story of the bushes on the forest floor.

Everyone is in a race to the top, like the plants in Bukit Timah. The cruel reality is that the trees that grew first will forever get the most. Until the forest fires come, shrouding them all in a thick haze. It has happened in 1789 France, 1886 Japan, 1911 China, and 1917 Russia. Fires level the forest and even rejuvenate, but they kill almost everything in their path.

It may be unnatural to try to stop forest fires. But we can try. The rainforest is a good analogy but it is still just an analogy. Humans are not plants. Maybe we can try to improve the flow of sunlight and water for those on the bottom. And we must open the flow fast lest those on the forest floor wither away before enough reaches them.

It will be a strange forest. It will be artificial for it is not the law of the jungle. But with things as they are today, where artificial supertrees triumph over real ones, what is artificial? What is real?

I do not know. But this I do: A trickle will not do.

The Trouble with Singapore for Singaporeans

This is the second part of the series The Little Red Dot. Previously I said the next part (this part) would be about alternatives to state-led nationalism. I will put that off till later; reading the comments on The Assam Tree and on Facebook makes it obvious that some ideas remain ambiguous. They must be made clearer before we can go on.

The 14 February 2013 protest saw the popularisation of the slogan 'Singapore for Singaporeans'. Photo: Al Jazeera

The 14 February 2013 protest saw the popularisation of the slogan ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’. Photo: Al Jazeera

There seems to be nothing wrong with ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’, only that it recalls ultranationalist slogans far-right parties use in Europe. A commenter, Will, said it reminds him of Le Pen supporters who accompany shouts of ‘La France aux Francais’ (France to the French) with ‘Out! Go home!’

People who support ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ say people like Will are mistaken – all they are saying is ‘Singaporeans first’. In other words, since Singaporeans have duties and responsibilities to Singapore, they ought to receive rights and benefits that mirror their contributions.

I have no objections to this; in essence it is the social contract: Individuals give up some rights to everyone else, and together they form a state 1. The state, headed by a government, in return gives them protection from each other (property rights and policing), protection against the forces of nature (ponding, disease, and epidemics) and protection from others (defense against hostile states and forces). It goes without saying that the contract is valid only as long as the state provides them protection. However, being all-powerful, the state must be bound by the rule of law, and never should it be bound by the rules of men because while the will of men may be arbitrary, the law is created by the people and cannot be.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing. It is even reasonable – I give up my rights, you give me protection. A fair trade. And I agree: resources are scarce, so where distribution of state largess is concerned (but not private dealings), citizens naturally outrank foreigners when they are in their own state (but citizens do not deserve priority for everything; some forms of protection, say emergency health services, rightly overlook citizenship – the most injured gets treatment first 2, not the most Singaporean).

To understand why ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ is disturbing, we must dissect the slogan, for it only seems innocuous at first glance. The meaning of the first word, ‘Singapore’, is not difficult to define. It is easy to infer that ‘Singapore’ means the geographic entity and its institutions. The second word, ‘for’, is equally easy to interpret. It means ‘to the benefit of’. The murky depths of the third word, ‘Singaporeans’, is the crux of the matter.

It is this word that is most troublesome because seldom do we stop to think what it means. Who exactly is Singaporean? One who has a pink identity card? Sure, it denotes formal citizenship, but with citizenship granted to so many so quickly and some say effortlessly, some would say that a pink card is not sufficient as an indicator of being Singaporean. So what is?

Does speaking English or Singlish define Singaporean-ness? My grandmother, who arrived in Singapore just before the Second World War does not speak either, yet she holds a pink card. She reads Chinese characters but only speaks Hainanese. Is she Singaporean?

Perhaps the amount of time spent in Singapore defines Singaporean-ness. After all, my grandmother has spent close to seven decades in the little red dot. So why aren’t foreign domestic workers who have been here for decades and want citizenship given pink cards? How many years does it take for one to be considered Singaporean? Or is time of no consequence?

There are more factors that we can use to try to define Singaporean-ness: the ability to eat durians, the extent to which one is kiasu or kiasi, the ability to sing ‘Majulah Singapura’ and recite the pledge. The list goes on, and it is hard to find someone who can say exactly what makes a Singaporean.

The fuzziness becomes more apparent when you consider this hypothetical example: a person born in Singapore to two Singaporean parents, who lives abroad all his life, returns for two years to serve National Service, then goes abroad again. It is the (fictional) story of Mohammad Shah bin Tan, whose father is of Chinese descent, but his mother is of Malay descent, thus the mixed name. He does not like durians, he is not kiasu, kiasi, can hardly sing neither the anthem nor recite the pledge despite his two years in the army, and does not speak English or Singlish fluently because his first language is Kalaallisut. That’s because he grew up in Greenland. He moved there when he was one because his parents, tired of the sticky tropical weather, decided to become climatologists in the Arctic. Shah only picked up a little English and Singlish when he was in the Commandos, and left Singapore the day after his O.R.D. for Greenland because he loves the ice. Besides, he wants to be a researcher like his parents. Yet he retains his Singapore passport and identity card because he is wary of global warming (the ice is melting! 3).

Many Singaporeans would consider Shah Singaporean because not only was he was born here, he holds a pink card and red passport, and also served National Service. Now he knows his fair share of Hokkien expletives, so he must be Singaporean.

Contrast Shah’s story to Li Ming’s story (also imaginary). Li Ming arrived in Singapore when he was 25 to work on a construction site. Being in Singapore for over a decade, Ming has grown to love durians (specifically the Mao Shan Wang variety), he is very kiasu and kiasi, and now he speaks English and Singlish on top of Mandarin Chinese and Hunanese, he also speaks Bazaar Malay and a little Bengali. His wife and children are in Hunan, and he gets to see them for five days each year around Chinese New Year. They have not yet moved to Singapore because Ming cannot still afford it still. Most Singaporeans would not grant him citizenship. “He does not have a sense of belonging,” they say. You may think I’m making this up, just as I had Mohammad Shah bin Tan’s story. You say you would consider Ming Singaporean, and you would also grant him citizenship if you were working at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

Consider Mr Chen’s story then. Chen (who really does exist) was once a construction worker like Ming, but unlike Ming he holds a pink card because his family and business is here. Yet the same people who cry out ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ the loudest have called him “scum”. One even wrote, “What good is there in granting constuction worker [sic] citizenship?” 4

Maybe they all got it wrong. Perhaps to be Singaporean is to speak good English, to adhere to ‘Asian values’, yet contribute to Singapore’s cosmopolitan status. In other words, being part of the ‘Singapore core’ by contributing to growth in the maritime industry and the banking industry. Perhaps to be Singaporean is to be a wholesome heartlander who will build a safe and stable Singapore. Or is one Singaporean only if one is part of the ‘rugged society’?

This is the trouble with ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’. It is exclusionary, and we should pay attention to whom is being excluded. Dissenters become enemies of the state. But the government is not the only one who seeks to define who’s being excluded. People who use names like ‘True Blue Singaporean’ and ‘The Real Singapore’ are saying that they define who is Singaporean. They are the real Singaporeans, the true Singaporeans. Implicit is the suggestion that ‘other’ Singaporeans are undeserving of Singapore. In other words, Singapore for Singaporeans, except ‘them’.

I am not saying that the government alone, by issuing pink cards and red passports, should have the last say. The ruling party that forms the government has long sought to neatly package Singaporean-ness into something it can sell, or at least use to bring about economic progress. It has even appropriated ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ for itself in Our Singapore Conversation.

I am not saying that mass immigration policies and liberal naturalisation procedures are good, not least because I perceive a costly tradeoff between population density and quality of life. Besides, people are not known to be able to naturalise large numbers of foreigners at one go, so attempts to stretch social resources in this manner only produces friction and tension.

I am not saying that we ought to have ‘Singapore for Everyone’ much less ‘Singapore for Foreigners’, as some charge others trying to put a stop to the ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ madness. I acknowledge the social contract, and understand why state resources should be distributed to citizens.

But it is wrong to target individuals by calling them names. It is wrong to attempt to exclude ‘others’ from becoming part of ‘us’ merely because of their descent or social status. It is wrong not because these close-minded thoughts will put off foreign investors and foreign talent (and lower Singaporeans in the eyes of the world), but because hiding behind slogans like ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ just to allow ourselves to self-interestedly define Singaporean-ness (arbitrarily, no less), smacks of the rule of men, precisely what we do not want when we say we believe in the rule of law.

A people who believe in justice and equality cannot proclaim ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ without also dragging the issue of Singaporean-ness into the picture. It is not that we cannot attempt to define Singaporean-ness, but that this slogan, along with ‘Singaporeans First’ brings out the worst in people: Selfishness and hatred for the ‘other’.

The right way forward is to force the government, who steers the state for us all, into a thorough two-way discussion about citizenship, immigration policy, and distributive norms, whether through dialogue or the ballot box. Meanwhile, slogans like ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ rightly belong in a dark corner, alone and ignored.


  1. At least Rousseau. Other philosophers may not agree with his idea that “… since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one; and since there is no associate over whom he does not gain the same rights as others gain over him, each man recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has.” See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 61.
  2. Paramedics familiar with triage may say it is not true all of the time; sometimes those closest to death may not be the first to receive an organ transplant, and in a major disaster when health services are overwhelmed, the most likely to recover are given priority. It is a debate that deserves a closer look another time, but not here, at least not now.
  3. Yes, I am aware Greenland is actually not all ice, and that neither is it all green.
  4. Thankfully there were some comments that called out the hate-mongering for what it is.

Singapore for Singaporeans

This is the first part of a series on nationalism, The Little Red Dot.

Let us imagine that we are allowed to proclaim without fear of ridicule that we support a Singapore for Singaporeans 1. Let us all pretend, if we can, that we have overcome the phobia of being called xenophobes.

After all, history is our teacher. It has long shown that nations flail around unable to create economic prosperity within their borders because they cannot come together as one people. I am sitting in a room in the Land of the Rising Sun, recovering from a four-day long heat wave, so naturally the history lesson will begin from here.

Japan today seems a very Japanese country. We speak of Japanese cuisine, Japanese technology, and right now I am in a very Japanese room, with sliding paper doors, reclining in my legless zaisu, and typing on a kotatsu (with the electric heating element off of course). My wealthier friends take holidays in the extremities of the country during the extreme seasons. In the hotter-than-Singapore summer they go north, preferably to the Japanese island of Hokkaido. In the winter, they go as far south as they can go on the Japanese archipelago – the Japanese islands of Okinawa.

Things were not always this way. The Americans who arrived after the war to liberate the poor war-weary Japanese talk about the two millennia of Japanese civilisation, the civilisation they were here to save. But members of the Meiji-era Iwakura Mission, who sailed to the Americas and Europe in 1871-73 to learn from the Westerners, would have hardly understood what being Japanese meant. Hokkaido and Okinawa were not always Japanese: Hokkaido was Ezo-land, and Okinawa was once part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. So Japan was a new concept. After all, they were Chōshū men, Satsuma men, Tosa men. They were but clansmen who only happened to come from same region.

Who are you?

Introducing themselves was tricky business. After all, the typical Westerner at that time would not have experienced the wonders of the Sony Walkman, the Nikon single-lens reflex, or the Playstation, let alone know where Japan was. The answer to ‘Who are you’ would have been tremendously awkward if they had said ‘Kagoshima-ian’ (which is where one of their leading members, Ōkubo Toshimichi, was born). Alternatively they could have said ‘Edo people’, Edo being the old name of their new capital city (Remember that in 1871, ‘Tōkyō’ had only been around for two years). They could have said ‘Asians’ but the term was not in vogue yet (Even when the self-professed Founding Father of Singapore studied in Great Britain, he introduced himself as an ‘Asiatic’). Neither did they want to settle with ‘Far East’ – that would have lumped them together with the barbaric Southeast Asians, the uncultured Coreans and the backward subjects of the bankrupt Qing. They settled for ‘Japanese’, since ‘Japan’ was almost like Iapam, the Portuguese translation for ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. So they became Japanese.

But two years of nationhood meant that Japanese-ness was still in its infancy. Prince Iwakura Tomomi, the head of the mission, noted how the newly Japanese students studying in London in the early 1870s still segregated themselves into clans (a little like how Chinese immigrants who landed in Singapore in the 1800s and early 1900s self-segregated into dialect groups). Clearly the concept of being Japanese was quite alien to them.

A dinner with Prince Bismarck enlightened Prince Iwakura. The mission’s goal to revise unequal treaties had been rejected by all western leaders they met. These rejections had heaps of platitudes layered upon them, but they still smelt as vile and unfair. Prince Bismarck said something different. He said, and this is paraphrased, that it seems that “all nations of the world treat each other with courtesy, but this (is) fictitious.” He continues:

In reality the governments of strong countries apply pressure on weak countries… if a strong country has differences with another country, it will act according to the law of nations as long as it suits its purposes, otherwise it will use its own power. Weak countries are always at a disadvantage. This was true for Prussia, but Prussia was able to change it, helped by the patriotism of its people.” 2

Bismarck’s refreshingly honest words drove Prince Iwakura to reform his government’s policy along Bismarckian lines: Consolidate and centralize the government, and build the economy to enhance national power.

Becoming Japanese

But their more militaristic counterparts quickly overtook them. In 1873, Japan introduced conscription 3. A year later, Japan went to war with the Qing in the First Sino-Japanese War. In its first David v. Goliath battle, the Japanese navy, with its newly westernized cruisers, easily sunk the majestic but slow Qing warships. This was also when Japan took its first steps into Manchuria. But the Japanese people, who had been taxed as much as possible to fund the military, were the ones who had made all this possible.

Then there was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Japan’s second David v. Goliath battle. Again David won. It was the first time ‘yellow-skinned monkeys’4 had beaten a Western power. The people were elated. Their taxes and loss of male family members (47,000 of them) had not gone to waste because finally they had become a superior people, deserving of being ‘honorary Europeans’. They were proud 5. Patriotism reigned. They had worked together and they were no longer just clansmen. They were Japanese. And their leaders were the ones who brought them together 6.

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Singapur 7

The Economist said last year that Singapore’s total defense expenditure amounted to $9.7 billion, or 24 per cent of the national budget for 2012 8. It seems that we have successfully reached Japanese pre-war levels of defense spending. In the years preceding the wars, Japan spent about 24 per cent of its annual budget on ‘defense’. We should congratulate ourselves because we are now at that level too.

But are Singaporeans as Singaporean as the Japanese had Japanese been then? At the time of the wars Japan was barely a three-decade old nation. Singapore is 48 this year, but we have had no wars.

This does not mean there are no threats. Our first Prime Minister had it all thought out. Between the 1960 to the early 1990s we were up against the Malayan Communist Party and the Eurocommunists. New laws were made, and the state was given more power. Today his son is keeping us vigilant against a new kind of domestic and regional terrorism. We are tiny. We are vulnerable. We must be vigilant.

These fears give more reason for conscription. Ironically an Israeli acquaintance asked me recently, “Why is Singapore spending so much on defense? You have no enemies!” I said that we were only taking lessons from his countrymen. He said, “That’s the wrong lesson you’re taking from us. Our enemy is real.”

But Singaporeans know our enemy is as real as the Palestinian ‘threat’. Our Prime Ministers have said so – We are alone in a volatile region. Even our nation day songs tell us so. One such song we repeat once a while, in schools, and sometimes during National Day Parades, has a line that goes like this: “Five stars arising, out of the stormy sea…”

I shan’t pretend that the stormy sea is entirely fiction. I served alongside honourable, special members of the Singapore Armed Forces. We had frequent drills to ensure that we could quickly respond to any untoward attack on the homeland. We conscripts sometimes overheard, but were never directly or openly told, how intel had uncovered terrorist plots. In the two years I was in the army we were put on high alert a few times and we never liked it though we as conscripts never really barely bore the full brunt of the tension. Yet I have no reason to believe we were knowingly lied to. And I cannot deny the brilliance of these efforts.

Through all this we have managed to conjure a sense of being Singaporean. Singaporeans agree. A recent Institute of Policy Studies survey found 70% of Singaporeans saying “that having a male child who had completed NS is an important characteristic of being ‘Singaporean’” 9. Extending that logic, if one is male, and has not completed NS, he does not deserve to be Singaporean. If one has a male child, and that male child does not serve NS, he does not deserve to be Singaporean. It is unfair that we serve and they do not.

* * *

I hope by now you, the reader, realise what I am trying to get at. Nationality is imagined, but it comes at a cost. Our brand of nationalism is clearly state-led, just like Meiji-era Japan’s, but any kind of nationalism creates an ‘other’. ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ is by nature exclusionary because it stresses the significance of differences between humans: I am Singaporean, you are not.

It is also highly inflammatory because a key part being Singaporean is the militarisation. Militarisation is the quickest way to build a nation, but it seldom ends in peace. History tells us so.

In the military, people eat together, fight together, and die together. Fear is a powerful motivator, and here it bonds them. But why would they fight? The only way to make conscription work is to create an enemy. Someone we can fear. Incidentally this is the very definition of xenophobia – the intense fear of people from other countries. In Singapore it is never overt. We claim to embrace all cultures, all peoples, of any religion and any creed. Deep down, we know it is untrue. Today we do not fear Malaysia, we do not fear Indonesia, much less China. But once upon a time, and not too long along, we did fear them. Maybe we still do.

Ironically, the government finds itself in a bind – on the one hand, importing busloads planeloads of foreigners to make up for our population shortfall, while playing on the fears of Singaporeans by continuing to emphasize our vulnerability in an ever-changing world. We are going down a dangerous path the Japanese tread on this time one century ago, but we fail to realise it. The government wants to reduce xenophobia, but it fails to recognise that its policies were in the first place the supplier of fuel for xenophobia.

If I lived just a few decades ago, I would have feared war with other nations. But contemporary governments, including Singapore’s, have realised this: the more invisible the enemy, the better for themselves because no one will triumph over an invisible enemy. It is all the better, because fear, ever-present, will bind the people in perpetuity. Who is the enemy? Today the answer is: ‘Everyone’. Everyone except your fellow Singaporeans.

Is this fear, this irrational fear of the ‘other’, one we are willing to bear forever?

The next post in this series will be about alternatives to state-led nationalism, which still may not lead to peace. I thank my friends for editing this essay, but as always, any errors here are mine and solely mine to bear.


  1. One of ‘The 12 perspectives’ in Our Singapore Conversation (Government of Singapore, 2013).
  2. Ian Nish, The Iwakura Mission to America and Europe: A New Assessment (Curzon Press, 1998), 76.
  3. Benedict Andersen, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983), 95.
  4. Susanna S Lim, Pan Mongolians at Twilight, in Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions, eds. Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 155.
  5. Takahiko Tanaka, Quest For An ‘Ordinary State’? Japanese Nationalism and Transformation of Power Politics, Paper Prepared for the Paris Conference On Social Change and International Relations (December, 1994), 5-6.
  6. See n 3, 97.
  7. I cannot avoid bringing Hitler into this blog post because it was he who first made popular the slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” – One People, One Nation, One Leader. Since 1990, Singaporeans have sung a remarkably similar phrase every National Day Parade.
  8. –, Military Spending in South-East Asia: Shopping Spree, The Economist (March 24, 2012). The government’s own documents show that defense spending for 2013 is still 24%. See Budget Highlights, Financial Year 2013 (Government of Singapore, 2013).
  9. William Choong, Hard truths about Singapore’s defence, IISS Voices (2013).