Our cultural platypus

My forum letter to Today was published today. It was a response to a letter on 29 May which argued that Singapore should “foster bicultural talent” in order to exploit economic opportunities afforded by the development of China and other Asian states.

Apart from the economic bandwagon argument, which I don’t think necessarily holds true, I disagreed with the cultural essentialism of the original letter. This is the point of view that says every nation has its own individual culture that develops independently of other cultures and also independently of history (i.e. “timeless”, “ageless”). The corollary is that there is a way of thinking that is uniquely “Indian”, or “British”, etc. If we have learned anything from the Asian Values debate, it is that claims of cultural determinism have more political than explanatory value.

The letter also implicitly endorses the racialized “CMIO” model of Singapore society: that everybody can be fit into boxes marked either ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, or ‘Other’. This is not just an administrative convenience. In our identity cards, second language policy, and community self-help groups, this model still shapes how Singaporeans see and relate to each other.

The unedited version of the letter is below. I think the editor did a good job in shortening it while keeping it punchy.

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When the first preserved specimens of the platypus made their way to Europe in the late 18th century, many scientists there thought that it must be a hoax. It swims in water like a fish, has a bill and lays eggs like a bird, but has fur like a mammal. They had reason to be suspicious, because fake “mermaids” already were in circulation among collectors. But the platypus is real, and is now understood to be an unusual kind of mammal.

In his letter to Today (29 May 2013), Sun Xi states that Singapore culture is “… like Singlish, … neither fish nor fowl.” He argues that Singapore should do more to promote biculturalism and develop a bicultural elite in our society, in order to ride on the growth of Asian economies, especially China’s. To do so, he suggests a bottom-up encouragement of biculturalism among families, and a top-down import of “authentic” cultural talents.

Mr Sun is misunderstanding Singapore culture in the same way that 18th century Europeans misunderstood the platypus. It is indeed neither fish nor fowl, but a completely different animal altogether. It is not just “a mixture of mainly British, Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures”.

As he himself acknowledges, Singapore already has a “sound institutional culture” and “core social values” that are unique to our country and which should be carefully guarded.

It is also misleading to assume that there are “authentic” national cultures that we can simply import. Even mainland China is in the process of rediscovering its own cultural history after the Cultural Revolution sought to destroy the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits.

Given that the supposed sources of our Singapore culture are themselves so dynamic and unsettled, how do we choose which elements to import?

Singapore is already remarkably open to the cultures of other countries, in keeping with its position as a global marketplace. Singaporeans are happy to import foreign cultural products, be they Korean TV shows, Filipino cuisine, or Australian novels. This cultural consumption is not the result of top-down policy, but is driven by market demand.

What we should aim for are not more cultural imports, but an engagement that goes beyond mere consumption. Singaporeans have to be comfortable in our own skins and gain cultural confidence. This is already happening, as Singaporean authors, musicians, and film-makers establish audiences both locally and abroad.

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