Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Writing the Word Ren in Open Air
Approaching Chineseness in recent Singaporean poetry in English

By Gui Wei Hsin

The Diaspora As Nation-State?

A Brief History of China
(through the eyes of a Third-Generation Immigrant)

Greater China,
China great,
denigrate -
greater good


- Daren Shiau, Peninsular

With ethnic Chinese comprising 76.8% of the population (according to Singapore Infomap), it is tempting to categorize the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore as a Chinese nation - indeed, prominent neo-Confucian scholar Wei-ming Tu has deemed the island city “a sanitized version of Chinese society.” However, the prime architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, pronounced in no uncertain terms two years after the country's independence that the Chinese living in Singapore may be “of Chinese stock and not apologetic about it... But most important, they think in terms of Singapore and Singapore's interests, not of China and China's interest.” Yet despite the country's acute awareness of its cultural position as a “Chinese island in a Malay sea” and efforts by its ministers to “dispel any impressions that it is an outpost of China”, as Yuen Foong Khong put it, there is no denying that Chineseness has been a key factor in shaping the policies of the dominant People's Action Party. Chineseness - whether it is language, culture, national, political affiliations or a combination of these elements - has greatly affected the government's attitude towards race relations and national identity since the nation-state's independence in August 1965. Whether it was the closure of Chinese-stream high schools and universities because of Communist-instigated student protests, the introduction (and subsequent withdrawal) of Confucianism as a form of moral education in the school system, the “Speak Mandarin Campaigns” that are annually implemented to encourage the use of Mandarin over regional dialects, or the stress on quasi-Confucian values as a mark of distinction and insulation against pervasive Western influence, the Singapore government has over the years negotiated with, suppressed, or celebrated aspects of Chineseness as it sought to forge a nation and construct a cohesive Singaporean identity out of a multiracial community of immigrant descendants.

Chinese Immigration and Settlement In Colonial Singapore

With the official founding of Singapore by the British East India Company in 1819, the island became a trading port and part of the British Straits Settlement, together with the two Malayan cities of Malacca and Penang. Its advantageous geographical position and naturally deep harbor made it a focal point for regional trade and, more importantly, immigration. As Lynn Pan writes, “Within five years of its birth Singapore had a Chinese population of well over three thousand... Singapore's Chinese migrated increasingly from China itself, after the arrival of the first junk from the southern Fukien port of Amoy in 1821. Encouraged to settle in Singapore by its British founder (Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles), they were nearly as numerous as the Malays and were soon to surpass them - so evolving Singapore's most permanently distinctive feature, the predominance of the Chinese race.”

The influx of new Chinese immigrants, known as xinke or sinkeh (newcomers), was caused in part by the deterioration of economic conditions in the southern regions of China, together with coeval European expansion in Southeast Asia. The British colonial expansion in Malaya and Singapore especially provided what Yen Ching-hwang has described as “excellent opportunities for Chinese traders, artisans and laborers.” These new immigrants arrived with a sojourner mentality, i.e. they had no intention of setting down permanent roots in the island colony, and maintained their affiliations with families and villages back in mainland China through financial remittances as well as participation in local clan or village associations in the colony. These were huaqiao, Chinese sojourners, and the appellation carries with a sense of “fulfilling a duty, and emphasized noble and dignified actions that benefited others as well as oneself.” (Wang Gungwu)

However, as the number of immigrants who found economic success in colonial Singapore grew, the desire to return back to mainland China correspondingly decreased. These successful Chinese businessmen found that their stake in the economic expansion of Singapore had become great enough to deter them from returning to the relative poverty and backwardness of their home villages in China. The lack of economic opportunity and the lure of greater possible wealth in the nanyang (South Seas, as Southeast Asia was called) overrode the clan and familial obligations of “filial piety” such that these overseas Chinese began settling down and arranging for their wives, children and kinsmen to emigrate and join them. The Chinese became the largest racial group within ten years of the founding of Singapore, and by 1931 they constituted 74.3 per cent of the population. Thus began the development of a permanent Chinese community in Singapore, separated from mainland China by space and time, yet maintaining affiliative ties with the originary country.

Under British colonial administration, the various ethnic groups in Singapore were segregated into different residential and communal enclaves, in accordance with the colonial “divide and rule policy.” As Yen writes, “Communal groups usually clustered around certain districts...and created a typical plural society bound by an economic nexus under British colonial administration...Apart from these loose ties...there were few things that the inhabitants of Singapore had in common. Instead, there were many racial, religious, cultural and linguistic differences to divide them.” Thus, while the Chinese majority, in concert with the immigrant Indian, indigenous Malay and Straits-born Chinese (peranakan) people, contributed to the economic development of the trading port, no cohesive sense of community was ever developed. The outbreak of war and subsequent Japanese Occupation of Singapore from February 1942 to September 1945 was another contributing factor to racial divisiveness. Yen writes: “Negatively, the discriminatory Japanese policies towards the different Malayan races sowed seeds of discord among Malays, Chinese and Indians. These seeds were to produce or intensify racial tensions, especially between Malays and Chinese; for example, the largely Chinese anti-Japanese resistance fighters took revenge against some Malays whom they accused of collaborating with the Japanese” (emphasis mine). These racial tensions would later become accentuated in the 1960s during the acrimonious debate over Chinese-Malay equality in the newly formed Malaysian Federation.

Post-World War II: Chineseness, Communism, Communalism

After World War II, Singapore's road to self-government, merger, eventual separation from Malaysia and independence was heavily marked by two trends involving the Chinese - the Communist threat and racial tensions. In the late 1950s a series of labor strikes led to the closure of several Chinese high schools in Singapore as these institutions had become hotbeds of Communist student agitation. Lee Kuan Yew and his close-knit group of colleagues who formed the People's Action Party (PAP) had, in their efforts to dismantle colonialism and attain self-government, to contend with a highly-organized, deeply-passionate and firmly-rooted Communist movement in Malaya and Singapore, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Lee and the first generation of PAP leaders were mostly English-educated ethnic Chinese Singaporeans or Malayans who knew it would be impossible to mobilize the Chinese-speaking public to their cause without first co-opting the Communists into their fold. Lee, himself a staunch anti-Communist, admired the organization and discipline that was the trademark of Communist party organization and their student supporters in local Chinese secondary schools. Such was his awareness of the affective power of Communism on the Chinese population that he declared to a contemporary foreign correspondent, “Any man in Singapore who wants to carry the Chinese-speaking people with him cannot afford to be anti-Communist. The Chinese are very proud of China. If I had to choose between colonialism and communism, I would vote for communism and so would the great majority.”

By first allying themselves with the pro-China Communist leaders, Lee and the PAP succeeded in swaying the Chinese-speaking masses over to their cause. Lee's rationale for this was a cynical view of the political sentiments of “Chinese-speaking Singaporeans” who, in his opinion, “traditionally preferred to sit on the fence until they saw clearly which way the wind was blowing. At present they had no confidence in the chances of the non-communist PAP. So they would support even a government that they knew was being manipulated by the communists, if the communists looked like winning in the long run. For they were seen as political agents of a resurgent China whose influence, they believed, would reach down to Singapore within ten years.” Lee succeeded in winning the Chinese-speaking population in Singapore to his side of the fence by working initially with the Communists, recruiting ethnic Chinese non-Communists into his faction who then approached the masses in Hakka and Hokkien dialects to dissuade them from Communism. In 1962, the pro-Communist elements in the PAP split to form a separate party called Barisan Sosialis to oppose the merger of Singapore with Malaysia, but Lee's shrewd political manoeuvering and charismatic determination won the day. In short, during this period “the biggest single theme that galvanised the Chinese-speaking was Chinese culture, and the need to preserve Chinese traditions through the Chinese schools...the Communists knew it was a crowd-winner that pulled at Chinese heartstrings, and they worked on it assiduously.” The removal of pro-China Communist elements and the elevation of Anglophone ethnic Chinese political leaders would set the standard for the depoliticization of language and culture in years to come. The death blow to Communism in Singapore was Operation Cold Store in February 1961 that detained over a hundred Communist elements, although by that time they had already been neutralized. But another problematic issue involving Chineseness had arisen - communal politics.

At the forefront of the PAP's agenda after Singapore's merger with the Malaysian Federation in 1963 was the creation of a “Malaysian Malaysia,” a country that did not accord special privileges to the Malay ethnic majority. With Lee Kuan Yew at its helm, the PAP formed the Malaysian Solidarity Convention (MSC) with other political elements to campaign for this egalitarian ideal. However, their political rivalry on the federal stage with the pro-Malay rights Malaysian Alliance (led by the United Malay National Organization - UMNO) swiftly developed into a heated communal conflict. The PAP soon became cast as “an enemy of the Malay community,” as Mohammed Noordin Soopie put it, and the MSC, although originally non-communal in its appeal, ended up attracting “mainly non-Malays, particularly Chinese who regarded the MSC as the means whereby they might retain their cultural identity and rights” (Chew). With the Chinese cheering the PAP and the Malays backing UMNO to the hilt, communal rioting broke out in 1964 between the two ethnic groups, and the increasing political and racial tension eventually led to the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in August 1965. As a result of this traumatic severance of Singapore from the Malaysian federation which the PAP had all along deemed as indispensable to the city-state's survival, the incendiary nature of communal politics and race relations has forever marked the political and social landscape of Singapore.

The PAP In Power: Enabling English, Confusing Confucianism?

After independence, the PAP-dominated Singapore government began implementing a policy of what Ho Chee Lick and Lubna Alsagoff called “utilization-cum-containment of ethnicity” to prevent the threat of racial issues from becoming a political platform for dissent or agitation. Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat argues that, through the policy of “multiracialism”, “race is essentialized as an unchanging feature of the population so as to ground various specific ways of disciplining the social body.” By stressing the economic imperatives of nation-building and the politics of survival and struggle in an apathetic, if not hostile, geopolitical region, the government made a priority of and successfully introduced the teaching and use of English as a language to provide Singaporean access to the global market and transform the island-nation into an attractive location for foreign investment. The introduction of English also allowed a politically and racially neutral language to become the lingua franca of Chinese, Indian, Malay and other minority people, thus, in theory, building a harmonious population that would further contribute to political and economic stability so badly sought after by capitalist investors.

However, with the growing ubiquity and prominence of English, there arose a growing anxiety over the increasing Westernization of the younger generation of Singaporeans. With greater access to Western entertainment media, in particular American films and TV serials, the government began to regard English-educated Singaporeans as susceptible recipients of “unwholesome Western values”. The implementation of second-language education as a way to inculcate the young in school with proper “Asian” values would provide these young minds with the “cultural ballast” necessary to counteract any pernicious Western influence that was the price to pay for English proficiency.

While the Singapore government has officially affirmed its policy of multiculturalism without playing favorites with any of the three major races, one can observe that its efforts to “Asianize” Singaporeans have often been geared initially towards the Chinese majority. Part of this effort to “Asianize” Singaporeans the introduction of and emphasis on Confucian ethics in the mid-1980s through the secondary school curriculum alongside other classes in religious knowledge of all major faiths represented in the country. However, when statistics showed that the Confucian ethics course failed to attract a significant number of ethnic Chinese students, the entire religious knowledge project was dropped, as it was deemed to contribute to racial and religious divisiveness. Another example is the annual “Speak Mandarin” campaign, initiated in 1978, through which Chinese Singaporeans are exhorted to speak, read and write in their mother tongue - notwithstanding the fact that Chinese Singaporeans comprise different dialect groups such as Hokkien (Fujian), Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka among others. The attempt to erase difference by the government among the Chinese Singaporeans can be considered as part of a policy to homogenize intra- and inter-ethnic variances using English as a common, neutral language while simultaneously inscribing a distilled or sublimated sense of ethnicity to act as countervailing cultural ballast.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


About Gui Wei Hsin
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  Other Essays In This Issue

Uncertainty and Scepticism in Arthur Yap
By Cyril Wong.

Ham and Eard: Ideas of Home
By Toh Hsien Min.

Related Links

Singapore Infomap
External link.

Singapore history resources
External link to knowledgenet.

Singapore history bibliography
External link to the National University of Singapore.

Beijing railway station
External link to VirtualTourist.

Singapore's education system
External link to the Ministry of Education.

Singapore Taiji
External link.


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