political culture in Singapore

Singapore is a multiethnic society, with political influence institutionally from the West and culturally from the East. On a 250-square-mile island between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Singapore is among the richest countries in the world. Its success is largely attributed to the ‘Singaporean Spirit’. Pragmatism is an important component of the spirit. Singapore believes that only economic success can maximize its national security and democratize its political system. Pragmatism allows Singapore to enjoy a market economy with a socialistic distribution system. Ethnic harmony and religious tolerance are other traits of the spirit. As immigrants from China, Malaysia and South Asia, Singaporeans have had few ethnic conflicts since independence due to a clever ethnic policy. It allows each ethnic group to maintain its way of life while encouraging its identification with Singapore as ‘one country, one nation, and one fate’. Singapore has all the major religions in the world: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. All coexist peacefully. As early as 1949, a religious federation was founded to include leaders of all beliefs. In 1974, the federation drafted a ‘Joint Prayer’ to be used in all religious ceremonies. Conversion is approached with an open mind. In fact, 60 per cent of the Christians are converts.
Conservatism, however, is a hallmark of the ‘Singaporean Spirit’. Singapore takes pride in its so-called ‘oriental democracy’, characterized by maintenance of a one-party system, an emphasis on political stability and social order, clean government and good citizenship, and giving priority to economic development. Singapore has reestablished Confucianism as a norm of public behaviour and a guiding principle for the government in order to combat the problems of modernization, which it has not succeeded in avoiding: altruism is giving way to selfishness; the family is slowly in disarray; emigration is on the rise; crime and drug abuse are resurgent; and consumerism and hedonism are encroaching upon lofty aspirations. Confucian teachings have been invested with new meanings: ‘loyalty’ is interpreted as identification with the country’s interests; ‘filial piety’ as respect for the elderly; ‘benevolence’ humaneness; ‘courtesy’ politeness; ‘virtue’ as social morality; ‘honesty’ as immunity from corruption; and ‘sense of shame’ as knowledge of right and wrong. Meanwhile, Singapore strives to establish a new value system that all Singaporeans can call their own—a system that values the country, the family, compassion, harmony and tolerance. Apparently, ‘nation’ and ‘family’ are the gist of the Singaporean socio-political values. Singaporean conservatism is also reflected in the literary trend of ‘returning to tradition’. Chinese literature is the mainstream literary creation in Singapore. Early Singaporean Chinese literature was part of the literary movement in China. In 1956, however, a campaign to build a ‘patriotic popular literature’ was initiated, meant to educate Singaporean Chinese to play a greater role in Singapore’s national liberation. It ended with Singapore’s independence in 1965. Post-independence Chinese literature in Singapore identifies itself with the Singaporean nation politically, but culturally still with the Chinese literary tradition. Literature is also expected to save the younger generation from being Westernized.
The ‘Singaporean Spirit’ advocates authority and discipline. The paradox that ‘Singapore is a democracy without freedom’ rings true in the sense that with all the ingredients of a democracy, Singapore has been continuously ruled by one party. The odd marriage of democracy with authoritarianism is mainly due to Singapore’s Chinese cultural heritage. Chinese immigrants amount to 70 per cent of the population, Confucius’ socio-political ethics that celebrate patriarchy and hierarchy have greatly influenced Singapore’s socio-political value system. Singapore’s patriarchal rule is characterized by the government’s absolute authority and its parental benevolence. It disciplines speeches and religious activities deemed detrimental to national interests, advocates individual obedience to the collectivist society and yet, at the same time, also holds the government accountable for the people (if not to the people). Singapore believes in the rule by the crême de la crême of the society with an iron hand. Law enforcement includes flogging. The ruling government must be devoid of corruption. As soon as the People’s Action Party came to power, it began to fight corruption through legal means. The success in keeping Singapore’s government clean is largely credited to the establishment of the independent Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. Appointed by the president and responsible directly to the prime minister, the bureau is almighty. Personal feelings have no place in its operation. All perpetrators will be dealt with whatever their rank or merit.
Rigid law enforcement, however, does not preempt change. But changes have always been carefully managed so that no chaos will result. Stability is always the priority. A good example is Singapore’s transition in political leadership. The process is long and gradual, but smooth and peaceful. In 1980s, the triune system of party, government and military was restructured. The amended constitution required that the president, who used to be chosen by the parliament, be elected directly by the people.
The ‘Singaporean Spirit’ is nurtured through education. Lacking natural resources, Singapore attaches great importance to people. Its investment in education is next only to national defence. The educated are expected to make productive use of information and knowledge. Singapore sees the development of information technology as its short-cut to global competitiveness. Since it launched the IT 2000 master plan in 1991, Singapore has been working diligently to become an ‘intelligent island’. Libraries, as the hub of information and knowledge, are expected to play a pivotal role. The National Library serves as the central agency for the Singapore Integrated Library Automated Service (SILAS), linking libraries at home and abroad.
Guan, Shijie (1995). The Studies of Exchanges among Cultures. Beijing: Beijing University Press.
Lee, Kuan Yew (2000). From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000. New York: HarperCollins.
Mauzy, Diane. (2002). Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party. London: Routledge.
Tao, Hung-chao (1989). Confucianism and Economic Development: An Oriental Alternative. Washington, DC: Washington Institute Press.
Tremewan, Chris (1994). The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Wei, Hong (2000). The Singaporean Spirit. Beijing: Changjiang [Yangzi] Literary Press.
HU MINGRONG

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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