Thursday, May 18, 2006

Small Singapore

Sometime back, a reader in one of my earlier entries, KoP (knight of pentacles) brought this article to my attention. It is a wonderful essay on the displacement of Singapore penned by an amateur archaeologist. How the changes in the physical geography of Singapore reflect its national character and very subtly, its forgetting.
This has prompted me to re-examine some of the academic discourse on the notion of "place" and its applications to Singapore. There is a rich academic discourse on the politics of space and place. Theorists like Foucault, Lefebvre and De Certeau have put forth new and challenging ideas of utopias, heterotopias and isotopias to ruminate on these matters. Most of these theoretical work have bearing to Singapore but I will refrain from relying too much on them to write about the place and space defined as Singapore. Instead, I would like to share first, what I understand of the definition of the space that is Singapore. In a subsquent entry, I will look more closely at some of the spaces within the collective space of Singapore.

Wen we consider space in Singapore, this understanding is immediately entwined with the assertion of the lack of space in Singapore. This is one of the most fundamental understanding drummed into Singaporeans of all ages and all races. That there is a lack of space in Singapore, Singapore is a small country. With this lack of space, the dominant discourse reads, we have no natural hinterland and no strategic depth. We are dependent on "extending" our space through economic linkages, foreign policy agreements, military agreements to create an "enlarged" Singapore, more imaginary space. Lack of space in Singapore underpins another issue especially when our society comprises peoples of many races. Lack of space and hence, enforced proximity, creates a greater potential for ethnic conflict which can spread like wildfire in small Singapore, and so the dominant discourse goes.

Small Singapore. The definition of this space into a place is an exercise of political discourse. By imposing a place into this space, the basis for identity and hence, citizenship is created. We lock our definition of Singapore by the dominant trait of this space. Small. And from this locked definition, vulnerabilities are identified and accorded its place in Singapore discourse.

As Singapore is defined small, with all its attendant vulnerabilities, the power relationships in this space take on a certain vector. A certain shape. Institutions of state, institutions of society, the political arena, how society as a whole is arranged spatially, gets locked into this spatial understanding of Singapore. Locked by a historical discourse and narrative that 'explains' Singapore, its "unique-ness", its fragility. This is commonly referred as nation building. It is not an easy task. It is the process of defining a country, a territoriality from space into place.

Having defined place and hence, the nation, Singapore, this historical discourse and narrative follows on to locate and identify the Singapore citizen. The citizen is defined and given a place in Singapore. This is the reality of citizenship. The citizen enters into the spatial arrangements as dictated by the definition of Singapore. Small and lacking in space. For the different communities who existed in pe-defined Singapore, once they enter into this citizenship agreement, they take on the assumed territoriality, and discourse of Singapore, chief of which is that Singapore is small and hence, vulnerable.
The assumptions of many Government policies derive from this nervous appreciation of Singapore's lack of space. Minister Khaw's idea to create retirement villages in JB and Bintan because land is expensive. Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs blunt assertion that old Singaporeans cannot "coveniently die off" are manifestations of this definition of space of Singapore or lack thereof.

For the government, the idealised citizen is thus : the citizen performs a mental translation of himself on the map of small Singapore and the citizen has to appreciate the privileged place they are in. And the citizen has to appreciate the founding fathers who placed them into this space known as Singapore despite the limitations imposed by its small-ness. This is the "debt" we owe to the ruling party. This is the basis of MM Lee's admonishment of young Singaporeans again and again for failing to see the Singapore definition, its historical discourse, its historical narrative.

But there is an alternative perspective to this definition of Singapore and the problems that arise from it. This definition of Singapore, from a basis of lack of space, and the attendant institutional structures created to manage this limitation, is translated by citizens, especially the young, to include a lack of space in their everyday lives. Lack of space for expression. Lack of space for creativity, for choice. Stifling. circumscribed. And let me reiterate, this disaffectation is not only in the realms of politics or the arts but also in business.

So the more sensitive Singaporeans articulate this as a sense of displacement. Singaporeans displaced in Singapore. Others articulate this dissonance in the form of idle frustration. And this sense of displacement increases as we enter a globalised world, where mobility has predecedence over rooted-ness. The Singapore citizen is in a dilemma. He perceives a more global world with opportunities while at the same time, he has been schooled to understand Singapore with its lack of space and the associated vulnerabilities.

"The past continually makes way for a future that has no time to ripen into a present. And the citizens never imagine the city that awaits at the end of all that labor."

This then is the crux of the matter. We build and re-build Singapore, physically and mentally, with the urgency ingrained in us that there is a lack of space. But we simply cannot imagine the place at the end of the labor. And at the same time, in our imaginations, space is no longer merely a physical entity, not a piece of land, not a roof over our heads. Whereas, space was very much geo-politically defined in the time of Singapore's independence, and rightly so, space in this century has taken on new meanings, new expectations.

"Singapore is about routes, not roots: an intersection point of the trajectories of a thousand journeys. Singapore is the sum of a hundred diaspora: at night, it seems everyone is dreaming about somewhere else."

What if younger Singaporeans are increasingly perceiving the space of Singapore not as a root but as a route? And it is not a unilinear route as that imposed by the Progressive State. Singapore as an intersection point of countless trajectories. A perception that is undeniably linked to the new cyber-space, the new places? Where there is no lack of space? And with this sense, they grow more empowered and feel less besieged by the perennial bogeymen created by lack of space? And then, the institutional structures and dominant discourse cannot contain this perception. Because they are built on the definition of Singapore as lacking in space.

These are questions we have to ponder. And perhaps re-definitions we have to consider in the grand project of building Singapore, whether physically or discursively.

Quote of the Day :

"... it speaks. It has an affective kernel or centre: Ego, bed, bedroom, dwelling, house; or: square, church, grave-yard. It embraces the loci of passion, of action and of lived situations, and thus immediately implies time. Consequently it may be qualified in various ways: it may be directional, situational or relational, because it is essentially qualitative, fluid and dynamic ..." -- Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's the essay by Peter Schoppert, isn't it? I read it in a book of haunting photographs by Lucas Jodogne on the Singapore landscape--photos which provoked ambivalence. On one hand, they seemed to conform to the notion that Singapore is so small that no neutral transition zones (unmarked, as opposed to inscribed spaces) are possible between two incongruous spaces--leading to almost violent juxtapositions. On the other hand, the incongruity stood defiantly in the face of micro-managed urban planning; buildings and structures overspilled, dented, inflected the idealised grid of the urban planner; they were fungal outgrowths relfecting the real decay disguised by inexorable rebuilding.

Anyway, beautiful post. I look forward to the next one.

Alfian. : )

9:08 PM  
Anonymous imp said...

History has an awkward footing in Singapore. What's left is almost manufactured.

Architectural Restoration fulfils the superficiality of cultural preservation. Supposed shared culture and history have been lost somewhere along the way.

Displacement is the trait of Singaporeans. Or rather, displacement is one feeling many many share and understand. Simply put, 'neither here nor there'. Extremely so when you're travelling in China, Europe and parts of Midwestern US.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous boon ho said...

I consider this lack of rootedness ‘a reflective trait. As countries become increasingly intertwined by economy and economy is Singapore’s only hook, all the more will be its reflection as a microcosm of a global culture--a globe with no culture, for what is place with no boundaries and changing rapidly influxes? As it is, the force of economy has superseded its analysis by man—economists will tell you in private they have no clue as to what is happening now.

Culture denotes a way of living crafted from relationship with the land and its people over a great period of time. It is never contrived, never injected. Culture was possible because agriculture was. Hunters/ gatherers never bothered settling for they were well adapted to the wilderness. Only when men decided to settle on a land for a considerable amount of time that culture began. Culture had a functional basis—food. And food was (and still is, though with technology, not as much) tied to land and the sky. Because man needed (they still do unless their genes predispose chlorophyll) to eat, they were evoked via agriculture into a relationship with nature. Because agriculture could support a substantial population, more so with the discovery of storage, men was evoked into learning about relationship with other men, how to live, how to do things together.

As population grew beyond the means of land, cities happened.

Urban culture is more about what man does, as a relief of, besides, what they do to earn a living. It is more about an attempt to restore it. More so than ever, identity/ rootedness very easily manages to scavenge a basis in nationality, religion, even ethnicity. Some even lament ‘ we have deviated from our true nature, we have to return.’ Man, via genes and culture and the intertwine of them both, have grown used to an identity informed only by place.

Yet a man is a living composite of many things. Earth, sun, air etc. Take away the air, what is man? Take away the sun, what is man? And the sun is a solar entity informed by a vast space of other solar systems conglomerated in a galaxy and there are many galaxies in this vast universe we are surrounded in. Every part that this universe is is as crucial to the whole as others are. So is man.

Somehow, while man goes about his business on land, he forgets that he is surrounded by a vast universe. Not to mention universal, but most men don’t even consider themselves global citizens, planetary beings. It’s time men learn how to live in a ‘global culture’. It’s time men ever-refine his relationship with life. It’s time man appreciate that he is a universal living entity.

For only then will he realize the simple scheme:

First, populate the globe, connect nations via economy and trade, and by the force of economy decentralize governance, and in the midst of it all, through increasing dislocation via speed of change and density of interconnectivity, man is somehow encouraged or forced (depending on who’s perceiving) to accept that life is an ever-changing flux and that any grasp is contrary to its ways and that for man to be as alive as life is, he has to be as opened.

Interestingly, though understandably, Singaporeans, like most others, dislike dislocations. Even the founding father encourages the remembrance of ethnic Asian roots. Questioning citizens—those who managed to slip through the cracks of the walls of the economic robot factory—lament about the lack of a Singaporean identity. Some artists contrive east-west fusions.

Who am I? Why am I here?

Life is living, not static, unlike understanding, which while happening, life still is. Living. To know life, you have to be as opened as it is. Living.

To have an identity that never changes, that is not vulnerable to a world changing too fast for one to have a grasp of, is to want to stop evolving as life always is.

Otherwise, I have digressed.

5:44 PM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

Alfian -- Yes, its Schoppert's essay, very evocative and haunting. I do think there are still transition zones (not necessarily neutral) in Sg landscape, the rail tracks at Bt Timah is one such flux zone. But yes, it shud feature in next entry or next next ehtry ahaha ... yes coffee next time.

Imp -- displacement indeed. One question i have been pondering is displaced to where? Where the Singaporean stand now, what is that place? that zone? physically and psychologically. I was in NY for a few years, the cosmopolitan capital of the world and at times it was so intoxicating but still i always felt an outsider, this is perhaps that which is missing.

Boon Ho -- u dun digress, what u have done is actually complete the entry in a thematic sense. hehe tx

11:58 PM  
Anonymous boon ho said...


Although in my cheeky sense, i would have liked to say that your suggestion of a 'thematic completion' makes me suspect if i might have really digressed, i am finding myself tending toward an agreement with you here.

cheekily, still.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Calamity Man said...

i've met the guy, KOP, in perth a few months back. pity he doesn't write anymore, or does he...?

4:21 AM  
Blogger Calamity Man said...

hey i just found out that he's continued keeping his blog. (

3:35 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Ho said...

great comments come our MSM do not provide such insightful comments? Can't be the lack of education... a communications degree is among one of the most versatile and liberal...

10:57 PM  
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9:53 PM  

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