Samuel Chong’s thoughtful commentary on postcolonialism begins with a great title: “Never Can Say Goodbye: Colonialism’s Enduring Grip”. How true. I agree with much of what he says, and will focus a few thoughts on what I don’t agree with, or which I feel can be elaborated.
The overhang of perceived European superiority is indeed a postcolonial frozen moment. Samuel cites my observation that “many Singaporeans know London and New York better than, say, the neighbouring Indonesian cities of Palembang and Pekanbaru. This was part of her point that Singapore is most comfortable as a global city than a neighbourly one.” We don’t graavitate to London and New York solely because they are European, but because they are global, exciting, futuristic, and developed. They stand at the vanguard of the future. It is difficult to argue with the fact that for most, London is a lot more exciting than Pekanbaru.
And yet, Samuel makes a good point that with Singapore “assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, it is an excellent opportunity to promote inter-provincial interaction rather than established inter-state ties.” This supports the old property axiom that property value is about location, location, and location. Singapore is physically located in Southeast Asia, and therefore an interest in the region is important to national seurity and the value of cultivating and being located in a relatively prosperous and secure environment.
Samuel is clear that “although there are many factors in why less-developed countries are as they are, how much can we attribute them to the impact of past colonialism and present neo-colonialism?” I would argue quite a lot, and my point is that we should not ignore that fact. For me, we can clearly focus on past colonialism and understand it in its purely historial context, and we can use the term neo-colonialism. But is neo-colonialism synonymous with postcolonialism? I think not, and this could be an interesting debating point.
Samuel also introduces some value judgements regarding postcolonialism: “Upon reflection, even if we recognise not being ‘post-colonial’ as claimed, was colonialism and its ongoing legacy truly a bad thing? Going forward, how much of the post-colonial identity should we remember or even embrace? Would this do any good to post-colonial states? Or would it be better if we actively purged ‘post-colonial’ notions from our history and cultural identity altogether?”
I am uncomfortable with this line of argument because it assumes that we are consciously aware of these options. And my whole point is that we are not aware of our position within the (post) colonial. His title reflects this conclusion. Colonialism has indeed an enduring grip on our mindsets largely because it is not consciously recognised.
Dr Sharon Siddique is an Adjunct Professorial Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
When we see the term “post-colonial”, we take it to mean where colonialism is of the past and no longer affects anything. However, the world as we know it took shape because of what European colonialism created. It continues to create developmental disparities and shapes our cultural perceptions. We often overlook the continuing colonial influences in these areas, but it prompts me to wonder if sovereignty is enough to be considered post-colonial, especially if the West continues to exert such an influence and control over the economics and identities of these post-colonial states.
In the November 2017 edition of the Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue, Dr Sharon Siddique spoke about how colonialism continues to shape our personal, regional, and international views despite nation-states constantly pronouncing beliefs of being in a post-colonial era; nation-states are in a “post-colonial frozen moment” from which we have not completely moved on from.
Dr Siddique shared that the Singaporean identity, while unique, is the product of the British and Dutch carving up territories between themselves, resulting in Singapore “gradually losing its original connection in the Malay World”; could we then re-evaluate other nation-state identities in view of colonialism’s legacy?
Moreover, by thinking that Singapore’s history only begins in 1819 with Raffles’ arrival, we fail to see the bigger picture of colonial politicking and our traditional, pre-colonial ties to the greater Malay World in Maritime Southeast Asia. To counter this as well as help us understand our neighbours better, Dr Siddique proposed taking short trips to countries in the immediate vicinity, seeing them not as places in a different country but rather as part of a porous region that one’s home state used to be so intimately intertwined with before colonial borders were set.
Beyond this, colonialism lingers on in economics and cultural perceptions, questioning whether we are truly “post-colonial”.
In terms of Economics and Development, colonialism is a key factor in Dependency theory. Dependency theory postulates that impoverished countries are as such because of their “peripheral” status, causing valuable resources to flow out to “core” wealthy states, enriching the latter at the former’s expense. Economists, like Andre Gunder Frank, have argued that this uneven state of wealth distribution is not due to geography or governmental policies, but the “ongoing legacy of colonialism, slavery and resource extraction.”
This legacy can be seen in how aid packages from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are criticised for being conditioned upon states adopting Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) like allowing large foreign (usually Western) corporations to enter the local economy and compete with smaller-scale domestic firms. Critics like Halifax Initiative have viewed this interference in sovereign states as neo-colonialism – the practice of developed countries using capitalism and globalization to influence a developing country instead of overt measures like direct military or political control.
In his article, anthropologist Joe Lugalla summarizes the problem by noting colonialism’s original capitalist motivation and arguing that SAPs drive growth by “integrating more African economies into the world economy – the very source of their underdevelopment, poverty and misery.” Although there are many factors to why less-developed countries are as they are, how much can we attribute them to the impact of past colonialism and present neo-colonialism?
Popular representation is another field to examine. Despite the ongoing movement to recognise diversity, why is it that Caucasians are more likely to be seen as embodying prestige? The advertisements for Pears Soap in the late 1800s are classic examples of the notion of White desirability. While such messages are reviled today, the contrast between Whites and Blacks are still been used in advertisements today. Swedish-owned fashion retailer H&M attracted controversy in 2015 after having a lack of Black models in their South African posters; H&M’s response that their marketing plan was “one which intended to convey a positive image”, drew even more fire for implying that black models do not convey “positive images”. Yet Europeans are not the only ones guilty of this. A Thai advertisement for skin-whitening pills and Chinese advertisement for detergent also generated outrage in 2016-2017; the latter examples are interesting as non-Europeans are the ones perpetuating colonial-era racism.
On TEDxRotterdam, historian Frances Gouda talked about the history of Oriental leaders being represented as effeminate and espousing unmanly virtue in contrast to Europeans being rational so as to justify European superiority and colonial rule. Similarly, on the lingering notion of European superiority, Dr Siddique mentioned that many Singaporeans know London and New York better than neighbouring Palembang and Pekanbaru. This was part of her point that Singapore is “most comfortable as a global city” rather than dealing directly with neighbouring provinces. With Singapore assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, it is an excellent opportunity to promote inter-provincial interaction rather than established inter-state ties.
Upon reflection, even if we recognise not being “post-colonial” as claimed, was colonialism and its ongoing legacy truly a bad thing? Going forward, how much of the post-colonial identity should we remember or even embrace? Would this do any good to post-colonial states? Or would it be better if we actively purged “post-colonial” notions from our history and cultural identity altogether?
 Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), 173.
The following is an edited transcript of a talk by Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore. It was delivered on 11 October 2017 at our monthly Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue.
THE RELEVANCE OF SINGAPORE ON THE WORLD STAGE
I’m going to take some liberties with the topic. I’m not going to talk about the role of small states between East and West, but I’m going to talk about small states. I’m going to talk about why small states should not behave like small states—not if they want to remain states anyway. Now if you are a small city-state, which historically does not have a very good record of surviving, you have to start from a very stark and simple premise—you are intrinsically irrelevant. You perform no irreplaceable function in the international system. If you disappear from the face of the Earth, by this, I mean disappear as a sovereign and an independent entity, you will not make a whit of difference to anything.
After all, Singapore has, as a sovereign and independent entity, only existed for 52 years. That’s just a blink of an eye in the long sweep of history.
Now, what do we mean by small? I mean physically small. This is essentially one city and, in some context, not a very large city. In a Chinese context, you are a second-tier city, about five to six million people. Now, of course we are not going to disappear, but your sovereignty and independence can be severely compromised. And that is actually the case of most small states today. There are about 196 sovereign states, and 193 members of the UN. Most of them have a seat at the UN, a vote at the UN, a flag, a national anthem, but that’s about it. Their autonomy and their ability to carve their own destiny is, more often than not, severely compromised. Now, I said physically small. By some other matrixes, we are not so small. As a port, a sort of logistics centre, a financial centre, or a trading hub, we are not that small. But physical size does matter.
Why do I say that? Well, let’s take your role as a logistics hub and trading centre. We have performed that role, according to some accounts, since the 14th century. We have certainly performed that role as a British colony, and as part of Malaysia. Of course, the manner in which we perform the role has evolved, but it’s essentially the same role. So you don’t have to be sovereign and independent to do these things. You cannot take your relevance as a sovereign and independent country for granted.
Relevance for a small country and a small state is an artefact. That means something created and maintained by human endeavour. How do you create relevance? Relevance is a contextual concept. What makes you relevant today may be quite irrelevant in a week, in a month, in a year, or in a decade. What makes you relevant vis-à-vis country A, may be quite irrelevant vis-à-vis country B. What makes you relevant on issue X vis-à-vis country A, may be irrelevant vis-à-vis issue Y. For the purposes of this talk, I’m not going into the details of that, but you can ask me questions about that later.
That said, the bedrock of relevance is success. Before I retired from the foreign service, I used to tell our junior officers that if Singapore’s foreign policy had any success, it is not because—or when I’m in my kinder moments, I say “not only because”—of their good looks, their natural charm, and the brilliance of their intellect. It’s because Singapore is a successful country, and you represent a successful country. Therefore, what you say is taken with some seriousness and some credibility. If you serve in the UN, as I have, you will find many individual diplomats from many countries who are absolutely brilliant, but they are not being taken seriously. Why? Well, it’s simply because they are representing countries that are not taken seriously.
A SUCCESSFUL COUNTRY
What do you mean by a successful country? Here, I have to be very crass. Success, first of all, has to be measured in economic terms. If you are a basket case or a barren rock, nobody will take you seriously. You cannot be successful by any other criteria. Of course, that is the foundation, but that is not the end of it. Economic success gives you options that are not available to countries that, to put it crudely, do not have the cold hard cash in order to create options. Now, I’m not going to go into how to be economically successful. There are many pathways, and it is also in a state of constant change. But one thing is constant: even as you adapt to various changing circumstances to keep yourself successful, and adaptability is one criterion, you cannot be just ordinarily successful. You have to be extraordinarily successful. You can’t be successful as, let’s say, countries around you because every country around you is bigger than you. Brunei, is smaller in population, but is well-endowed with natural resources; oil and gas. Everybody else has natural resources. Therefore, even if you are as successful as everybody around you, why should they take you seriously? You don’t have any natural resources, and they might as well deal with a country larger than you.
Hence, you have to be exceptional. You have to be extraordinary. It doesn’t always make you loved, by the way, but that is the existential condition of being Singaporean. To survive and prosper, you have to be exceptional; in being exceptional, it sometimes creates resentment. You just have to deal with it and manage it. It follows, therefore, that you cannot take the advice of my former colleague, who advocated in a rather stupid article that small countries should behave like small countries. If Singapore had behaved like a small country in 1965, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to each other, or we would be talking in a different language. At least it wouldn’t be me addressing you all, because I am not a bumiputra.
Now, that does not mean we should not be aware of the constraints of being small. Of course, you should be aware of the constraints of being small, but you should not allow yourself to be limited by those constraints. You should not allow your ambition to be bounded by your mere size because that is precisely what when we had independence thrusted upon us. Don’t forget that Singapore is quite unique. We never sought independence, we had it thrusted upon us. And, in fact, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew is on record as saying small island states are a political joke. That’s why he sought independence within Malaysia. It didn’t work out, and we had to make it work. If at that moment of anguish, when we were thrown out on the perilous seas of independence, we behaved like a small country, we won’t be speaking here because that is precisely what the Malaysians wanted us to behave like. They had three powerful instruments. I won’t go into details, but the first instrument was the armed forces. During the crucial years of 1965-1969, we do not have an armed force worth talking about. Second, the economy. Singapore was still largely an entrepôt, whose hinterland was Malaysia and Indonesia, and both were out to replace us in that role. The third instrument was water. Essentially, the assumption was these three things would either bring us crawling back or keep us as a small country tamely to heel. The story of Singapore since 1965 is how we overcame those challenges by being exceptional.
Now, one element of Singapore’s exceptionalism is the organising principle of Singapore, which is multi-racial equality and multi-racial meritocracy. I’m not saying that we do it perfectly. In fact, we are far from perfect. But there is no perfection to be found outside heaven, if there is a heaven. I don’t quite believe there is a heaven, so there’s no perfection to be found. But even if you believe in heaven, at least the Christian heaven, there is also no equality, there is hierarchy; there is God, there are angels of various kinds etc. And if you look around Singapore, as imperfect as we are in implementing the organising principle, it is nonetheless unique and exceptional. Look around Singapore, not just in Southeast Asia, but from Northeast Asia to South Asia. Most countries are organised whether explicitly—in the case of Malaysia, where the principle of Malay dominance is enshrined in the constitution—or implicitly. It’s bumiputra over non-bumiputra; it is ethnic Thai Buddhist over Muslim Rohingya; it is Sinhalese Buddhist over Tamil; it is Han over non-Han. Even in a very liberal democracy like Japan, it is ethnic Japanese over Japanese-Koreans or Ainu; it is Hindu over non-Hindu; it is Buddhist over non-Buddhist; there is no end. You just think about what’s around us.
Even beyond that, in Western liberal democracies, there is a reassertion of hierarchy; it should be white Christian first. That is the meaning of the Trump phenomenon; that is the meaning of Brexit; that is the meaning of these right-wing movements that have arisen on continental Europe. They don’t always say it so explicitly, but when they are anti-immigration, for example, that’s what they mean. And this foundation which makes us unique is under pressure. It’s under greater pressure today than it ever was before because part of the backlash against globalisation is a cultural backlash. It is the assertion of identities of various kinds as superior over identities of other kinds. Now, there are many such assertions. There is the assertion of an Arabised form of Islam as more authentic than other forms; and there’s an assertion of various kinds of evangelical Christianity as more authentic than other kinds.
Similar ideas have crept into Singapore such as radical Hinduism and radical Buddhism. If you think about the fundamental tenets of these religions, it’s an oxymoron, but it exists. Even in a secular way, you have the assertions of different kinds of political identity as more authentic to the exclusion of other kinds. What has that got to do with us? We are exposed to these things, and you can’t insulate yourself from these things. You can perhaps mitigate those things, but you can’t insulate yourself, because the cost of shutting yourself off is to try and become North Korea, and you know where that leads to.
Singapore is not just a small country, it is also unique in another way. Singapore is the only ethnic Chinese majority country outside greater China, by which I mean the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. That poses particular challenges, particularly with relations with China.
THREE TRACKS TO CHINA’S FOREIGN POLICY
Chinese foreign policy is unique in one way; it does not conduct international relations on only one track. It conducts international relations on three tracks. Of course, all countries, including ourselves, have more than one track of foreign policy. But China does it more insistently, much more systematically, and with a greater institutional apparatus devoted to the different tracks than any other country I know. What are these three tracks? The first is, of course, the normal track of state-to-state relations. These sometimes fluctuate up and down, and that’s quite normal. There is no substantive relationship of any country anywhere that is a smooth trajectory. I mean we have a smooth relationship with at least one country I know of. Guess which country that is? It is Botswana. You know why? Because there’s no substantive relationship with Botswana. Once you have a substantive relationship with a country, it’s bound to fluctuate. In other words, smooth trajectory in a relationship means that the relationship is, by and large, irrelevant. The state-to-state relationship we have with China is, by and large, not bad. There are ups and downs of course, but it’s still not bad, even quite good.
But that’s not the only track. China is not just a state, it is also what I would call a Leninist state. I don’t use the term “Communist” because I don’t think there’s anybody in China that seriously believes in the Communist ideology anymore. You might find a few people in Brown University or Harvard who still believe in Communism as an ideology, but you won’t find anybody in China, and certainly not in the Chinese Communist Party. However, they do believe in the Leninist structure of the state, in which the party is dominant, and that prescribes certain tactics, methods of control, and foreign policy techniques. For want of a better word, I would call them “united front tactics”. That means the use of other than state-to-state channels, cultural associations, business associations, literary associations etc., to gain influence—all Leninist states do this. The former Soviet Union did it up to the 1930s, when it was relatively isolated. By the 1950s, they by and large abandoned this because it was no longer isolated.
Now, post-Maoist China is certainly not isolated. But it still has United Front Work Department, which is under direct control of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. And you have seen in recent times, for example in Australia, where they tried to subvert politicians and political parties. You saw it in New Zealand where—bless the souls of the Kiwis—a new citizen who became a member of parliament was found to have been an instructor in the PRC’s spy schools. I don’t know what their vetting process was like, but there’s possibly a reason why the Kiwis are an endangered species. And there are many other examples around the world. China is not just a normal state or a Leninist state. It also has a third identity of being a civilisational state—China is a civilisation, as well as a state, and that prescribes the third track. It’s a track that is of particular relevance for Singapore, and that is the overseas Chinese track. They also have a very elaborate institutional apparatus devoted to this track under party control.
The purpose of this track is best encapsulated by a speech President Xi Jinping made in 2014 to a conference of overseas Chinese business associations in Beijing. And the title of that speech was The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is of Importance to all Chinese. In other words, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is of importance to all Chinese means that overseas Chinese are expected, on crucial issues, to define their interests in terms of China’s interest. That is something a multi-racial country like Singapore can never accept. It is an existential issue. That’s why when a former senior civil servant says that a small country should behave like a small country— which is what the Chinese meant because you are a majority ethnic Chinese country—he has to be put down quite brutally, and not just by me, but by more important people than me.
SINGAPORE-CHINA RELATIONS: AN EXISTENTIAL ISSUE
Why is it an existential issue? It’s very simple because to align your interest with China’s interest means that you accept China, not merely as a geopolitical fact, but China’s superiority as a norm of international relations. Both concepts are very different. I mean everybody would accept China’s rise as a geopolitical fact. You have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and living on another planet not to do so. But that’s an entirely different matter from accepting China’s superiority as a norm of international relations. It is a very ancient norm of Chinese international relations, which is coming back, not exactly the same way as ancient times, but substantially the same. It manifests itself in big ways and small. Why can’t we accept that as a multi-racial country? China persistently refers to Singapore as a Chinese country. We persistently tell them we are not a Chinese country, but they persist. We cannot accept that. This is existential. That’s why the debate with the former civil servant is not just an academic or an intellectual debate. That’s why he has to be put down and brutally because it is a very small step from accepting China’s superiority as a geopolitical fact (“China” used as a proper noun. A big country, but still placed in a bounded territory) to accepting Chinese (“Chinese” as an adjective, which has no boundary) superiority as a norm. And you know what the regional and domestic consequences are.
By the way, I don’t think China is out to destroy Singapore. In some ways, they do admire Singapore because several Chinese and some Singaporeans who are very familiar with China have told me that the Chinese admires Singapore because it shows what the Chinese people can do after 100 years. However, they fundamentally do not understand why we are successful. That’s why they have a lot of problems with the Uyghurs and other minorities. No matter how good our relationship is on the first track (state-to-state relations), from time to time, they will try the other tracks, and they have never stopped. Sometimes it’s high-key and public, while at other times, it’s low-key and private. We have to resist such attempts even if it means roughing relations on the first track. That’s what happened over the last year or so. Now, they are playing nice again for a variety of reasons.
I will make two more points. The first point is, I said these kinds of things have never stopped in the 30 odd years I have been in the foreign ministry. Sometimes they are public, sometimes they are private. The last time it was public was in 2004. Why was it public? When then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong went to Taiwan, all hell broke loose. Now, that’s not the first time a Singapore leader has gone to Taiwan. They’ve gone many times, and the Chinese know well that no matter what, we know how to handle the One China policy. They do trust us when it suits them because some years ago, they came and asked us to do a free trade agreement with Taiwan because they were trying to prop up Ma Ying-jeou at that time. We don’t want a free trade agreement with Taiwan because it’s of no economic use. They asked us because they are confident that we know how to handle it without compromising the One China principle.
So what was their fuss in 2004 all about? It’s because it was quite clear, by that time, that Mr Lee Hsien Loong would be the successor to Mr Goh Chok Tong. One of the lies that the Chinese like to propagate on track two (united front tactics) and track three (overseas Chinese being for China’s interests) is that relations were so much better under Lee Kuan Yew, and these new people don’t know how to handle China. Mr Lee Kuan Yew did have good relations with many Chinese leaders including Deng Xiaoping. But why did he have good relations? There’s another fact that track two and track three of Chinese diplomacy never emphasises. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP is, as far as I can determine, and I have tried very hard to find an exception, the only non-Communist leader and party that went into a united front in the 1950s and 1960s with a Chinese Communist-supported party, the Barisan Socialis, and won. Every other non-Communist leader that went into the united front lost. And so, they had absolutely no doubt of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s resolve, and that however friendly he is, he will be for Singapore first. But when there is a leadership transition, they wanted to see whether the son is made of the same mettle. They also tested Goh Chok Tong, by the way, in a less public way.
And this time, the last year and a half, there were many proximate causes for the tension. But it is also a time of succession because about a year ago, Mr Lee Hsein Loong announced that after the next election, he’ll step aside, and let the fourth generation of leaders choose who the next Prime Minister would be, and it is also meant to test them. They had no doubt about Mr Lee Kuan Yew. They put some pressure on Goh Chok Tong; didn’t work. They didn’t put much pressure because they probably thought he was the interim leader. They have a rather dynastic mindset which you can see, because there’s a category of Chinese leaders known as princelings. They tested Mr Lee Hsein Loong, it didn’t work. So now they are testing the fourth generation. The test isn’t over; they have paused for a variety of reasons and decided to play nice. Prime Minister had a very good visit to China, but that’s not the end of the story.
I told you state-to-state relations will always go up and down. There’s nothing to get too excited about. But it is conceivable, not very probable, that one day, as did the Soviet Union, China may give up the united front track. But China cannot give up the third track, the overseas Chinese track, without ceasing to be China, because it stems from the civilisational nature of the Chinese state. So we will have to learn to deal with this. How do we deal with this?
DEALING WITH CHINA
I think there are two fundamental things. One, is to have an educated public. It cannot be denied that a certain section of our compatriots who feel cultural affinity—nothing wrong with that—and therefore are either reluctant to acknowledge this track, or think there’s nothing wrong with it. I told you it’s a very small step from acknowledging China’s status as a big power, “China” as a proper noun, to using “Chinese” superiority as an adjective. We are only 52 years old. Are you absolutely confident that the Singaporean Chinese identity is so deeply rooted that none of our compatriots would be tempted, whether consciously or not, to take that small step? I’m not. Maybe in another 50 years, we don’t have to worry about it. But the experience of the last year and a half, shows me there are some who are tempted to take that step. So you have to deal with it, and the first way of dealing with it is to have an educated public.
Here, I have to acknowledge that there is something of a quandary. I can educate you in this closed group, and because I am a pensioner after all, I can say anything I want. I have a title that is meaningless. Don’t ask me what Ambassador-at-Large means because I have no idea. In the colloquial sense of the term, “at large” means not-yet-called. But I am a pensioner, I have no authority, I have no official position. So I can say what I just said to you. It’s very hard for a government to say these things because you don’t want to go and roil the official track unnecessarily. If it is necessary, of course, we have to hold firm to this fundamental bedrock of what makes Singapore, even if it causes tensions in the first track, and that’s what we did over the last year-and-a-half and 2004. A few months ago, Mr Chan Chun Sing was asked a question about foreign influence in politics in parliament. He had to give a very circumspect answer. So circumspect that, unless you already knew, you won’t know what he was talking about. I can’t blame him, you know? But in small groups like this, I can try to educate you.
The second big factor is to have a very clinical view of what’s happening in the world. One of the other Chinese lines is that China is rising. Therefore, your best friend, America, is declining. So you are the wrong side of history, and you better jump on this bandwagon. Now, that can’t be denied. I told you that you must be blind, deaf, dumb, and living on another planet to deny that China is rising. But it is wrong to look at China’s rise in simplistic and binary terms. There will be a more symmetrical strategic equation between the US and China sooner or later, but that doesn’t mean that the US is going to disappear from the world. It doesn’t mean that the US is going to cease to be a substantive country. And not just the US, but Japan as well. It doesn’t make much substantive difference if you are the biggest, second biggest, or third biggest economy in the world. You are all still going to be important players, and you all are going to be strong military powers. You all are going, in that sense, to deter, check, and balance each other. That gives small countries like us manoeuvre room.
Whether or not you’re going to be agile and clever enough to take advantage of the manoeuvre room is, of course, another matter. Nobody says we got to be clever, we can be stupid too, but the possibility exists. In other words, you can be small, and not behave like a small country, and preserve your autonomy. It is up to us.
Bilahari Kausikan is an Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Prior to this, he served at the MFA as Permanent Secretary from 2010–2013.
The following is an edited transcript of a talk by Dr Sharon Siddique, Adjunct Professorial Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). It was delivered on 15 November 2017 at our monthly Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue.
I want to take issue with the concept, “post-colonial”. The meaning and focus of post-colonial studies is vast and complicated. One of the central narratives is subaltern studies. Subaltern studies essentially focuses on misperceptions of the colonized self, based on the adoption of the world view of the colonizers. The preoccupation of Subaltern studies is to uncover an alternative interpretation of colonial history. The focus is on recovering the perspective of the oppressed over the oppressors. At its most general, it focuses on Orientalism—a reinterpretation of history.
Although the rewriting of the historical narrative is vital, my perspective on post-colonialism is present-oriented. I am interested in the impact of post-colonialism and how it colours our view the present. Much of this, as we will see, is unconscious. I will focus on the implications of the term, “post”. The dangerous ideological assumption implicit in the term “post-colonial” is that we are “done” with colonialism and is therefore no longer relevant to how we perceive our present lived-in environment. Post-colonialism only helps us re-evaluate our perception of the past.
We in the East are supposedly post-West. “Post” implies a break; a turning point; a new beginning. We assume that the post-colonial narrative began at the end of WWII culminating with the birth of many new nation states in the 1950s and 1960s. We thought then that we were initiating a new era of independent nation-states in the newly fashioned Third World. We assumed that we were in a post-colonial moment between what was (the colonial empires), and what was being created—a succession of former colonies progressing from Third World, to Second, and eventually, if we are very optimistic, to First. But it has not really turned out that way. To put it bluntly, after seven decades, we are still stuck in the post-colonial.
What does this mean and why? We begin with the term “post-colonial”, and ask the question, have we truly left the ideological dominance of the West? I think It is false to assume that we can stop the clock at post-colonial and reset it at independence. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the process is not so simple.
Post-colonialism is like entering a movie screening mid-way. We have missed most of the movie, the plot is difficult to follow, and the characters are confusing.
If we had arrived earlier, we would have caught the beginning of the movie. The characters and their motivations are introduced. The storyline unfolds. If we enter the movie halfway, we are disoriented, and we sometimes lose the plot because we are ignorant of what has transpired. This is important because it makes it much more difficult to understand the nuances of plot and motivation.
Our movie—the one we will be screening tonight—is titled, Singapore and Its Neighbors.
We could choose many beginnings, but arguably, with reference to our postcolonial narrative, we will choose to begin in 1824—a natural beginning for our story. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 was designed to solve many of the issues that had arisen because of the British occupation of Dutch properties during the Napoleonic Wars, as well as issues regarding the rights to trade that had existed for hundreds of years in the Spice Islands. The treaty between the Dutch and the British addressed a wide array of issues surrounding the expansion by either side of the Malay world. The British establishment of Singapore on the Malay Peninsula in 1819 exacerbated the tension between the two empires, especially as the Dutch claimed that the treaty signed between Raffles and the Sultan of Johore was invalid, and that the Sultanate of Johore was under the Dutch sphere of influence. The questions surrounding the fate of Dutch trading rights in British India and former Dutch possessions in the area also became a point of contention between Calcutta and Batavia. In 1820, under pressures from British merchants with interests in the Far East, negotiations to clarify the situation in Southeast Asia began.
The Treaty settled several matters:
The Straits of Malacca (and the Malay World) was split into two. All territories to the north of the Straits of Malacca belonged to the British, and all to the south belonged to the Dutch.
The great swap: Bencoolen (located on the west coast of Sumatra) was given to the Dutch, while Malacca was given to the British. The issue of Singapore was settled; it remained British and its status was never questioned again.
Singapore remained part of the British sphere, and gradually lost its original connection to the Malay World.
So now we have the beginning of the plot. But before I continue with the movie, I would like to give you a pop quiz. Six multiple-choice questions. If you fail, your punishment will be to listen carefully to the continuation of my movie script.
1) How many islands are there in Riau Island Province?
2) What are the populations of the cities of Batam and Johor Baru?
Less than 500,000 each
More than 1 million each
Johor Baru’s population is bigger than Batam
Batam’s population is bigger than Johor Bahru
ANSWER: More than 1 million each.
3) Melaka was conquered by the Portuguese in which year?
ANSWER: 1511. It is worth noting that Melaka was conquered more than 300 years before Raffles founded Singapore. What happened in the region in these three centuries?
4) Who was the Governor-General of Java from 1811 to 1815?
ANSWER: Stamford Raffles.
The interaction between Dutch East Indies (DEI) and the British empire was vast and interesting. The dialogue partners were Calcutta and Batavia. The DEI never attempted to recover the position of Malacca. Their seat of governance was Batavia.
5) How far is Batam from Singapore at its closest point?
ANSWER: 5 km
You can see Batam from Singapore. From Nongsa Point, Singapore’s East Coast floats like a mirage shimmering on the water across the straits—so very close physically, but a vast distance mentally.
6) Where is the city of Tanjong Balai located?
Karimun almost became Singapore. Today, it is a sleepy Dutch-style Indonesian town across the Straits, with Bauxite mines, beaches, and ship repair facilities. Best ferry connections are from West coast of Johor.
So what we have determined in this pop quiz is that we know very little about our neighbors. Post-colonial folds the colonial into our sense of history, but with a terrific British tinge.
I have selected three scenes from the movie, each illustrating an important dimension of Singapore and Its Neighbors. The common narrative is that we, as captives of the post-colonial, are quite ignorant of the Dutch colonial worldview, which still partially dominates our frozen moment. We are still more comfortable being British.
THE NEW CAPITAL OF INDONESIA
Post-colonial blinders lead to frozen moments. Circumstances change, but we have difficulties imagining how things could change and why. This is illustrated by the phenomena of moving capital cities. At the moment, in Jakarta, there is a quiet renewed debate about moving the capital of Indonesia from Jakarta to a new location. The most often cited new location is Palangkaraya, currently the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan. How seriously should we take this?
President Jokowi is a great supporter, and has recently directed BAPPENAS (the Indonesian Central Planning Authority; the Indonesian equivalent of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority with several other responsibilities) to complete a feasibility study by the end of 2017.
This is not the first time that Palangkaraya has been singled out. When President Soekarno, built the city in 1957, he indicated his intention to eventually move the federal capital there which, of course, did not transpire.
The reasons for this are complex and layered, but to even get a grip on what is going on, we need to know more about Kalimantan. So where is Kalimantan? On Borneo, which is the third largest island in the world (behind Greenland and New Guinea). Borneo is split amongst Indonesia (Kalimantan) Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei. The entire island has a population of only 10 million, and Palangkaraya is located at the geographic centre of the Indonesian archipelago. If we overlay a map of Indonesia over a map of the USA, it stretches from Alaska to Florida.
As we began our colonial narrative in 1819, we tend to forget how much longer the Dutch colonial narrative in the Dutch East Indies actually is. Batavia was the capital of DEI for 330 years (1619-1949), and the capital of Indonesia for the past seven decades. Even contemplating a move is mind-boggling, yet we can’t simply dismiss it as impossible.
Moving capitals is a feature of Southeast Asia’s sense of place. Capitals can move to newly created cities, such as from Rangoon to Naypyidaw. They can split in two, such as Kuala Lumpur being the business centre and Putrajaya as the administrative center of Malaysia. This also happens at the provincial and state levels. In Johor, Kota Iskandar is the administrative capital, while Johor Baru is the commercial city. Suffice to say, this typical feature of Southeast Asian moving cities can either prepare us for possible change, or leave us surprised and perplexed, because we didn’t see it coming and we don’t understand why it did.
THE DEFINITION OF MALAY
The second movie scene I would like to describe is the definition of what constitutes being a Malay. Our recent presidential election, which was, for the first time, also a Reserved Presidential Election, provided an excellent example of the complexities of race dimensions, and how confused it can be if you enter the movie mid-way. Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have quite different definitions of what is Malay.
Singapore is the most open and flexible. Anyone who considers oneself a Malay, and is accepted by the community as such, is a Malay. While it is seemingly simple, the extensive debate and discussion following the election indicates that it is anything but simple in our post-colonial frozen moment.
To understand the Singapore debate, it is necessary to examine what Malay means in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.
To understand who is a Malay in Indonesia, one has to begin with the term, sukubangsa. It roughly translates to an ethnic group, and it generally links an ethnic group to a specific locality. Malays are natives of the Riau Islands, mainland provinces of Jambi, Riau, and South Sumatra. Other sukubangsa may live in the Riaus, such as Javanese, Minangkabau, Batak, etc., but they are not considered Malay.
The “religion” element of “Malayness” is used differently in the four countries. Indonesia and Singapore do not explicitly specify a religion for Malay, but it is assumed that Malays are Muslim. Here, the argument turns on whether or not you can practise Malay customs and culture without being a Muslim.
In Malaysia, to qualify as a Malay, one must practice Malay custom, speak the Malay language, and be a Muslim. In order to understand the status of Malays in Malaysia, one needs to understand the term, bumiputera, which literally means sons of the soil. All Malays are bumiputeras, but not all bumiputra are Malays. The term was used to include the other ethnic indigenous groups such as the indigenous ethnic groups of Sabah and Sarawak.
There is a further complication to the definition of Malay in Malaysia. In some states, Malays are under the protection of the Sultans, who, since British rule, are responsible for Malay and Islamic customs. One must note that Arabs and some Indian Muslims are included as Malays in some states, but are not considered Malays in others.
So, in Singapore, an Arab can be a Malay if he chooses. In Malaysia, whether or not an Arab can be a Malay or bumiputera depends on the rules of the state in which he or she is domiciled. In Indonesia, Arab is a separate sukubangsa.
Finally, Brunei defines itself as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB)—Malay-Muslim Monarchy.
SINGAPORE: THE PEARL OF SOUTHEAST ASIA
The final scene from the movie which I would like to describe is called “Singapore: The Pearl of Southeast Asia”.
Singapore is special in many ways. In the context of our present movie, the important thing to note is that it is the only Chinese-majority city in Southeast Asia; a first for the Malay world. I remember discussing this with an Indonesian friend who told me, “Yes, Singapore is a pearl. It is costly and beautiful. But we never forgot how the pearl was produced: it began when a tiny grain of sand entered and irritated us.” A variation on this is the “little red dot”, which was coined in the late 1990s by the then-President of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie. Since then, Singaporeans have claimed that pejorative phrase as a badge of honour.
Singapore is a colonial creation adjusting to its own post-colonial frozen moment. I will illustrate this by talking about Singapore and her nearest neighbors to the North and South. By freezing the frame on Singapore, we can see what we are missing. What we need is to fill in the gaps of what we have missed from the first half of the movie so that we can better understand the narrative on post-colonialism
First, we need to concentrate on rebalancing Singapore’s post-colonial frozen moment. We are strong on Malaysia, but weak on Indonesia. We are knowledgeable about Johor, but quite clueless about Riau Island Province.
Why are these questions important to us? It helps us to see the impact of tri-lateral initiatives we have had various experiences since 1965, including Konfrontasi with Indonesia. We have tried several versions of tripartite cooperation such as SIJORI or the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle , which was not very successful. At the moment, we have again swung to an emphasis on the comfort zone of bilateral relations with Malaysia, largely via developments in Johor, and this is growing. More than half a million people cross the causeway everyday; Johoreans cross to work in Singapore, and the competitive advantage is not only higher pay, but also a favorable exchange rate.
Second, Singapore is most comfortable as a global city. In the region, it interacts as an independent nation-state and deals with the capital of the its neighbors. It has more difficulty in carving out an appropriate identity for interacting directly with Johor and Riau directly, as neighboring state and province respectively. The result of this is that most Singaporeans are more familiar with London and New York than with Palembang and Pekanbaru.
In order to improve our success rate with our neighbors, we must not be drawn into dismissing the still present legacy of colonialism in our post-colonial frozen moment. We cannot afford to remain ignorant of our surroundings in terms of pre-colonial boundaries which were so drastically altered by intervention of colonizers. In Singapore and in Southeast Asia we have been stuck in “postcolonial” for seven decades. Our stalled position means that in our present, and future, we are missing vital analytical elements.
The third issue in assessing Singapore’s post-colonial frozen moment is that we need to be more aware of the rapid thaw in terms of the impact of forces external to the region. There are three forces at play—the rise of China, the opening of India, and the diminishing role of the Western world in Asia.
There is a rupture between colonialism and post-colonialism. This implies that we are, in some fashion, post-West. In the immediate aftermath of colonialism, the rupture, and the creation of a new era, was nationalism and the nation-state. However, rather than coalescing, nationalism appears to be losing its ideological grip, and the post-colonial nation-state does not appear to have ushered in a new era. In Malaysia and Indonesia, there is currently a great deal of re-scripting of the fundamentals; things which we thought had been settled decades ago. There are many complex reasons for this, but I will only speculate on a few.
First, and this is a huge generalization, post-colonialism turned its sights inward, and became preoccupied with the introspective exercise of re-evaluating contexts of colonialism.
Second, it is worth noting in passing that this thawing process appears to be global. Most countries in the Middle East, suffered from the fundamental problems over their national identities. More than a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from which most of them emerged, these states have been unable to define, project, and maintain a national identity that is both inclusive and representative. The question is where and how the thawing of our frozen moment will proceed.
We will bequeath the challenge of answering this question to your generation. Choose to open yourselves to the many fascinating venues in our neighborhood. And I mean this personally. As a start, I suggest you take a two-hour ferry ride to Tanjung Balai Karimun and imagine where Singapore might have been. Or drive over to Forest City and see the Country Garden, a massive construction by a Shanghai-based construction company.
But if you really want an unforgettable metaphysical experience I suggest you take the 8 a.m. ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Nongsapura. You board the ferry at 8 a.m., and the trip takes 40 minutes. You will arrive at 7.40. That is, you arrive in Batam 20 minutes before you have left Singapore. Batam is on Waktu Indonesia Barat, which is one hour behind Singapore time. You arrive before you leave. This trip puts you in the mood to sit back and enjoy the Indonesian experience. As you tour Riau tune in to how Dutch it is. We live in a fascinating neighborhood. Don’t miss it.
Dr Sharon Siddique is an independent scholar, and a director of Singapore-based Sreekumar.Siddique & Co., a regional research-consulting firm established in 1993. Prior to this, she was a Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). She was also a founding member of the Malay Heritage Board, which was constituted to manage the Malay Heritage Centre.
At ISEAS she was in charge of coordinating regional research, and also chairman of the Institute’s Publications Unit Review Committee. At Sreekumar.Siddique & Co, she has provided customised research consulting services and private briefings for company boards, senior managers and public policy officials, with a focus on Southeast Asia (see website for more details (www.sreekumar-siddique.com).
Dr Siddique is a noted authority on Islam and socio-cultural change, and has written extensively on social restructuring and urban planning. She has degrees in development sociology, Malay Studies and linguistics from the Universities of Bielefeld (Germany), Singapore and Montana (USA).
Time seems to have an intangible dimension. We cannot measure it directly, like the length of an object. Instead, we need an artificial device, a clock, to measure it. But what are we actually measuring, and why is this measurement so incommensurate with our sense or experience of time?
A clock creates intervals to which we can relate, but our brain cannot measure it. To two different people, an interval of an hour on a clock (that is 3600 ticks on a “60 beats per minute” metronome) may feel like a day or only a few seconds, depending on the context in which they experience the time. That day or those seconds—how do we determine their lengths in our experience of time?
The clock-time may tell us that the day or the seconds that we experience are exactly the same number of counted seconds. Our experience and sense tell us otherwise. The musician may use “60 beats per minute” to make sure that he got the tempo right, after which he will stretch or shorten the duration of some notes, or combinations of notes, to give meaning to the music.
Another example of time stretching itself out is what tennis-player Jimmy Connors described as transcendent occasions. Here, I quote from A Geography of Time by Robert Levine (1997):
“Tennis great Jimmy Connors has described transcendent occasions when his game rose to a level where he felt he’s entered a ‘zone’. At these moments, he recalls, the ball would appear huge as it came over the net and seemed suspended in slow motion. In this rarified air, Connors felt he had all the time in the world to decide, when, and where to hit the ball. In truth, of course, his seeming eternity lasted only a fraction of a second.”
So, what does time do to us, or what do we do to time?
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Tasmania. Life seemed to go a lot slower there than in Singapore. Amongst others, we took a boat trip down the Gordon River on the West coast of Tasmania. Along that river, life is even more slow: trees take hundreds of years to mature. The oldest trees around (the Huon pines) are 3,000 years old or more. At that pace and age, evolution takes a long time.
The vegetation in the rainforest around Gordon River is said to about the same as the vegetation that was there when Australia broke apart from Antarctica some 150 million years ago. There could still be some dinosaurs, if they had not gone extinct 60 million years ago by events that went faster than their speed of life. But the trees from which they ate still exist and now form an impenetrable rainforest that covers most of the West coast of Tasmania.
Why do I write this? I think an important question for me is how to conciliate clock time with perceived time. What determines the time frame that drives perception?
There seems to be plenty of evidence that there is something like clock-time. With clock-time as a ticking basis, an innumerable number of processes take place in all corners of the universe and in all products of evolution.
Some of these processes take millions of years to create a measurable impact. Others, like chemical reactions, metabolic processes, or brainwaves take milliseconds or less. Yet, for each of those processes, the clock ticks at the same speed. At least that is what I assume, not taking into account Einsteinian physics. We, and the environment we live in, are shaped by the interactions of all these processes.
Does the clock-time change in all these interactions? I find that hard to imagine. What I can imagine is that some processes are stimulated, and others are repressed by other processes with which they interact.
Could it be that such stimulation or repression plays a role in our perception of time and duration? If so, what happens when we find ourselves in a forest, like my wife and I did, that has evolved very slowly in 150 million years, and that has 3,000-year-old trees in it?
Can one imagine a measurement device in our brain that detects duration, and operates independently of the interactions that shape(d) us and our environment?
If there is such a device and if it is not independent, what is the meaning of the distinction between “now” and “before”? If, on the other hand, it is dependent, then maybe our perception of duration is just an indication that some processes are being depressed or stimulated.
Although I can imagine that happening in a prehistoric forest, I have no idea how.
Jan Wouter Vasbinder is the Director of Para Limes.
Para Limes is organising a conference, “The Complexities of Time”, that will run from 19 to 21 March 2018. All are welcomed and registration is required. For more information, visit our website.
On 15 November 2017, Dr Sharon Siddique spoke at our monthly Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue. She explained how colonialism still colours Singapore’s views, and why it is important for Singapore to get to know her neighbours better.
The following is a selection of tweets highlighting some of the main points she made.
#SharonSiddique: It’s important to look closer to home. Singapore seems to assume that the constellation of nation states will always be there. But who’s to say this won’t change?#NTUParaLimes#SGEastWest
#SharonSiddique: I was in Bonn the year the Berlin Wall fell. Before that, I attended several diplomatic functions with my husband, and no one thought the wall will be breached. Likewise, we can’t expect things will stay the same for us. #NTUParaLimes#SGEastWest
On 11 October, Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke at our monthly Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue. He focused on why a small country should not behave like a small country.
The following is a selection of tweets highlighting the main points he made.
The reality of Singapore’s standing on the world stage
BK: If you’re a small city state, you have to understand that you’re intrinsically irrelevant on the world stage. #SGEastWest#Politics
The Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue is a series of monthly informal meetings, where a speaker from academia, government, or industry discusses issues related to such a dialogue from their own field.
In this second article about the session with Michael J. Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University, ISAAC TAN highlights some of the questions posed to him and his initial reflections about the discussion.
Questions for the Professor
The first question was how one should teach the next generation to appreciate the diversity and complexity of the world. This is in consideration that many aspects of society are intertwined, and the rise of extreme movements has made the world more volatile.
Puett prefaced his reply by pointing out that neo-liberalism harks back to liberalism which shaped the political system based on self-interest. Just as the economy collapsed in the 1920s, and right-wing movements rose in the 1930s, we are experiencing a similar pattern now because we adopted an ideology wholesale. The key to educating the next generation is to get them recognise that there is an “incredible fear of the kind of world that has been created” that is driving these movements. From there, we should respond to those fears by actually changing the system, but “we ought to have the discipline of not trying to [invent] new grand –isms to solve it.”
When asked whether there is an event today that parallels the fall of the Berlin Wall, Puett replied that the failure of the neo-liberal system is such an epoch. The silver lining is that the rise of right-wing movements have made people less complacent, and they are starting to consider what can be done to solve the problem.
Another interesting question that arose is whether one should view the practice of creating rituals as a sort of trans-cultural Confucianism, whereby the rituals created should be based on societal context, instead of importing the exact practices that Confucius was in favour of.
Puett agreed with the notion, and pointed out that Confucius emphasised what the Zhou rituals achieved, rather than the actual details of said rituals. Similarly, the rituals one decides to create or adopt should break us out of the patterns and ruts that we fall into. Hence, it would not make sense for us to perform the Zhou rituals because it has no resonance in our society.
As the session drew to a close, someone remarked that at first glance, all this seemed to be in the arena of the educated, and those who are actively looking for solutions. He asked if there is hope for the masses who are often bogged down by various worries, and understanding such concepts would be the last thing on their mind.
Puett replied that the hope lies in the momentary and fragmentary moments of interactions when people really connected. The sense of “joyousness that come from these relations where people are really connecting with each other” should be the focus. These are the moments in which people break out of their patterns, and open up for the possibility for change. Once people recognise these moments and start striving for it within their relationships, even if the connection breaks down shortly after, there is hope for change. This applies to everyday relationships and those on the societal level. Therefore, this is accessible to everyone.
Initial Thoughts: Singapore’s Lack of Identity—A Boon?
When it comes to extrapolating the idea of ritual to a macro level, Puett consistently emphasised that different sectors of society should be based on different systems, so as to prevent society from being shaped by a single totalising ideology. But what about a society’s sense of identity?
Since achieving independence, Singapore has been trying to articulate what a Singaporean identity is to very little success. The most recent discussion arose last year, when Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), Ong Ye Kung, was asked whether Singapore was ready to do away with race categorisation.
He replied, “The Singaporean identity itself is rather quite empty. What fills up a Singaporean identity is the identity of various races and all the traditions and cultures that we bring forth and create this tapestry [with].”
Undoubtedly, those who equate national identity to national unity will feel anxious about such comments. But what if there is a kernel of truth in it (regardless of whether it justifies maintaining the current system of racial categorisation)?
Puett explained that some classical Chinese philosophers argued against there being an essential self. Could this be applied to national identity, and what does it mean for Singapore to embrace it?
Rather than trying to piece together an identity by citing several buzzwords, we should truly take a look at what we have.
Racial diversity is often mentioned as one of Singapore’s plus points, but the demographics happened partly due to happenstance, and largely because of colonialism. Apart from advertising a set of statistics disguised as a strength, perhaps we ought to come up with dialogic practices in order to engage and learn from the plethora of cultures we have at close proximity.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but engaging with such complexity is the training we all need. Instead of being crippled by this existential anxiety, it could be turned into a strength which results in a society that is sensitive and adaptable.
Only then, could Singapore truly be a platform for East-West dialogue, and not just a title for a series of meetings and discussions.
Isaac Tan received his B.A. Philosophy (Honours) from the National University of Singapore. He was the Communications Executive of Para Limes from 2017–2018.
The Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue is a series of monthly informal meetings, where a speaker from academia, government, or industry discusses issues related to such a dialogue from their own field.
In this first of a two-part series, ISAAC TAN writes about the session by Michael J. Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. Puett spoke about how Chinese philosophy offers an alternative viewpoint of the self and one’s relations to the wider world.
A Generation Who Failed
16th August 2017 — His opening remarks were surprising to anyone acquainted with Dr Michael Puett, and his cheerful disposition, because it was uncharacteristically gloomy.
“Let me give you an example of a generation that, in retrospect, faced a major moment in world history and failed.” He went on to list the reasons for such a failure: “They did not try to learn from other cultures; they did not try to build a cosmopolitan world; they did not try to engage in ideas from different cultures, and bring them together. And the results were, I would say, catastrophic.”
He acknowledged that the generation was his, and he pointed to the fall of the Berlin Wall as the pivotal moment where his generation took the first step in the wrong direction. Given that the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, the end of the war thus signalled which side had the better ideology. As such, the 1989 generation (as Puett calls it) began building a new world, “where one set of ideas, from one tiny piece of Western culture, became the only ones that were taken seriously.” That set of ideas is neo-liberalism.
Such an ideology assumes an essential self. All one has to do is to find oneself, and structure one’s life according to who one is, in one’s self interest. It is so entrenched in society that people are, as Puett noted, “judged on the degree to which [they] do this.” This can be seen in both the political and economic systems where people are encouraged to act according to their self-interest to be successful.
Puett then highlighted a profound implication: “What we were really saying is you don’t need to learn anything else; you don’t have to wrestle with ideas; you don’t even have to take ideas seriously because that’s happened—we wrestled with the big ideas and solved it.”
What contributed to the various problems that we have today is that when they were faced with a potential problem, the previous generation felt that if they raised a generation who were true to themselves, some of them will become great innovators, and they will be able to solve those problems. In that sense, the 1989 generation saw that those were not the problems for them to solve.
Puett proceeded to urge the audience of mostly young adults to take his generation as a wonderful example of what not to do. He added, “Take for granted that one single idea, if it becomes the assumption that guides a life or an entire world, will almost be dangerous.” Instead, one has to “work across different cultural traditions, allowing ideas from different traditions to contest and challenge your fundamental assumptions.”
An Alternative View
As for the essential conception of the self, is there an alternative view of the self that a society can adopt which might ameliorate the problems we have today?
Puett cited an alternative offered by classical Chinese philosophy which does not view the self as a stable entity. Rather, the self is “a mess of different energies, emotions, dispositions, and tendencies.” As such, our encounters with others and the wider world “draw out” certain emotions in us, and we respond to them accordingly. The danger is, added Puett, “that from a young age, we cease to really respond to the real world around us” because we “fall into patterns and ruts of responses.”
The solution is to break these patterns and ruts is through doing rituals. Such a process allows you to “see the world from a different perspective”, and “interact with those around you in a completely different way than you otherwise would.”
To illustrate his point, Puett raised an example of a Chinese ritual performed by father and son: “The son would have to walk into a ritual space, and play his own father. And the father will have to play the role of being the son to his own son, and interact as such. Each, in other words, being forced to see the world not only from a different perspective, but from the complicated perspective that is driving this complicated pattern.”
Of course, this does not mean that the father and son will immediately have a harmonious relationship. Rather, the ritual is a continuous process and by slowly being aware of the various perspectives, one becomes more attuned to the situation and will be able to find an appropriate response to the situation. Therefore, this opens up the possibility of being able to change the world. This can be seen in the stories about Confucius, who is able to sense the situation, the patterns and ruts of others, and react appropriately.
But how does this translate to political and economic systems? “You want to intentionally create different spheres, where people are not simply seamlessly being pushed in terms of one focus, namely self-interest,” advised Puett. “If you have an economic system that’s aimed at gaining wealth, then you create a political system explicitly focused on meritocracy to emphasize different sides of human beings.” The different spheres will ensure that society is constantly forced to break out of the patterns of a sphere guided by a single vision. This enables a society to be keenly aware of the complexities that arise in a particular area.
In concluding his talk, Puett clarified that creating rituals to break one’s patterns and ruts does not mean replacing neo-liberalism with Confucianism. That is merely replacing one totalising ideology with another, and by extension, repeating the same mistake committed by his generation. Instead, one should work towards a “cosmopolitan approach to life”, where one actively learns from other ideas and cultures, and employing them to challenge fundamental assumptions. Such a process will then result in a society where people are able to see the complexities of the world, and work with them.
While it may sound Utopian, Puett argued that it is achievable because all one has to do is to begin with the mundane and slowly expand it to society as a whole. In each interaction, one could alter one’s reaction to see how things turn out. Soon, one will be adept at assessing and dealing with the complexity of each situation. This shatters any illusion of the world being stable, and that change is possible. If the current and future generations learn to see that, then they will be creating “a world where people can flourish.”
Isaac Tan received his B.A. Philosophy (Honours) from the National University of Singapore. He was the Communications Executive of Para Limes from 2017–2018.