The People’s Action Party (PAP), the ruling party in Singaporean politics since the 1960’s, held a snap election this September 11. This election was important for two different reasons; one was that it is the first time in decades that all the ridings in the election were contested, and two was that the PAP exceeded predictions to win by a landslide. Rather than losing support as they had in the last election, the PAP had a sweeping victory with 80% of the vote. So how can the PAP remain strong in the midst of growing presence of opposition parties in the elections?
The simple answer is good timing, that this election was called following the death of the PAP’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, a man often credited with leading Singapore “From third world to first” as he liked to put it. It also followed the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence from the British Empire. These two factors draw attention to the PAP’s past and therefore they strengthened official narratives that make the PAP appear the natural leaders of Singapore. These official narratives are that the PAP’s policies in Singapore brought wealth and stability through a merit based bureaucratic and corporate system.
At the rallies last week the running metaphor for this election was the idea of the national boat. A PAP minister had commented that the main opposition, the Workers Party (WP) wanted to run Singapore like a casino cruise ship, spending lavishly and not attending to budgets. The WP had adopted this metaphor and integrated it into their rhetoric, saying that the PAP had been running the boat in the same direction for so long they were going to run it aground. In counter, PAP candidates shot back that if you want to run a ship, you need an experienced crew, and no one can argue that the PAP are not the most experienced crew in Singapore.
In fact many of the PAP candidates are drawn from civil service, military, and academic positions that are emblematic of its emphasis on meritocracy and competitive government wages. The high wages is a controversial position, and the opposition was quick to point out that Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore and son of Lee Kuan Yew, is the highest paid head of state in the world. Critics point out that the PAP runs Singapore more like a corporation then a government and sometimes that rhetoric is embraced within the PAP. One candidate mentioned that Singaporeans working for corporations based in Singapore are brothers and sisters of the government.
So what does the elections of the government have to do with Singapore’s overseas students and neoliberal regimes in international education? The connection between the meritocratic/corporate model of governance, and the sustenance of elite families like the Lees goes hand in hand with the significance of overseas educations. Despite the opposition’s rhetoric of protecting Singaporeans from the alienation and inequality of a global city with its emphasis on migrant labor, the elite credentialism of Singaporeans going overseas is a reality, which transcends all the parties. The PAP proudly states that now even lower-middle class Singaporeans can travel with their families abroad, while the WP and other opposition parties say that Singapore needs to establish a ‘first world parliament’ with an opposition party that can challenge the government. Implicit in the idea of a first world parliament and the mobile middleclass is the idea that Singapore must turn outward and become more globally aware, which might seem the natural outcome of living in a tiny island city state.
When these topic of first world politics and first world economics comes up, they relate back to the countries that are ‘first world’, and Japan, US, and the UK are common examples that all parties pointed to at rallies as places that Singapore should aspire to or critically analyze. Switzerland comes up as the European equivalent of Singapore, despite its lack of ports. By contrast Malaysia and Indonesia are both threats and negative examples in the PAP rhetoric, and Lee Hsien Loong even mentioned in a rally that he picked 9/11 for the election to remind Singaporeans of the threat of Islamic terrorism situated in Singapore’s Islamic neighbors. Perhaps most importantly, the candidates themselves are examples of how merit, prestige, and overseas educations are intertwined: for the WP 23/28 candidates have overseas credentials, in the PAP 16/20 new candidates have overseas credentials and for the Singapore Democratic Party, another opposition party, the number is 9/11.
While the PAP emphasizes a neoliberal discourse about first world success and the opposition parties emphasize a human rights/democratic discourse of first world success, both show through words and credentials that success can be found overseas, and can be brought back to Singapore by those who are qualified to lead the country.
Towering above one of Singapore’s many shiny shopping centres is a megachurch. I was invited to go to this church with a very kind older neighbor, Rachael (all the names here are changed). We attended the New Creation Church, a megachurch in Singapore, which can host around 200,000 attendees over four services every Sunday. It was an incredible experience, to see so many people physically entranced in their religious experiences in a kind of space that I associate with concert halls. As overtures of Jazz and pop brought youthful gospel and Anglo-Saxon references seamlessly mixed with Singaporean tropes in the sermon, and my friend would laugh at them all. But when the sermon turned to the preservation of god’s love in family, it became serious. For Rachael, family is brought together by getting a deal together. She had been talking in the ride over about her son’s apartment and it was a point of pride that he had moved from a 3 room to a 5 room place and ‘boy what a deal he got!’ she said. Since Singapore offers subsidies for ‘3 generation under one roof’ she would like to move closer to her children and rent their apartment someday, as another neighbor does. Sunday is the day her two children visit, and she is not alone. Singapore is a small enough place that as long as you have not gone overseas, it is not hard to visit home over the weekend, and this fact is not lost on most parents….
That evening I was treated to a meal at Rachael’s house, two floors down from my flat. When I got there her son, Ke, was already there,excited to share with me his experience overseas, his research in college, and his experience as a teacher. Ke gave a great interview, explaining the process by which nationalism is instilled in schools at an early age through mass participation in national day and the changes that have occurred in communication technology since he went overseas (in the pre-Skype days). Our discussion continued as his sister and brother-in-law entered the house and joined us for dinner. It was clear from the start that the parents treated his younger sister, Mia, a bit differently. While Ke and I were given gifts and plied with extra helpings of meat, Mia and her husband ate quietly. Through the dinner I learned that Ke did not get into the local university, so his parents paid for his overseas studies. They had only enough money to send him, and not his sister. She had only gotten a chance to realize her desire to go overseas later, when she finally felt comfortable asking her father for help, but by that point she was already working. When Ke was overseas they would communicate by ICQ, the first generation of Internet messengers, and it was his sister who was in charge of relaying the messages.
Their father has Parkinson’s, and Rachael takes care of him full time. Over the meal the children showed their concern for their father in different ways; Ke asked if he was taking his medicine. Mia made sarcastic jokes about him crying and reminiscing while we tried to change the subject when he cried. She said he had been tough, working all his life, and all the emotions had gotten bottled up. Now they were spilling over….
Rewind to last week. I was sitting down with the semi-pro cyclist/kayaker/Community activist Zixing for lunch. He is a man who goes against the grain. The way he puts it, he is ‘a bit of a rebel’. Before he moved to Australia to do construction for half a year, he had a bad holiday, a very bad holiday. Zixing’s father and his uncle were at odds, so much so that they fought over Chinese New Year; something Zixing says drove his grandmother into a poor state of dementia. Zixing’s older sister had been caring for the grandmother for 2 years, and he thought this was a constraint on her social life, as she was hardly qualified to live alone with a high-maintenance elder. Zixing found her to become increasingly lonely and despondent. He had complained to his father of this, but his father felt it was the best course of action; after all, someone needed to take care of her. His father fighting with his uncle had been the last straw, and he said to his father, maybe we should just not talk for a while. They did not speak for a year. Today Zixing lives back at home, and does community activism in his neighborhood for the support of migrant workers in the area. When I asked if he will care for his parents he said sure, but don’t tell them. For him filial piety is a trump card, and he doesn’t want his parents to take his future contributions for granted, but after all, ‘someone has got to do it’…
…. Rewind another week. My friend Wudao and I are browsing coffee shops in China town. I’m still new to Singapore and anxious to learn more about people here. I ask if I can visit his house that weekend, since like all other Singaporeans I’ve met, the family gets together for the weekend. In response he tells me a tragic story of his maternal side. Skipping many tragic details, 5/6 of his uncles and aunts cannot care for his grandmother, and that led to animosity on all sides. He said sometimes he and the final uncle would talk about how it might be easier just to put them in a home…but that is something, he said, we wouldn’t talk about with the others…
Taking care a family is not an easy task. What is expected is unevenly distributed by age, gender, and income. As one imam said in a speech at the Islamic learning centre, taking care of elders is the quickest path to paradise, because it is the hardest work that somebody has got to do.
My next blog will tell you about the idea of being in two places, or potentially being in multiple places that has come up in some of my interviews. In particular a narrative of international culture or globalized identity which a number of interviews have touched on. I realized after making this recording I have to begun to make some generalizations about Singaporean students in it without contextualizing that this only reflects the opinions of young men. I think this shows a danger in my own research practices of too easily turning anocdotes into generalizations without fully concidering the whole context. I want to make it clear that that was a mistake, but rather than erasing it, I would like to use this opportunity to draw attention to it and how I can re-evaluate these contexts in the future. That being said, I hope this podcast will none the less address how some young men in Singapore feel about their travels overseas and return to Signapore based on the interviews and participant observation sessions I have been conducting with individuals and families here.
One thing that is not easy when living overseas is finding community. For Singaporean overseas sons, after going through NS and finding a source of funding to go overseas, the next step is actually living overseas, and that means making new friends. From personal experience I can tell you being out of place can be a bummer sometimes, and the excitement of being somewhere new and exotic goes hand in hand with the alienation of being somewhere foreign. Luckily for many Overseas Singaporeans, some of their community comes with them.
SingSocs, or Singaporean Societies are present wherever there are hubs of Singaporeans studying or living overseas, particularly at large and prestigious universities in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. According to the Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) there are 249 registered SingSocs worldwide. These organizations are largely organized like other student clubs at universities, providing mentorship, community and resources for incoming Singaporeans over Facebook, blogs and in person. Particularly in the UK and the East Coast of the US, the close distances between colleges allow these societies to connect and organize holiday events for a large network of Overseas Singaporeans, such as Hari Raya and National Day. Funding for events comes from a mix of partners, and the handful of society leaders I have talked to say it is a mix of university, student, and government support. In particular the largest government support comes from the OSU, a Singaporean government agency under the National Population and Talent Division of the Prime Minister’s office. OSU provides a directory of SingSocs, events, resources, and stories for students, parents and professionals in all stages of going overseas. It covers overseas professional and business communities as well as students. In addition to the OSU there has also been funding available from Contact Singapore, an organization under the Ministry of Manpower and Economic Development board with the mandate which, according to their website, is to engage Overseas Singaporeans along with global talent to ‘work, invest and live in Singapore’.
Funding from OSU for SingSoc events can range from 40-80% depending on whether they fulfill the following criteria: “Celebrate Singapore’s culture and heritage; Keep Singaporeans abroad abreast with developments in Singapore; and Strengthen a sense of community amongst the Singaporeans abroad through meaningful projects and activities” and have group of over 50 with majority Singaporeans. (https://www.overseassingaporean.sg/resources/students/staying-abroad/fundings-for-communities) Three of the Singaporean students I have interviewed have worked with these SingSoc’s, and they have expressed gratitude for the type of funding that helps keep these organizations together that few other countries would provide. It seems many students kept close with Singaporean friends after settling overseas, rooming with other Singaporeans, road tripping with them, or going to seniors for advice on their future. As a returned exchange student myself I can see how valuable those kind of groups would be, particularly for the new students with little or no connections when they arrive.
Some Overseas Singaporean men, particularly those living in the US and those more set on emigration expressed a certain amount of ambivalence about what they referred to as a ‘bubble’ of Singaporean culture in colleges that are hubs for Singaporean students. Although almost everyone seemed thankful that support was there for them from Singapore, many Overseas Singaporeans (OS) were proud of the fact that they had taken the initiative to break out of that bubble and connect with a larger community of international students and locals. Especially for those graduates finishing 3 or 4 years stints overseas, the importance of keeping connected with a more cosmopolitan, or as one friend called it, ‘sophisticated’ community of foreigners and Singaporeans with international perspectives was heightened upon returning. This was often associated with the self-reflexive linguistic code-switching that returning students had to deal with where they would speak more Singlish or Chinese dialects with Singaporean friends, and more American/UK English or Standard Mandarin with international friends. In fact, many interviewees mentioned they find it annoying when OS, who are considered posh or too Westernized, are unable to properly switch back to local speech patterns and instead maintain an overseas accent as a result of their experience. Bringing this back to the realm of place in the family and nation, staying connected overseas fits with the goal of maintaining ties to homeland, which connect both long term family plans of localized eldercare, marriage and home ownership, and state discourses about OS as a part of the national development plan. At the same time, the continued association with ‘sophisticated’ communities raises questions about what are the long term effects of studying overseas in terms of identity and sense of place.
As I am living in Singapore it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I am myself part of these cosmopolitan circles, as the people I am becoming friends with and interviewing tend to quote American TV shows, talk of overseas dreams, and use the same internet sites I do. At the same time,it is clear this is not the only identity for many, as when I press them further, these same friends will talk about their duty to Singapore and their nuanced opinions on its politics, their home languages, which rarely mirror our conversational language, and their localized use of the internet. In other words, as a foreigner I am more exposed to one identity then the others, but it is clear that for most people, they exist simultaneously and are context dependant.
In this podcast, I talk about two aspects that affected interview participants’ studies overseas. Funding and military service put young Singaporean men in a position of obligation, but while some people react with strategic consent or outright support, others find ways to resist or negotiate their positions between the state and family welfare. The transition from military service to looking for financial support for international tuition fees can be challenging. I discuss some participants’ perspectives on the challenges they experience in pursuit of the Singaporean dream.
My trip to Singapore started with tea. Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a cup of tea? The simple answer is tea leaves, but within that material there is layer upon layer of process, meaning, and investment. Last month I was living in a tea factory in Yunnan China, and I was lucky enough to get a tour of the opporations. In this case it started with an Anthropologist, a man who had taken classes at the state university on the cultural of tea. When he graduated he accumulated capital from his network of family and friends to buy a concrete storage site in a small village. He then met with the local patriarchs and materiarchs to arrange the purchase of their tea. These opporations led to further tea plantations, bringing the village closer into the capitalist economy of the region. Younger villagers were retained to dry, roast, and press the leaves into cakes, while the anthropologist turned tea boss now looked to the second and third phases of a successful modern business; marketing and mass distribution. For this he highered not villagers, but a mix of attractive young women, anthropology graduates, and members of his extended family to expand into the national and international markets. Social media profiles and urban stores began to expand, borrowing symbols and names from the old villages and myths associated with them.
That, more or less, is how tea gets on your table, through complex networks of mobile capital, traditional crafts, family bonds, creative branding, etc.. In this tangle of practice I want to draw a core theme that I will revisit throughout my thesis research: a network. The group of seemingly unrelated people, things and organizations that are intimately connected in the act of investing their resources and expertise, such as in a cake of tea. In this case, I will substitute tea for and international education.
So who invests in international education? the simple answer would usually be either ones family, or a shadowy scholarship council. Like tea leaves, the full answer involves so much more, becuase not only is an international education a consumptive product, it is also a crossroads in the lives of many young students. The meaning it takes on in their lives is steared by this larger network that is only beginning to become visible in my studies.
Yesterday I went to the first interview of my research period. To get there involved a series of machanics. First the elevator from the public housing building I am living in, than the vast and expanding subway network brought me downtown, than the well queued escalator brought me into the airconditioned mall which sprawled accross the waterfront. In this process of transportation there was hardly any interaction with the hot and humid outdoors. In Singapore I spend the vast majority of my time in a built enviornment. The envrionment of clockwork and temperature control is the perfect metaphor for what is going on around me; Singapore is a controlled environment. As one collegue descrided it to me “it is the ultimate social experiment”.
In this first two interview my understanding of the international education system was rocked in its foundation, division between what I thought a typical overseas experince and how he had experinced it became visible. Relationships between parents and children were more fluid than I had assumed, and I realized that I need to take a step back in my assumptions about this project.
In this case, my coorespondant engaged with Western culture, and found it contradictory to the values he had learned at home, in school, in his time in the army, and with international student friends. Many young men I met seem deeply invested in the political identity of their country, despite the limitations on public expression, and this often comes back to what their ancestors have invested in the founding of Singapore or the growth of its economy, and what they invested and recieved in their military service. I get a general sense of obligation, not only to the family or the state, but to an image of the island of Singapore as a place that has created oppurtunity, and requires to be perserved for future generations. One interview and a few conversations do not speak for everyone, but like the picture at the top of this blog implies, paying back can seem the safest option.