Singaporean Culture, Identity and Politics

Foreword

This is one of those times when I have a bit of free time and the nagging at the back of my mind after reading something that I think should be written about kicks in.

So here goes~ This article is an amalgamation of three topics that are quite similar in scope, so that’s why they’re combined in a single article instead of across three short ‘Thoughts’ posts.

Also, I suppose the title could be classified as a misnomer, the emphasis should be on Singapore Culture & Identity and Identity Politics, not Singapore Politics. Some discussion of local politics would probably come in somewhere, but it’s not something that interests me greatly so there there is little incentive to write about it.

Introduction

Three topics will be discussed in this post, that of a unique Singaporean Culture, the national drive for a Singaporean Identity and the possible perils of doing so (in the form of identity politics emerging). There is little to formally conclude, but one can perhaps draw their own conclusions from what is written within the article.

Singaporean Culture

After having been recommended videos on Youtube one too many times, I clicked on one of them that seemed amusing and realized it was quite amusing. A few hours later, I had exhausted a playlist or two of videos and was left with a cynical taste in my mouth, the sort that emerges after one becomes desensitized to something that was initially rather humorous.

Regardless, the videos were sufficiently interesting that I have included them in this article, and not simply because they were amusing. Rather, these videos seem to me to be the first form of what I would feel safe to label ‘Native Singaporean Culture’.

Links to the Youtube channels that are being discussed, if one has time to burn:

Doubtless there are a few more channels that were not linked and are up and rising, but these currently are the main channels of Singaporean humor.

As they are a relatively new phenomenon, little literature exists regarding their social impact with the exception of interviews conducted, which admittedly have their own allure. This section of the article, then, is an attempt by an ordinary Singaporean to quantify what he finds amusing of the videos produced.

Firstly, Singlish and dialects feature frequently in most of these videos. Perhaps it lends credence to the views by some that Singlish is part of our national identity, for arguably it elicits reactions (though not necessarily positive) among those within the article. I would hesitate to call this a polarizing issue in the same way gun control or abortion is in, say, the U.S, but most reactions to Singlish in general society tend to find it quirky or distasteful. Again, if someone were to ask if a foreign language like Finnish was central to a Singaporean identity, most, if not all, would probably say no, because that is something that they’ve never considered until it was brought up by someone a few seconds ago.

The same logic then holds, then, that Singlish is part of a Singaporean identity. In the same way that the victors and victims of a conflict have some historical identities built upon who won and who loss (See: China and Taiwan, China and Japan, Japan and South Korea), it is easier to accept that something is part of your identity and view it in a positive or negative manner rather than to argue that it is a completely alien concept or entity that in no way forms part of your cultural identity.

Having established that Singlish (and to a smaller extent, dialects) is/are a (disputed) part of the Singaporean identity, what then does one make of the frequent use in Youtube videos such as those linked above? It would be unnecessarily reductionist to simply attribute the resonance within the videos to their use of Singlish (and dialects), but at the same time, part of their appeal undoubtedly stems from the sense of familiarity shared with the viewer in using these cultural tools. In the same way that the women portrayed within the videos are attractive based on societal standards but they do not generate a nuanced interest by themselves, Singlish is simply the cultural means to a hilarous end, one that admittedly is well employed by the three channels that have been linked.

Secondly, acting abilities, portrayal and (the occasional) deconstruction of cultural stereotypes also play a fairly large role in eliciting laughs or stifled chuckles from the viewer. The former ranges from advanced amateur and borderline cringe worthy in earlier videos to decent and passably realistic acting in later videos, depending on the start and end videos that are chosen. It would not be an exaggeration, however, to say that the these cultural (and societal) stereotypes are things with other Singaporeans have at some point or another witnessed from far or personally encountered, which makes it a largely enjoyable experience in watching how these stereotypes are acted. Admittedly there have been some (poorly received) missteps (an isolated case of blackface that depicted construction workers building sandcastles that I’m somehow unable to find now), but these are few and far between.

In short, it does feel that these videos represent what could be the first flowering of Singaporean culture. Whether this small growth will eventually peter out or whether it generates greater interest in the development, not just consumption, of local culture remains to be seen. I, for one, welcome videos that focus around timeless topics such as (but certainly not specifically) gender issues (of which two videos have been made by separate producers) or that of relationships (romantic or otherwise) as opposed to repetition of trite memes and slogans seen in everyday life.

Singaporean Identity & Identity Politics

Compared to the paucity of literature written regarding funny Singaporean videos (see above), much has been written about this issue with everyone from local heavyweights weighing in to general commentaries by editors and possibly on some blog musings (this included). It seems that the emergence of a definite Singapore identity could not come sooner for some, perhaps because of the perceived benefits in utilizing the Singaporean identity for national solidarity.

However, the purpose of this post was neither to dispute, refute nor speculate on what or when a specific Singapore identity would entail or emerge. Rather, I believe that culture often exists in a mutually constitutive relationship with one’s identity. In laymen’s terms, culture exerts an (undetermined, could be positive or negative) impact on identity and vice-versa in a constantly changing flux.

In reading a section on identity politics in Iraq by the esteemed Dr. Fanar Hadded in a book soon to be published, he mentioned at length about the horrendous impacts identity politics has had on the Iraqi state and society at large. Singapore fortunately lacks the exact societal divisions that Iraq now faces, but it did give rise to concern that prompted this post. In our search for a definite Singapore identity, might we not be creating an image of a ‘Self’ that would necessarily cause the formation of the ‘Other?’

This, depending on who you ask, already exists to some extent in Singapore, that of the emergence of pure ‘Rafflesian’ students that walk a different path from the ordinary folk. Elitism, whether real or imagined, would be a form of an identity that tends to be more divisive than cohesive, with the upper classes of society viewing themselves as the ‘Self’ and the others as, simply, the ‘Other.’ The same scene replays itself when replaced with the “Other” actor.

Perhaps that is why the search for an identity emphasizes the common grounds between citizens in order to mitigate the divisiveness of such an identity that emerges, whatever it may be. And many sociological divisions do exist in society that are persistent, such as that of age, prestige attached to occupation or marital status. These divisions, though they constitute part of one’s identity, do not exert the same impact on politics as in the case of Iraq. It is thus hoped that the search for the Singaporean identity does not create needless divisions in a society that has tried to overcome them through social engineering (and good use of policies, if I may add) in the past. A nightmarish scenario would undoubtedly be the manifestation of these divisions in the emergence of polarizing identity politics.

What would happen in a situation like that would be…quite difficult to speculate on. Hopefully, it does not come to past.

 

 

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