The Society and Its Environment

Singapore Table of Contents

MIRROR GLASS BANK TOWERS overshadowing Victorian-era government buildings symbolized Singapore's transformation from a colonial port to an independent city-state with the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia in 1989. Singapore's status as a newly industrializing economy ( NIE) was signaled by its landscaped complexes of owner-occupied apartments and streets blocked by the private cars of affluent citizens. The citizens increasingly considered themselves Singaporeans rather than Chinese or Indians or Malays, and the multiethnic population increasingly used English as the common speech in schools, offices, and the armed forces. Singapore in the 1980s had become a byword for orderliness and effective administration, a place where stiff fines discouraged littering and citizens of all ethnic groups were subject to common, impartial standards of merit and achievement. Government efforts at social engineering extended beyond slum clearance and the creation of housing estates to such matters as men's hair length, the language families spoke at breakfast, and the number of children born to women with university degrees.

Singapore's leaders reacted to the unanticipated 1965 separation from Malaysia, which left a city without a hinterland, by deciding to "go cosmopolitan." This meant seeking a place in the world rather than in the regional economy; it also meant maintaining a certain social and cultural distance from neighboring countries while deliberately fostering a new and distinctively Singaporean culture and social identity. By late 1989 Singapore was cosmopolitan, prosperous, modernized, and orderly. Its population was educated in English, worked for multinational corporations, and consumed a worldwide popular culture of film, music, and leisure activities. English was, however, a second language for most, and many distinctively Chinese, Indian, and Malay customs, practices, and attitudes continued. In contrast to many countries of the region, Singapore's avowed social values were secular, democratic (within certain limits), and nondiscriminatory.

The content of the distinctive "Singaporean identity" and the proper balance between cosmopolitan and traditional values were issues that both preoccupied the leadership and would continue to shape the society in the 1990s. There was much public discussion of social identity, ethnicity, and the proper relation of Singaporeans to worldwide popular culture. Such discussion, often initiated by political leaders, tended to dichotomize habits and behavior into mutually exclusive "Asian" or "Western" categories. The initial premise was that Singapore should be a modernized but not a Westernized society, and that it would be a mistake for Singaporeans to become so thoroughly Westernized and cosmopolitan as to lose touch with their Asian roots and values. Such concepts as tradition and modernity, local and cosmopolitan, had a distinctively Singaporean meaning as was indicated by the widespread use of such terms as "Asian traditions" and "cultural ballast." The meaning of these concepts, however, remained to be defined more precisely by the discussions and day-to-day decisions of Singapore's citizens.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress