Beyond defensiveness

from Press News, posted 11/14/2011 - 13:34

It is one thing for us to lambast the situation in our own country, another for outsiders (ignorant foreigners) to level any criticism. This defensiveness is a very human reaction and rather common in academic circles. Not surprisingly, Constructing Singapore by Michael Barr and Zatko Skrbiš has provoked a fair amount of local criticism in Singapore since its publication two years ago.

It was thus refreshing to read a far more measured response to the study by the Singaporean scholar, You Yenn Teo, recently published in Pacific Affairs (vol. 84:3, September 2011). Although in a few respects critical of the study, nonetheless overall he is rather positive about the book.

Constructing Singapore begins with a provocative claim: that Singapore, outwardly a modern, secular state committed to meritocracy and multiracialism has in fact, beginning from the 1980s, moved toward a model of nation building that prioritizes ethnic Chinese and a particular form of Chineseness. Focusing on the education system and particularly on elite selection within it, Barr and Skrbiš draw on historical data and interviews with key informants, to illustrate the ways in which ethnic minorities are systematically disadvantaged and left out of the administrative and political elite in contemporary Singapore.

This book is a welcome addition to recent critical scholarship on the Singapore state and particularly its incomplete and often one-sided version of history. In its detailing of Singapore’s education system over the past few decades, it provides a valuable record of key moments and changes, central logics and tensions. Most importantly, the authors maintain a sustained commitment to showing the institutionalization of inequalities. They paint a compelling image of what these patterns of segregation have meant for Singaporean Malays in particular, and for Singapore citizens more generally. 


Barr and Skrbiš end with another provocative claim: that the system of elitism fosters among ordinary Singaporeans a sense of skepticism and distaste that may ultimately undermine sentiments of national belonging. 

The book will not be surprising for scholars familiar with the Singapore case, particular those who have themselves undergone the education system, but its attention to the specificities of the system gives much-needed concreteness to impressions. 

As the authors point out, the ethnic Chinese majority are often oblivious to their own advantages. I can therefore see the book opening the eyes and shaping discussions in university classrooms. Barr and Skrbiš have also paved the way for future research by showing the gaps in our understanding of how inequality is reproduced and the costs that are borne by all Singaporeans.

This review is unlikely to change attitudes to Constructing Singapore in some quarters. Nonetheless, having an insider acknowledge that these particular outsiders are not ignorant (and their study not rubbish) - far from it - is very much welcome here at the Press.


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