Constructing Singapore

Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project

by Michael D. Barr & Zlatko Skrbiš

  • Published: 2009
  • Pages: 318 pp.
  • illustrated
  • Series: Democracy in Asia
  • Series number: 11
Available from NIAS Press worldwide
ISBN Hardback: 978 87 7694 028 7, £65.00
ISBN Paperback: 978 87 7694 029 4, £25.00

This critical study of the politics of ethnicity and elitism in Singapore looks inside the ‘meritocratic’ system that produces the country’s political and administrative elite. Examining the education system from nursery though to university, it focuses on ethno-racial ascription but also considers personal power, connections, class and gender.

Singapore has few natural resources but, in a relatively short history, its economic and social development and transformation are nothing short of remarkable. Today Singapore is by far the most successful exemplar of material development in Southeast Asia and it often finds itself the envy of developed countries. Furthermore over the last three or four decades the ruling party has presided over the formation of a thriving community of Singaporeans who love and are proud of their country.

Nothing about these processes has been 'natural' in any sense of the word. Much of the country's investment in nation-building has in fact gone into the selection, training and formation of a ruling and administrative elite that reflects and will perpetuate its vision of the nation. The government ownership of the nation-building project, its micromanagement of everyday life and the role played by the elite are three fundamental elements in this complex and continuing process of construction of a natrion. The intense triangulation of these elements and the pace of change they produce make Singapore one of the most intriguing specimens of nation-building in the region.

In this critical study of the politics of ethnicity and elitism in Singapore, Barr and Skrbiš look inside the supposedly 'meritocratic' system, from nursery school to university and beyond, that produces Singapore's political and administrative elite. Focusing on two processes - elite formation and elite selection - they give primary attention to the role that etho-racial ascription plays in these processes but also consider the input of personal connections, personal power, class and gender. The result is a study revealing much about how Singapore's elite-led nation-building project has reached its current state whereby a Singaporean version of Chinese ethno-nationalism has overwhelmed the discourse on national and Singaporean identity.

by You Yenn Teo, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
From journal:
Pacific Affairs, 84(3), 2011

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.

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.

(A far lengthier extract is posted at http://www.niaspress.dk/blogs/gerald/blog/2011-november/beyond-defensiveness.)

by Martin Bourke
From journal:
Asian Affairs, Nov 2010

"… well researched and valuable study.

… will serve as a most useful source for anyone who wants to know what makes modern Singapore tick."

"… well researched and valuable study.

… will serve as a most useful source for anyone who wants to know what makes modern Singapore tick."

by Karl Hack, Open University, UK
From journal:
The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Volume 41/2, 2010

[T]his is a combative, carefully crafted, addition to a particular genre – the liberal critique of the Singapore  model – which focuses our attention on the question of how such a successful model has impacted on ethnic difference and outcomes … and how it generates a ruling elite which has a tentacle-like grip on all aspects of nation-building. 

[T]his is a combative, carefully crafted, addition to a particular genre – the liberal critique of the Singapore  model – which focuses our attention on the question of how such a successful model has impacted on ethnic difference and outcomes … and how it generates a ruling elite which has a tentacle-like grip on all aspects of nation-building. 

In summary, the most valuable aspect of the book is that it encourages Singaporeans and Singapore-watchers to evaluate the island’s educational and elite formation shifts for broader patterns and issues, and unintended side-effects.  Anyone truly interested in eduction in Singapore, or in comparative education models, should critically engage with this book.

by Chee Soon Juan
From journal:
Far Eastern Economic Review

Constructing Singapore is worhty of the attention of analysts and policy makers.

Constructing Singapore is worhty of the attention of analysts and policy makers.

by Jason P. Abbott
From journal:
Journal of Contemporary Asia

Constucting Singapore should be essential reading for anyone wishing to study further the nature of elite rule in Singapore and in particular the stark realities that underpin that elitism.

Constucting Singapore should be essential reading for anyone wishing to study further the nature of elite rule in Singapore and in particular the stark realities that underpin that elitism.

by Frank Chua, Mansfield University
From journal:
H-ASIA, 20 February 2010

Constructing Singapore is a penetrative study that provides an in-depth critical analysis of the elitist culture and mechanisms that shape and lubricate the nation-building process of the city-state into the model of efficacy that it is recognized today.

Constructing Singapore is a penetrative study that provides an in-depth critical analysis of the elitist culture and mechanisms that shape and lubricate the nation-building process of the city-state into the model of efficacy that it is recognized today. … Constructing Singapore aims to illuminate the limits of the city-state’s elitist education policies and the elitist culture of governance and it does just that. It is an invaluable study and critique of the nation’s elitist mechanisms and processes …

by Diane K. Mauzy, University of British Columbia
From journal:
Nations and Nationalism, 15 (4)

 This is a rigorously researched book that focuses on the failures and shortcomings of the nation-building project being undertaken by Singapore’s ruling elites. … This book has a great deal to recommend it. It has been carefully researched and it offers in-depth analyses of the facets and mechanisms of elite formation and elite selection.

 This is a rigorously researched book that focuses on the failures and shortcomings of the nation-building project being undertaken by Singapore’s ruling elites. … This book has a great deal to recommend it. It has been carefully researched and it offers in-depth analyses of the facets and mechanisms of elite formation and elite selection. It is rich in information about Singapore and social theory and interesting in its analysis of elite governance and society. Much of this rings true even for those inclined to be much less critical of the Singapore system.

by Boris Michel, Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
From journal:
Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 4/2009

In Constructing Singapore the authors convincingly demonstrate the eminent role of the education system in nation-building. While this may be true for most nation-building projects, Barr and Skrbiš demonstrate the uniqueness of the Singaporean model.

In Constructing Singapore the authors convincingly demonstrate the eminent role of the education system in nation-building. While this may be true for most nation-building projects, Barr and Skrbiš demonstrate the uniqueness of the Singaporean model. What makes Singapore unique, or at least an extreme example, in Southeast Asia is the explicit elitism of its nation- building and government agenda. Despite this uniqueness, the Singapore‘s nation-building and elite government model seems to be attractive to policymakers beyond the borders of the city state. For those studying nationalism in Southeast Asia, Barr’s and Skrbiš’s work is a very fruitful starting point for further research on state-led nation-building projects and their interrelation to questions of race, class, and gender. 

by V.T. (Terry) King, University of Leeds
From journal:
ASEASUK News 46, 2009

 Although Barr and Skrbis have not told me anything that I did not know in broad outline, they do provide a substantial and interesting evidential base for their study and add a great deal of detail on the inner workings of Singapore’s particular ‘factory’ system of elite production and, in more culturally specific terms, the schooling of its mandarinate.

 Although Barr and Skrbis have not told me anything that I did not know in broad outline, they do provide a substantial and interesting evidential base for their study and add a great deal of detail on the inner workings of Singapore’s particular ‘factory’ system of elite production and, in more culturally specific terms, the schooling of its mandarinate. I enjoyed reading what they had to say.

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