i stumbled into suntec city, a shopping complex in the heart of singapore’s downtown, to catch a viewing of the newly-released national drama (“national trash,” my more sophisticated singaporean friend quipped), ah boys to men 4. what started as a nostalgic recounting of the singaporean national service, that mandatory military service required of all male singaporean citizens, ah boys to men quickly ballooned into a multi-million-dollar franchise, making its actors stars and its director jack neo, a redeemed public figure after a cheating scandal halted his career. under the guise of “research,” i had watched the first two installments of neo’s franchise during my first visit to the lion city. lighthearted, with no shortage of slapstick humor, the testosterone-heavy comedy follows often hilarious mistakes of a gang of young soldiers, who survive the national service to become, we are to believe, upstanding singaporean citizens and deserving men.
as an animation of the national service’s cultural mythology, ah boys to men is a handy educational tool. a family-friendly comedy welcomed for its comradery-driven plot, the film expertly pairs reenactments of “ye olden days” with the contemporaneous quandaries faced by young draftees. jack neo’s genius lays in sewing a palatable nationalism made simultaneously justifiable and popular by an appeal to nostalgia. a half-hearted watch will inform the viewer that the series, with its boy band of chiseled adonises (a diasporic, distinctly chinese singaporean variety) champions a sinocentric national identity framed by a fraternal rhetoric of diversity and harmony. but in attempting to offer comedic relief to the racialized tensions bubbling beneath the veneer of the multi-ethnic city-state, neo’s films, taking cue from the singaporean government, assume a vague multiculturalism whose spirit exists only in rhetoric, and never in practice. in other words, ah boys to men, with its celebration of chinese masculinity and a virtually non-existent cast of malaysian and south asian characters, masks a sinister naturalization of the hegemonic sinosphere while actively disappearing the possibilities of alterity and the truth of singapore’s multi-ethnic society.
founded by such historical precedents as british colonialism (which definitively entered singapore into the colonial market order), the coolie trade (which accounted for large numbers of chinese immigration to the port colony in the 19th century), and the more contemporary phenomena of transnational investment-oriented emigres from the PRC, the chinese diaspora in singapore is as wide-ranging as it is historically contextualized along lines of trade, exploit, and the establishment of colonial modernity. the rhetoric of multiculturalism that coheres the singaporean national identity today is heir to this archive of (settler) colonialisms and strategies of racial management. But the singaporean government’s discursive weaponization of (false) unity amidst (real) difference is too a function of neoliberal market logics: a national identity must recognize internal discontent, but only insofar as such recognition resolves itself into a superficial catharsis that reinforces state power and leaves unquestioned the realities of the free market and existing systems of structural oppression.
the cultural hegemony of the singaporean sinosphere is in part a function of the ethnic group’s sheer number: 76% of singaporean citizens are ethnically chinese, a fact bolstered by overwhelming chinese representation in the national government and the leading people’s action party, founded by chinese uncle number one, the late prime minister lee kwan yew. In this light, it comes as no surprise that the diegesis of neo’s bestselling franchise coheres around the east asian man, normative subject as he is within the singaporean social strata. as if to justify its premiere on the stage of state, patriarchy, and capitalism, neo’s films aggressively assert the moniker “we are singaporean.” but qualifications so sparse sent this foreigner asking: who, in fact, is singaporean?
in pursuit of an answer, i broached the restored halls of the peranakan museum. seated at the base of a verdant fort-turned-park, the museum is a two-story colonial edifice, originally built as a girls’ school for the singaporean rich. vibrant floral paint connects the tropical with the neoclassical, so that the villa, curled around the end of the concrete block, maintains an air of simultaneous grace and gauche. peranakan comes from the malay word anak, meaning “child.” used colloquially, it means “local born,” a definition which emphasizes proximity to nativity and gestures to a larger fabric of “singaporean-ness.”
as with most things nominally “singaporean,” peranakan may be defined as a sobriquet for straits-born chinese, settlers and traders of lore whose emigration to pre-colonial malaya resulted in the creation of intercultural communities at the interstices of diaspora and indigeneity. But the peranakan museum seems hesitant to define peranakan as an exclusively chinese affair. it, too, is unsure of the scope and longevity that “local born” entails. the peranakan, depicted by variously syncretic cultures on display at the museum, includes the diasporic afterlife of tamil, indonesian, muslim, and teochew settlers. it is, the museum would have us believe, as multiethnic and polytheistic as singapore, united by shared elements of food, drink, and ceremony. but who is peranakan, and how is she made so?
a photographic exhibition featured in the main hall claims to answer this question. spread across four walls, smiling yellow—and the occasional brown—face declared “what makes [them] feel peranakan.” food, came the most common response; dress, came another; being able to understand local dialects, came the final answer. but the many descriptions of “home” and “belonging” sufficiently expands the term so that peranakan encapsulates not an answer, but a framework of inclusion which masquerades the fact of chinese cultural dominance with a possibility of infinite syncretism. “local born” becomes local, becomes native, until historicity, the source of this investigation, is rendered irrelevant.
the national rhetoric of singapore emphasizes the “racial harmony” shared by a diverse population. every july 21st, the nation celebrates “racial harmony day,” a feat of multiculturalism relished in the spectacle of garb and grub. ask any well-indoctrinated singaporean, and she will say, as some have said to me, singapore is a nation free from racial turmoil. if a nation is a set of stories we tell ourselves, the iconography of cultural exchange is a foundational text of the singaporean saga. the success of multiculturalism bespeaks the values of stability, peace, and security so valued by the people’s action party. the persistence of a seemingly harmonious singapore is key to the fiction of progress that both singaporeans and foreign bodies—investors, tourists, non-governmental organizations—want to believe. but try as they may, the feat of a conflict-free nation, like the slapstick comedy’s impossible performance of fraternal resolution, remains out of reach. peranakan may celebrate the tokens of diversity, but the bonds (and bounds) of allyship require more than a colorblind assertion of locality.
a warm winter’s night in 2013 tested the tenuous truth of racial harmony. a freak accident sent a private bus veering into a pedestrian in the island’s south asian enclave, fatally wounding the 33-year-old victim, a tamil migrant worker. in the winter rain, his body remained stuck beneath the vehicle for hours while passersby witnessed police escorting the chinese driver to safety. many saw the dismal response as evidence of the government’s--and by proxy, the chinese ruling class’--disregard for brown and working class lives. a massive demonstration ensued, lasting all of two hours before the singaporean national forces shut it down.
the unjust precarities of migrant labor have long simmered under the froth of singaporean society, whose chinese majority’s low birth rates make importing workers an economic calculation as profitable as it is exploitative. for all the government’s postured surprise, the “little india riot,” as the event has come to be known, was not an isolated incident caused by intoxication and the coalescence of working class people in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” rather, it was a rupture in the rubric of multiculturalism; a definitive answer to the superficiality of “inclusion” by those distinctly excluded from its claims. within the historic arc of singaporean national history, the little india incident is a long-awaited sequel to the original event which authored the ruse of racial harmony. some fifty years earlier, a postcolonial singapore (recently merged with malaysia) saw a vicious spillover of tensions between malays and chinese in what is now known as the 1964 “race riots.”
working on behalf of chinese interests, lee kwan yew, then the newly minted leader of the PAP, strategically aimed to increase the (predominantly-chinese) PAP presence in the 1963 malaysian election. against the united malaysia national organization’s advocacy of special rights for indigenous malay, yew and the PAP sought to establish an institution of merit-based “equality” (see footnote). the parallels between the semi-centennial events are striking: an oppressed minority (indigenous malay in 1964; the largely tamil crowd of 2013) protest against a chinese ruling class and expose the ruse of egalitarianism against the backdrop of disparate material conditions. the 1964 “race riots” preceded the passage of the singaporean constitution, and, viewed within the chronology of singaporean independence, threatened, and then underwrote the very foundation of modern singapore. funny, that it should be memorialized as a “holiday” bearing so aspirational a title. funnier, that on the eve of its semi-centennial, another uprising should strike a match in the scaffold of racial harmony. much has changed in singapore, but perhaps not enough.
recently, a popular discourse of “chinese privilege” has risen from the ranks of internet activism to educate the dominating class. but progress is rarely unidirectional, and in a postcolonial society, it’s easy to digress into colonial structures sutured and re-tailored. Ask any decolonized singaporean, and she will tell you: singapore’s postcolonial reclamation echoes power structures not so different from the ones reformers sought to escape, for it is reformers, not revolutionaries, who color singapore’s short national history. the people’s action party, singapore’s dominant political party, is a well-oiled chinese machine emblematic of the structural privileges enjoyed by chinese settler-colonialists. post-independence, the PAP, proclaiming efforts to “re-asianize” singapore, embarked on a decades-long attempt at sinofication: mandarin campaigns, uneven government funding for chinese schools, and a rhetoric of “asian values” that prioritized chineseness as the benchmark of nativity.
it is no surprise that nearly 60 years after their ascension, chinese is the secondary language accompanying english, the colonial intermediary, as the most common language across the island. the simple fact of this phenomenon can tell us much about the state of neocolonial relations. If english, the colonial tongue, were once weaponized to actualize interpellation into the empire, the rise of chinese as an alternative lingua franca within singapore informs the newly (re)inscribed boundaries of inclusion. as with most instances of hegemonic privilege, however, the monolith of “chineseness” is taken for granted. the proliferation of the cultural and lingual norms, spoken, written, and practiced, make for a social mask that, were it perceived only superficially, would establish “singaporean” as adjectival, and only slightly more preeminent than, “chinese.”
colonial-era practices of divide-and-conquer, together with marginalizing policies inflicted on chinese migrants explain, in part, a sense of victimization at the heart of singapore’s chinese hegemony, whose recourse has been to solidify power under a rubric of neocolonization. But their struggle is hardly singular--historic traumas underline the crisscrossing circuits of displacement and war, conquest and capitalism, settler- and neo-colonialism that, for better or worse, make the Little Red Dot a locus of multi-ethnic contact. the simple fact of the contemporary moment is this: the responsibilities of the hegemony are not to reify the concentration of power, but to redistribute them. until that happens, the PAP’s nominal identification of singapore as a multi-ethnic state will be just that: a ruse.
“merit-based equality:” a policy fallaciously perched on the PAP’s coded advocacy for what are, in practice, protections for a chinese settler-colonist class that stands relatively isolated within the geopolitical sphere of southeast asia.