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  • Harry Quant

Singapore: A cultural blueprint?

Today, Singapore is one of the most important cities in the world when it comes to trade and finance. Dating back to 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles established it as a free-port in the Straits of Melaka, Singapore has grown exponentially, been owned by the East India Company, governed by the British, captured by the Japanese, jointly governed with Malaysia and independently self-governed. Its history is short, dark in places, but a feat of development. Politically, Singapore is criticised, and I intend to make no excuses for where it lacks in its democratic legitimacy or its extensions of certain civil liberties (homosexual rights most specifically). However, Singapore must take pride in its culture. Indeed, Singapore should be seen as a blueprint for the rest of the world as to how people of different cultures can not only be tolerant, but proudly live alongside, and thrive off each other.

Its time as a prospering free-port linking Europe to East-Asia saw a mass influx of people into Singapore. British, other Europeans, Indians and Arabs came to Singapore to work and live, but by far, the greatest inflow of new residents were ethnically-Chinese and Malay. In 1962, a newly independent Singapore decided that for the case of economic development and security, its only chance of success was to join Malaysia. As a small island nation, this may have seemed quite a sensible decision. Unfortunately, the ideological differences between the dominant Singaporean party (PAP) and the dominant Malaysian party (UNMO), in regards to cultural equality, were too great. The political rift became a social disaster in 1964, when Chinese race riots saw clashes in the streets between the ethnically Chinese and the ethnically Malaysian, culminating in military interventions and deaths on both sides. Singapore pulled out of its merger with Malaysia and the race riots kickstarted a tradition in Singapore of cultural, ethnic and religious equality.

Formally, Singapore goes to great lengths to be as egalitarian as possible, enshrining in law that all ethnicities and religions are equal. The government goes as far as to ensure that it recognises four official languages, favouring none of the major ethnicities. There are even no favourites when it comes to Public Holidays, with no religious holiday being left out - Brits moving abroad might like to know that Singapore has 11 public holidays a year, compared to its measly 8. Perhaps the most interesting policy is that of Public Housing, or HDB housing. Each block of flats or each local area is populated based on a quota system that matches the demographic make-up of the Singaporean population. This ‘Ethnic Integration Policy’ is said to ensure racial harmony and ‘preserve Singapore’s multi-cultural’ being. These policies genuinely do create a sense of cosmopolitan multiculturalism that is incredibly successful. The fact that these cultures live side by side (literally) means that misnomers, stereotypes and false impressions are broken down by the personal connections that foster understanding and celebrates differences. These policies might feel like a forced effort of making people like each other, and in many ways they are, but they work. In a sense, the brutal simplicity of such policies is the foundation of their success.

So the questions arises as to whether such policies and the general approach given to culture in Singapore could promote a more peaceful atmosphere between ethnicities in other countries around the world. Of course, a good starting point is the state itself wanting to promote cultural equality. Once this seemingly controversial condition is satisfied, such policies seem easy enough to implement. Unfortunately, the historical circumstances that Singapore was born within could be the reason for the success of the policies that are in place. Its relative newness and its past influence of cultural oppression under the hands of its multiple rulers seems to have created an aversion to cultural conflict that other nations don’t have. Whether these conditions are replicable in other nations could be the reason that identity politics and social conflict occurs to a much greater extent in other nations of South-East Asia, and indeed the rest of the world. Going forward, however, it should be recognised that for such a small country, Singapore has made big steps towards recognising and celebrating the plethora of cultures that exist within the country.

Image - Unsplash

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