Who are the intellectuals, and what roles do they play in the process of social change in Singapore? What is the relationship between the intellectuals, historical understanding, and political power? These are some of the questions explored by the contributors in this issue on intellectuals in Singapore.
The term, ‘intellectual’, can be understood in at least two ways, one more general, the other more specific. A general idea of who an ‘intellectual’ is can be gleaned from the oft-cited writing of Antonio Gramsci, whose own experience in dealing with political repression has contributed to the archetypal construction of the ‘modern intellectual’. According to Gramsci, an ‘intellectual’ is not only an educated person; he or she must also be actively engaged in either upholding or altering existing conception of the social and moral order based upon consciously and deeply-held values. In this understanding, an intellectual can adopt a variety of different social roles, such as a politician rallying citizens behind a particular vision of society, a public official involved in policymaking process, an artist or a writer seeking to change the way we perceive the world through their artistic works, or an activist participating in civil society for some causes. In addition, intellectuals can relate to the various centres of power in different ways. Thus, it is conceivable that an intellectual who is marginal to political power in society can at the same time be an integral member of its cultural elite. It is also possible that an intellectual has close ties with multiple centres of power.
A more specific way of understanding the ‘intellectuals’ is to consider them as a social group whose actual form is shaped by the social, cultural and political contexts in which it is located. In this perspective, we seek to understand how a society or a dominant public discourse within it constructs, legitimates and valuates the socio-political activities of its educated population. This includes the examination of the extent to which the public positively acknowledges the role intellectuals play in important historical events. This sort of public appraisal is crucially shaped by the contending discourses of the state, civil society and the market. Does a particular society expect its educated class to play an active part in the free discussion of important national issues, and lend their respective expertise to the effort in formulating viable solutions to various social problems? Is there a vibrant civil society where multiple views and opinions can be debated and discussed, without the participants fearing reprisals from the state and entrenched powerful interest groups as a result of exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed rights? Also, how do members of the educated class themselves see their roles in society and how have such views been historically shaped by different political and cultural forces?
As some commentators of Singaporean affairs have pointed out, part of the ideological work of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) involves the creation and promulgation of a particular rendition of Singapore’s history—now commonly known as the Singapore Story. Prominent within this narrative is the official story of ‘Singapore’s success’, defined primarily in economistic and materialistic terms, made possible by the valiant effort and wise leadership of the PAP, who had triumphed over their political opponents labeled variously as ‘leftists’, ‘pro-communist Chinese student and trade unions’, ‘racists politicians’, etc. As the narrative goes, it is precisely partly due to the elimination of these alleged ‘troublemakers’ that has enabled the highly pragmatic PAP to successfully build up the young nation to what she is today. According to its critics, the promulgation of the Singapore Story forms part of the ideological work of the PAP in highlighting its pivotal role in transforming Singapore ‘from a Third World to the First’ (this is a sub-title of the memoir of Lee Kuan Yew), thereby further legitimating its authority in the eyes of Singaporeans. Are we surprise then to read in Hong Lysa and Lim Cheng Tju’s interview with filmmaker, Boo Junfeng, that he ‘did not know about his alma mater’s [Chung Cheng High School] turbulent past when he was in school’? The promulgation of the Singapore Story has ironically stimulated a groundswell of effort by intellectuals and students of the country’s history to either seek out ‘multiple’ interpretations, or to uncover historical events and personalities previously buried under the weight of the official narrative. As Boo Junfeng explains to Lysa and Cheng Tju, an important reason for his making of the film, Sandcastle, is to explore the ‘sensitive’ topic of left-wing social activism of the intellectuals in the turbulent period of 1950s and 60s; more specifically, ‘to reach out to the Chinese educated, to the intellectuals through the film.’
Chiu Weili’s contribution on the modernist poetry movement and the poet Lin Fang goes some way to dispel the common myth surrounding Chinese intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s as predominantly ‘leftwing’, pro-China, or pro-communist. Here, we see an influential artistic movement that celebrated ‘Arts for Arts sake’, and focused on the creation of a new aesthetic in poetry by combining the influences of Malay poetry, Western modernism, and classical Chinese culture. The artistic output of Lin Fang and those associated with the May Flower Poetry Society departed from the work of the more left-wing Chinese artists which tended to exhibit a strong dose of socialist realism. For further discussion on the artistic movements in Singapore of that period, readers can refer to Cheng Tju’s review of Yeo Wei Wei’s edited volume, Realism in Asia, in which Cheng Tju points out the crucial distinction between Social Realism and Socialist Realism.
The early works of Kuo Pau Kun, the doyen of Singaporean theatre, certainly depart from the aesthetic sensibility shown by the modernist poetry movement. Clarissa Oon’s discussion of Kuo’s early Chinese works shows how deeply ideological and political they were, with the explicit identification with the working masses and their class struggle against capitalist oppression. In the context of a newly independent Singapore, when the ruling People’s Action Party sought to tame the trade unions and invited the multi-national corporations into the country with open arms, the artistic works and political orientation of Kuo and his collaborators were deemed by the powers-that-be as against National Interest. The imprisonment of Kuo and his wife, Goh Lay Kuan, as well as their subsequent rehabilitation, would become a recurring leitmotif of the general story of prominent intellectuals in Singapore whose ideological-political stance diverges from that of the ruling party.
The experience of Kuo Pao Kun and the transformation of his work throughout the years—from the explicitly political to a ‘different voice’ (as Oon puts it)—perhaps epitomizes the experience and dilemma of many ‘independent’ intellectuals who are confronted with a situation where a strong state constantly seeks to establish ideological hegemony and exert control over civil society. The existence of the draconian Internal Security Act that allows for detention without trial, and its use in 1987 against a number of social activists under Operation Spectrum, further helps to instill among many Singaporeans what the scholar Hussin Mutalib calls the ‘Caution Syndrome’. This brings us to a very interesting phenomenon evident among some intellectuals in Singapore: the often expressed qualification of being ‘non-political’ in their work and activities. This has come up in the Boo Junfeng interview, when he says that his film, Sandcastle, ‘is not supposed to be overtly political’. Similarly, in interviews for Kelvin Chia’s article on The Tangent, members explicitly mention the group’s positioning as ‘non-political’ and explain that The Tangent focuses on dialogue rather than achieving ‘tangible’ outcomes. Is the response of Boo Junfeng and members of The Tangent of being ‘non-political’ a reflection of an underlying cautious (and perhaps fearful?) attitude, given the well-known fate that befall some of the older generations of prominent intellectuals? Or is this a strategic positioning that allows for some form of substantive engagements with certain ‘sensitive’ issues under the watchful eyes of an authoritarian state?
For Constance Singam—social activist, past President of AWARE, and a former Nominated Member of Parliament—being ‘non-political’ might not be a viable position to take for an intellectual who wishes to promote progressive changes in society. In her contribution to this issue, Singam tackles another ‘sensitive’ topic in Singapore, race. In a society where race has become a dominant identity for many Singaporeans, intellectuals from various ethnic communities face a particular challenge: to be able to speak to members of their own ethnic community, and at the same time, to reach across the ethnic divide to engage all Singaporeans on issues of national importance. Singam’s article offers a critical look at Singapore’s discursive practice of ‘multiculturalism’ and sees it as a ‘technology of control’: the state exercises control over the population partly by culturally essentializing the various ethnic groups, and then constructs the parameters for acceptable social behavior and delimits the imagination of alternative social possibilities. Hence, Singam’s call for civil society groups to transcend racial categorization is also an exhortation to break out of the state-imposed limitations on social activism and imagination.
In Singapore, intellectuals who are dedicated to the study and sharing of ideas—and through the process implicitly or otherwise hoping to contribute to social change—are often disparaged as ‘idealistic’. ‘Idealism’ has taken on a strongly negative connotation in the eyes of many Singaporeans who live in a society that prides itself on its economic pragmatism. In the final article of this issue, Kwok Kian Woon poses two important questions for us to ponder: Can (and should) one be idealistic in a capitalist (and consumerist) world? And what is the role of ideals and ideas in relation to ‘real-life’ contemporary problems? Kwok argues for what he calls a ‘troubled idealism’, one that entails an intellectual effort that combines moral reasoning and rigorous knowledge inquiry, and which can serve as a solid foundation for social action.
Finally, if we hear intellectuals claiming to be ‘non-political’ in Singapore, we should perhaps bear in mind what Edward Said advises: don’t believe them!