Situating The Tangent: Chinese-educated intellectuals in Singapore’s socio-political history
The Chinese community in pre-Independence Singapore can be seen as one that is bifurcated between the ‘Chinese-educated’ and the ‘English-educated’. These two sectors were schooled in institutions that use Chinese (i.e. Mandarin) and English respectively as their dominant language of instruction, and this distinction in language stream. While the community can also be differentiated along other socio-cultural markers such as clan membership and dialect group, the distinction in language stream was especially salient as it engendered clear differences across various dimensions – the two sectors were distinguishable not only by access to opportunities in employment and higher education, but also by cultural outlook and political inclinations (Kwok 2001:495–6).
Such differences were exemplified by the establishment of Nanyang University (abbreviated in Mandarin and referred to hereafter as Nantah) in 1955. Prior to its establishment, those who had completed Chinese high school education had to travel abroad to China or Taiwan to pursue tertiary education while their English-educated counterparts could enrol locally in the University of Malaya. The call to establish a Chinese-language university drew financial support from “all classes in the Chinese community, from the richest magnates to the poorest drivers and prostitutes” (Hong & Huang 2008:9), and culminated in the establishment of Nantah, the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia. Nantah thus represented not only a response to practical constraints confronting the Chinese-educated sector, but also a symbolic community project that demonstrated their solidarity (Kwok 2001:496).
Besides the establishment of Nantah, the 1950s and the 1960s also saw increased political prominence among the Chinese-educated. There was, for example, a wave of student movements in those years, the most frequently remembered amongst them is the ‘May 13th Incident’ of 1954 when Chinese-educated middle-school students protested against the colonial government for implementing mandatory military conscription. Such social movements were not simply isolated reactions to specific events, but were fuelled by “a wider sense of exclusion for the Chinese-educated with a colonial society in which fluency in English was the route to employment and advancement” (Harper 2001:15).
It was from such movements that ‘Intellectual-Politicians’ such as Lim Chin Siong emerged. Lim attended Chinese-medium schools, but he never completed middle-school education. In 1951, he was expelled from his school for participating in examination boycotts. His subsequent employment as a trade union official continued to develop his oratorical and organisational skills, and eventually led him into the leadership of the left wing faction of the People’s Action Party (PAP). It was Lim and his allies from the left wing faction who drew support for the PAP from the Chinese-educated electorate (Harper 2001:13–25).
By 1961, the left wing faction of the PAP split from the party to form Barisan Socialis, an oppositional political party under Lim’s leadership. When the electoral battle took place between the PAP and the Barisan Sosialis in the 1963 general elections, Tan Lark Sye, founder of Nantah, provided overt financial support for all graduates of the University who were running for the Barisan Sosialis. Students of the University were themselves equally participative in electoral politics, and were reportedly seen to be going to electoral areas in busloads to solicit support for Barisan Sosialis candidates (Yao 2008:184). In 1965, the students of Nantah were to be galvanised into a dramatic protest involving marches, petitions, and examination boycotts with the release of the University Curriculum Review Committee Report. The report made several recommendations that were interpreted by some members of the Chinese-educated community as a attempt by the PAP to take control of the University and to remove an education stream that ostensibly cultivated immense support for its nemesis – the Barisan Sosialis (Hong & Huang 2008:109–135).
The period from the 1950s to the 1980s, which overlapped with the political prominence of the Chinese-educated, saw the gradual phasing-out of Chinese-medium education. Key changes during this period include the teaching of English as a second language in Chinese-medium schools in 1956; the ‘merging’ of Nantah with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, an English-medium University in 1980; and the conversion of nine established Chinese-medium middle schools into Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools – bilingual institutions that will offer both Chinese and English as first languages (i.e. Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools) in the same year. These changes took place amidst a broader shift towards English as the main language of instruction – by 1987, English officially became the language of instruction for key subjects in all secondary schools and Chinese was taught as a subject itself (Kwok 2001:500; Sai 2006:195–196).
Given the historical trajectory of Chinese-medium education in Singapore, Kwok instructively suggests that the Chinese-educated sector can be seen as a “continuum” of ideal types:
On the “purer” end of the spectrum are the older generations who have had long years of exposure to Chinese education. At the apex, this includes Nantah graduates… On the “diluted” end of the spectrum are the younger generations in their twenties and thirties. They have a more mixed education in terms of exposure to both English-language and Chinese-language universes of discourses (2001:502–503).
As Kwok adds, it is problematic to apply the term ‘Chinese-educated’ to those at the ‘diluted’ end of the spectrum from a purist view because they are taught primarily in English during their schooling years. However, having received their education in SAP schools where high teaching standards of the Chinese-language are maintained in an environment that bear some semblance to ‘traditional’ Chinese-medium schools, those at the ‘diluted’ end continue to operate regularly in the Chinese-language. As such, the term ‘Chinese-educated’ may still be applied to them (Kwok 2001:503).
In the same tone, Chinese-educated intellectuals can also be seen along a similar continuum. On one end, there are those from the ‘purer’ end of the Chinese-educated who were active in the political scene during the 1950s and the 1960s. The most illustrious amongst them is perhaps none other than Lim Chin Siong. On the other end, there are those from the ‘diluted’ end of the Chinese-educated. They are bilingual in both the English-language and the Chinese-language, but have chosen to use the Chinese-language in intellectual discourse. The most visible among the ‘diluted’ end are members of The Tangent. They are a much younger cohort than the Chinese-educated intellectuals of the 1950s and the 1960s, and have emerged from an English-dominant education system although many were schooled in SAP schools. Subsequent sections of this article will consider how the group has constructed their roles as intellectuals in contemporary Singapore.
Constructing intellectual identities: The self-positioning of The Tangent
Given their educational background and their emphasis on using the Chinese language in their events and publications, it is worthwhile to consider how members of The Tangent have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals. For Lee Huay-Leng, a founding member and the first president of the group, the decision to register themselves officially as a civil society is itself tied to the experiences of the older generation. In the inaugural issue of the group’s biannual journal, she explains this decision:
By starting first amongst ourselves, we hope to see members of the Chinese-speaking community let go of their historical baggage, and to participate actively in dialogue during this time when Singapore is continuously progressing. Some of our qianbei may have had very unhappy personal experiences, and we do not dare to forget them. However, instead of allowing ourselves to be constrained by the past, we should try to see things through a more positive lens in this different time and age (2000:4).
The Chinese term qianbei (前辈) translates literally into ‘earlier generation’, and implies common descent and a shared identity. Here, the term is used in reference to the older members of the Chinese-educated community who were subjected to state-sanctioned violence and political detention for their political activism in the 1950s and the 1960s. The use of such a term in this account signals continuity and a sense of identification between members of The Tangent and the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals even as the former see themselves as being situated in a “different time and age”.
Other members of the group, however, held differing views. In the words of another member,
I think they [i.e. the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals] are quite different from us. The whole socio-historical context is different. At that time, as you know, it was before Singapore as a nation-state was established. So there were a lot of complex issues of identification – ethnic identification, national identification.
In this account, members of The Tangent and the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals were situated in two markedly different socio-political contexts. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the process of decolonisation created “complex issues of identification”, and questions as to whether the Chinese-educated should view China or Malaya as their ‘homeland’ were often raised and debated. For another respondent, this historical context engendered a clear discontinuity between the Chinese-educated intellectuals of those years and members of The Tangent:
Those who were schooled in Chinese-medium schools during the 50s and the 60s were never our reference point – they never were. The social context of that history is very different. The linguistic environment and the historical context – they were all different. So I feel that there is no way to make a comparison by juxtaposing them and us. Our whole organisation and what we want to achieve is based on the situation of Singapore from the late 90s and onwards, and you need to understand it from this context. I don’t think there is continuity between them and us.
Contrary to Lee’s view, such strongly-worded responses suggest that members of The Tangent and the Chinese-educated intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s are two incommensurable groups
Here, the sociological notion of ‘generations’ may be useful in understanding the divergent and conflicting accounts. The idea of ‘generations’ signals at a tension between continuity and discontinuity: on one hand, it is only meaningful to speak of a different generations insofar as it is meaningful to think them as belonging to a larger community; on the other hand, each new generation also represents a departure from its predecessor. As Edward Shils puts it, each generation “comes to its task with a fresh mind, unencumbered by the beliefs and attachments settled in the minds of the generation antecedent to it”, and “seems to have to chance to begin again, to call a halt to the persistence of the past into the present and to make its society anew”; yet, “the boundaries of any generation are vague; there are no natural boundaries. Where does one generation begin and another end? There is no satisfactory answer” (1981:35).
If there are no natural boundaries between generations, then the idea of generational differences may itself be a product of construction. As Maurice Halbwachs points out, we preserve traditional values or entire systems of traditional values (e.g. religion) even though they no longer seem to apply to contemporary conditions because we are not certain if they are indeed obsolete; we are afraid of eliminating them because we are not sure if we would be able to create an equivalent should there be a need for them again. Hence, we “emphasize their antiquity and avoid effacing all that which no longer has present-day utility.” In so doing, we allow the “society of yesterday” to be perpetuated today without becoming constraints for the ‘society of today’ (1992:120–121). In this view, the rejection of the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals as their antecedents can be read as a desire on the part of members of The Tangent to ‘work the past out’ without erasing it, and in so doing, to chart new intellectual roles for themselves in the present.
The contours of the intellectual roles that members of The Tangent have charted for themselves can be sketched by looking at how the group is positioned in relation to two other civil society organisations in Singapore – Thinkcentre, and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The backgrounds of these two organisations are themselves rather distinct. Thinkcentre was officially registered in 2001 as an organisation that “aims to critically examine issues related to political development, democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society” through “research, publishing, organising events and networking” (Thinkcentre, n.d). In contrast, AMP was founded by a group of Malay-Muslim professionals who felt that Malay members of the parliament from the PAP yielded the interests of the Malay-Muslim community to those of their party. They established the organisation to provide an alternative form of representation, but subsequently shifted their focus to providing educational service to the Malay-Muslim community (Chua & Kwok, 2001:100–101)
In comparing The Tangent with these civil society organisations, one respondent offers that:
[Thinkcentre and AMP] are quite different from us… We don’t have any political agenda, or any intention to champion any kind of social movement. I think that they are also doing things for their own community. AMP, for example, is working for a particular community, to strive for their welfare. Thinkcentre is a more of a think tank. From my impression, it has a stronger political inclination.
As another respondent point out, the “political inclination” of Thinkcentre refers to their intent to influence policy-making and to champion for greater democracy:
I think they [i.e. Thinkcentre] are more about offering inputs about policy-making, to shape policy-making. I don’t think Tangent has that explicit purpose – the shaping of policy-making in Singapore, but you can see Thinkcentre coming out with position papers. And also, importantly, I think links to other civil society groups in the region, democracy groups, or something like that, if I am not wrong. The explicit purpose is, I think, influencing policy-making and pushing for greater democratisation in Singapore. I think the explicit goals are quite different… Tangent is about discussion and publication, and hopefully, it is also to contribute to nation-building. But the kind of democratisation or influence over policy-making is not explicit goals of Tangent.
The same respondent also shares a similar view on the difference between AMP and The Tangent.
…it [i.e. AMP] seems to serve as a bridge between the Muslims and the government… they try to represent the Muslim community. And Tangent, when it was set up, was not trying to represent the Chinese community. In fact, many in the Chinese community think that Tangent is like jettisoning the 5000-year history kind of good critical thinking, or even the Chineseness and Chinese culture… Tangent is really explicitly set up to engage in social and political discussion, and getting more people to talk about such issues.
The above response underscores an important characteristic of The Tangent: its members do not see themselves, and do not want to be seen, as representatives of the larger Chinese community. Such a view is also emphasised by another member:
… we do not take a unified stand. You can see that in our journal, everyone is voicing different stands. This is why all our articles are published in the capacity of individual writers. This is also true for our forums and discussions – we always note down clearly who said what. There is never any statement or article that is published collectively in Tangent’s name; none at all. It is precisely because we emphasise so much on our individuality that we have no way, honestly speaking, we have no way, of fighting for the privileges of any community. We do not try to represent. Even among ourselves, we do not think we can represent Tangent, much less any larger community.
To summarise the preceding analysis, The Tangent has been positioned by its members as a group that aims not to explicitly influence the policy-making process, but rather to provide a multitude of platforms to discuss a wide range of social, cultural, and political issues. In addition, by emphasising individual expression rather than consensus, the group is also positioned as one that does not attempt to speak to, or on behalf of, the larger Chinese community in spite of their use of the Chinese-language in their conferences and discussions. In sum, their intellectual role is constructed as one that is both ‘non-political’ and ‘non-representational’
Intellectual life as a social practice: Articulation and representation
The roles of intellectuals are constructed not only discursively but also in practice. Since their inauguration, the group has published 13 issues of their journal. The journal contains articles written by its own members and those contributed by non-members. In addition, the journal also contains transcripts of interviews, dialogues, conferences, and discussions that are organised by the group. The themes that are covered in these articles include arts, civil society, culture (especially multiculturalism), economics, education, history, intellectuals, and politics. The varied nature of the group’s interest raises one central question: who is/are its ‘target audience’? As one respondent relates, the idea of ‘target audience’ is not a central concern for the group:
We seldom think about issues from such the perspective of ‘target audiences’. If you are to organise an event or a project, you will consider who your target audience is. Your target audience might decide how you say certain things, the words that you choose, the scale of your project, and so on… we do not see the need to talk to any specific group of people. Instead, we feel that as long as there is a record of what we say, and if were to publish any materials, then the proceedings of the activities we organised are recorded, then those who come after us can see that there is indeed such a group that has done these things at these points in time, then it is sufficient.
It seems then that the group is not particularly keen on speaking to any specific group of audience. Rather, its aim is to create opportunities for discussions and to document these discussions for posterity. This resonates closely with the self-positioning of the group as one that does not aim to explicitly influence the policy-making process or to speak to, or on behalf of, any specific community.
Nevertheless, it is counterintuitive that members of the group do not see their actions as being directed or oriented towards the Chinese community. This brings into question why the group had chosen to operate primarily in the Chinese-language. The same question has been raised by members themselves in an online members-only discussion forum on the theme of Multiculturalism in Singapore. In her comments, Lee writes:
When we explore the multicultural issue, make great efforts to understand other ethnic groups, we come to a question of whether we understand our own community in the first place. Do we not know or have we thought we knew, but in reality we don’t? Whatever the case, and whether we like it or not, we will be perceived by others as Chinese-speaking Singaporeans. In fact, one of our main objectives in forming The Tangent is to promote the use of Chinese at a higher level. This implies that subconsciously, we also perceive ourselves as part of the Chinese-speaking group (Goh et al. 2002:166–167).
Ong Chang-Woei, another member of the group, expresses a similar opinion:
Yet we all truly belong to the Chinese community, regardless of how fragmented this community is or whether it can be represented by only a few. All along, I have been insisting that as someone belonging to the younger generation of the nation and who feel at ease when using Chinese, we have a responsibility towards the Chinese community… I ask The Tangent to simultaneously consider the needs of the Chinese-speaking community when we are reaching out to other communities (Goh et al. 2002:172).
For Lee and Ong, the cost in becoming ‘multicultural’ is to be marginalised from the larger Chinese community, of which The Tangent is seen to be a part. However, other members have expressed opinions to the contrary, the strongest of which was put by Chiu Weili:
I am utterly disappointed with the seemingly compulsive obsession with one’s identity being deeply rooted in some kind of essentialist self which we would then spend a lifetime trying to uncover. It is not! Otherwise to be really pedantic we might have to adopt Ethiopian identities if that is where we think we originate (Goh et al. 2002:189).
Hence, among members, opinions are divided on whether The Tangent is a part of the larger Chinese community that they ought to establish closer relations with. Indeed, even the idea of a ‘Chinese community’ has been subjected to questioning and criticism among members. Perhaps, these differences are can be summed up by Lee’s view that “with our generation growing up with a very different family and education background these days, I wonder how many would still see ourselves as a Singaporean with a Chinese background” (Goh et al. 2002:177). In a way similar to how the Chinese community in the 1950s and the 1960s grappled with and is fragmented along complex issues of political and cultural identification, The ‘Chinese community’ of today is fragmented in terms of linguistic and ethnic identification.
Between autonomy and engagement
In understanding the relationship between intellectuals and the social groups from which they emerge, Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between ‘organic intellectuals’ and ‘traditional intellectuals’ provides a useful framework. For Gramsci, the emergence of every social group in the world of economic production will create, within those very groups, ‘organic intellectuals’. The roles of these ‘organic intellectuals’ are to give their group “a consciousness of its own function in the economic sphere”, and to secure “the most favourable conditions” for the group’s expansion (1996:199). When social structures are altered such that certain social groups are antiquated, ‘organic intellectuals’ that are created with those groups will appear and regard themselves as being autonomous and independent – that is, as ‘traditional intellectuals’ (1996:200).
As the previous sections show, members of The Tangent have taken on an intellectual role that is different from those the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals. While those who are at the apex of the older-generation have engaged themselves actively in activism and electoral politics, members of The Tangent have chosen to focus on dialogue. The issues that both groups dealt with, and hence the ‘constituencies’ that they serve, were also considerably different – the older-generation frequently rallied together on such issues as changes in Chinese-medium education (including changes to the operation and administration of Nantah), but there seems to be no readily identifiable thread in the issues that members of The Tangent have responded to through their activities and publications. Finally, while the relationship between the Chinese-speaking community and the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals is unconscious and unarticulated, the relationship between The Tangent and the Chinese community is itself an issue that has been problematised among its members. In this sense, there appears to be a transition from ‘organic’ to ‘traditional’ intellectuals.
What then accounts for this transition? As one respondent points out, the political activism of Chinese-educated intellectuals in the 1950s and the 1960s is followed by a void in intellectual activities in the 1980s and the 1990s:
One of the reasons why we want to use Chinese as a medium to discuss all sorts of issues is that people in the past did not want to do so. Why did they not want to do so? Because they took part in, for example, the political activities of the 1950s and the 1960s, and they suffered for it. After that, their thinking is ‘Okay, that’s it. I don’t want to say anything anymore’. These people suffered in the 1950s and the 1960s, so they chose to remain silent in the 1980s and the 1990s. They may not want to speak anymore, but for me, I want to have the opportunity to come in and speak.
This account echoes the words of individuals such as Han Tan Juan, who writes that:
To those of us, the traditional huaxiaosheng, who were ‘born in the 40s, grew up in the 50s, fought in the 60s, and felt a sense of loss in the 70s’, we have incurred a lot of ‘battle scars’ on our bodies. Some of these ‘scars’ have taken a very long time to heal. They still hurt when the weather changes. We really do not want others to touch these scars anymore (2003:39).
At the same time that the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals have opted to remain silent for the ‘battle scars’ that they incurred, there was an important shift in the language-education as schools increasingly adopt English as the primary language of instruction. For one respondent, the result of this is a shift towards an English-speaking community, which essentially meant the “elimination of an entire linguistic community.” Such a description might have been worded too strongly as there are still individuals who choose to operate in the Chinese-language or to work in a Chinese-language environment in spite of the education that they have received. Besides members of The Tangent, Chinese-language teachers who were products of the English education policy also serve as a case in point. Nevertheless, that these teachers identify themselves variedly as Chinese-educated, English-educated, or bilingually-educated (Sai 2006: 208–212) indicates a fragmentation within the Chinese community along the lines of language and, in a sense, ethnic identification following shifts in educational policies. Returning to Gramsci’s distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ intellectuals, it may be said that a transition from the first to the second category is engendered by linguistic and educational policies that results in the fragmentation of the social group from which ‘organic’ Chinese-educated intellectuals first emerged. With the nature of the social group altered through state policies, and as a new cohort of intellectuals are pushed by the silence of earlier cohorts to chart out new roles for themselves, the link between members of The Tangent and the broader Chinese group becomes increasingly tenuous.
‘Traditional intellectuals’, in the sense that they are disengaged from the interests of their own social group, conjures up images of ivory-towered thinkers who are engaged in scholarly pursuits with little stakes for the ‘real world’. With The Tangent’s positioning as a ‘non-political’ intellectual grouping that focuses on dialogue rather than on achieving any ‘tangible’ outcomes, it is easy for critics to dismiss them as a group of disengaged intellectuals who are interested only in talking among themselves.
For its supposedly ‘non-political’ orientation, The Tangent had even been referred to by the state as evidence of how it has provided more space for “bottom-up initiatives”. In a speech delivered at the 35th anniversary of the Harvard Club in Singapore in 2004, Lee Hsien-Loong, who was then Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister (and who is now the Prime Minister), offered the following words:
I have focused on what the Government has done to encourage civic participation. But equally important is where the government has stepped back, to give space for people to look after their own affairs. For example HDB estates all used to be administered by HDB, centrally and inflexibly. But now they are looked after by town councils, with MPs and town councillors, who are volunteers, deciding on municipal matters on behalf of residents. And there have been independent bottom-up initiatives too, including “non-political” associations like the Roundtable, AWARE and Tangent, and eco-environmental groups like the Nature Society.
The term ‘civic participation’ has its roots in ‘civic society’, a term which seemed to have first appeared publicly in a speech delivered in 1991 by George Yeo, former Acting Minister for Information and the Arts, who is now serving as Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. The term ‘civic society’ is a non-political variant of ‘civil society’, with the latter connoting a stance that was deemed to be too politically adversarial (Hill & Lian 1995:225–227). ‘Civic participation’ may thus be understood as participation within civil society that falls well within “the accepted parameters of discourse” as established by the state (Hill & Lian 1995:227; see also Koh 2000).
Yet, the state’s mention of The Tangent as an example of ‘non-political civic participation’ has not been acquiescently accepted. For example, one member of the group raised this as an instance of how The Tangent’s “indeterminate nature” (in the sense that it does not deal with a clearly-defined set of issues) has inadvertently provided leeway for the state to cast the actions of the group in a manner that befits its own agenda. This indicates that the ‘non-political’ identity, insofar as it implies compliance with the state, can be contested. In addition, the notion that The Tangent is a group of ‘non-political’ ivory-towered intellectuals is also problematic if one accepts Edward Said’s contention that
The intellectual who claims to write only for him or herself, or for the sake of pure learning… is not to be, and must not be, believed… the moment you publish essays in a society you have entered political life; so if you want not to be political do not write essays or speak out” (1994:110).
The term ‘political’ is used here, as did George Orwell, in its widest possible sense: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after” (2005:5). Having published 13 issues of their journals, and having organised public forums on various issues, it can be argued that The Tangent has played a visible role in public discourse and political life, without being partisan in the sense of supporting or opposing any political party. Why then did the group choose to focus on discussion and dialogue rather than on tasks that would produce more ‘tangible’ outcomes? One founding member offers the following view:
In Singapore’s context, I don’t think we can take the initiative. That is to say, whether the state wants to listen to your views, how it chooses to listen to them, what it does after listening, how to conduct a dialogue, all these are not determined by us; they are determined by the state. The initiative is all on the other side. This is why I would say that I am honestly not so concerned about whether what I say has any effects. I will just say what I want to say. After I have expressed my opinion, it will be there. Whether the state wants to consult it, whether the state wants to accept it, and how the state wants to treat it, that is for them to decide.
In this view, the focus on dialogue can be interpreted as not only a recognition of the state’s initiative in decision-making processes, but also a refusal to be mired in incapacity, and a conscious response to overcome challenges that intellectuals operating within civil society have to confront .
Yet, the most difficult challenge for intellectuals comes not from the external environment, but from within. As Edward Said explains:
The hardest aspect of being an intellectual is to represent what you profess through your work and interventions, without hardening into an institution or a kind of automaton acting at the behest of a system or method… the only way of ever achieving this is to keep reminding yourself that as an intellectual you are one who can choose between actively representing the truth to the best of your ability and passively allowing a patron or an authority to direct you. (1994:121).
In this view, an intellectual is one who remains constantly self-reflexive in relation to ‘truth’ and power. For members of The Tangent, this self-reflexivity is manifested through their tenuous relationship with the older Chinese-educated intellectuals, their questioning of the group’s own position within the larger Chinese community, and their choice of using dialogue as an intellectual practice. In turn, these allow them to situate themselves tangentially at the margins of history, tradition, and authority. The position of marginality implies some measure of exclusion from the centre, as much as they are not marginalised in terms of educational and occupational status. However, this marginality is not one that is resented by members of The Tangent. As Quah (2001:2) puts it, “there is nothing wrong with [being at] the margins – on the contrary, it allows for a sober, independent, and incisive perspective”. In this sense, The Tangent is a case study of how individuals come together as a group to play a social role that attempts to maintain both intellectual autonomy and public engagement.
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This article is excerpted from a longer thesis that was submitted as a Graduation Project to the Division of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in March 2009. The thesis was completed under the guidance of Associate Professor Kwok Kian Woon, and draws on in-depth face-to-face interviews conducted in 2008 and 2009 with six members of The Tangent who are serving on its Council at the time of writing.
Kelvin Chia holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science