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Editorial: So What?

Social Labelling, Discipline and Discrimination in Contemporary Singapore

Kwee Hui Kian and Teng Siao See

s/pores editors


In s/pores No. 4, Tan Pin Pin curated a provocatively titled theme issue on “What if…?” To ask this question of “if (not)…then what?”, one implicitly accepts the “what is” – without a priori questioning whatever that “what” referred to is/was in the first place. We do not claim that the question we pose in this issue is any more reflective about the Singapore society. Rather, our question is, perhaps, something of a cheeky rejoinder, possibly a little darker in the way it is posed.

This issue asks – or shouts – the question: “So what?” Which could equally emphatically be asserted as “So what!”. And which, inflected either way, looks at several labels that have or had real potency in postcolonial Singapore society. In the 1960s and 1970s, labelling persons “Chinese chauvinists” and “communists” was, it seems, sufficient cause for the state to arrogate the right to incarcerate them without trial. In present times, persons judged to deserve the label “racist” can be charged with the act of sedition. “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian” or “Other” – depending on which variant of these four labels all Singaporeans must be officially categorized – automatically assigns individuals to the compulsory study of specific “mother tongues” in the local schooling system. Being stamped “single”, “foreign worker” or “permanent resident” could mean that one is not entitled to buy a HDB flat, at least not at that same “subsidized” price and with the same ease as “normal” Singaporean citizens.

So many labels, assigning characteristics and meanings particular to “the moment”, have been variously utilized by the state to flagellate and periodically remind one how to be a “model” citizen – how one should accept the limits of “out of bounds” (OB) markers (a term so willingly endorsed, or at least accepted, as part of the homegrown political lexicon that their perverse invisibility is not considered oxymoronic even among those who should have an inkling on their origins and purpose in the game of golf); or how one should understand that some people have less rights than others in this society – and others have more.

But every one of us could be part of the labelling process by endorsing certain social-economic or political labels, if not actively supporting the prejudices, blaming, shaming attached to them. We participate in the labelling game by simply not questioning them and subtly, or not so subtly, allowing the labels to become a normal way of thinking about others, making assumptions about silent majorities/minorities.

But all labels die, eventually, though their demise would certainly be hastened when they are sufficiently confronted with the challenge: “So what!” Whereas it once could mean being killed or jailed, to be denounced by being labelled “Marxist” in the post-Cold-War, neoliberal era can only be absurd. Sadly, it is only after their “best used by” date that the rationale for such historic labelling appear not as “natural” and commonsensical as we thought. And all too often, only when it becomes apparent that the meanings attached to certain labels are obsolete or fantastical do we wonder to ourselves why these labels acquired so much potency in our lifetime and even the one preceding ours.

In this issue, we interview three individuals well known for their civic involvements in Singapore society: Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of a Singapore theatre company TNS/The Necessary Stage; John Gee, former president of the migrant worker advocacy group TWC2/Transient Workers Count Too; and Corinna Lim, the executive director of the women’s advocacy group, AWARE/Association for Women’s Action and Research. We ask each of them to reflect respectively on the labels “Marxist”, “foreign worker” and “feminist” – what meaning these labels have held for them; in what ways these might have impacted on their personal lives and professional associations, in Singapore as well as the broader geographical context; how or whether they tried or needed to contest or reject these labels and representations; and what potencies these labels still or did possess in Singapore society.

Interrogating “what” it is that the Singapore state and society have been through and what they have become, we hope, can help shape what they can be. We hope, at least, that by questioning hard enough, all labels may one day be shown up as impotent modes of thinking, responding, coping, and that we can embrace the “what” of the vulnerabilities and complexities of life. Death to governance and social engagement by labelling! Label the labellers or be labelled at your own peril!


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