Sociological critique: Singapore's metanarrative - WILDCHILD

Is Singapore’s National Identity Threatened by an Incoherent Metanarrative?

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This essay posits that Singapore’s current model of governance—the state’s metanarrative comprising meritocracy, pragmatism, and the ideal family—not only cannot reverse an eroding national identity but also exacerbates this challenge. National identity refers to imagined solidarity[1] and an organic rootedness to the nation, underpinned by shared history, values, and a commitment to act for a common goal[2].

#1.     National identity erosion

Our city is at risk of national identity erosion for three main reasons. One, globalization allows freer movement of ideas and people. Singaporeans who are exposed to ideas and values on global citizenship[3] might find them more appealing than those promoted locally in Singapore. Some others have increased international mobility, reducing their physical and emotional rootedness in Singapore.

Two, Singapore has rebranded itself in ways that favor the ‘global’ over the ‘local’. For instance, the gentrification of heritage sites[4] has replaced spaces embedded with shared memories with artificial, tourist-centric facades. Such place reconstruction for a global audience erodes the shared history necessary for national identity.

Three, global-city Singapore is defined by neoliberalism, which cultivates an individualistic mindset, where personal interests might supersede national interests. Individualistic people’s pursuit of material gains in global markets does not necessarily benefit Singapore, as they might relegate Singapore to a mere instrument for getting an education and hosting foreign capital, without any obligation to serve the nation[5]. Thus, the commitment to a shared nation-building project, a component of national identity, is threatened by such neoliberal forces.

As such, Singapore’s weakened national identity risks emptying its “core”[6], where Singaporeans lose attachment to and responsibility for its sustained progress. This results in a hollowed shell, devoid of a rooted community and solidarity, which threatens the nation’s survival. Before explaining the main argument, Singapore’s governance model is defined next.

#2.     Singapore’s metanarrative

Singapore’s predominant model of governance is a state-orchestrated metanarrative for maintaining social control. A metanarrative is a grand narrative of ideas, practices, and lived experiences that renders existing social structures coherent[7]. The state presents possibly conflicting structures as seemingly fitting pieces of one big puzzle. The metanarrative gels these structures into a sensible, palatable system that optimizes Singapore’s economic performance, measured by efficiency and growth[8].

To avoid slipping into tautology, this state metanarrative is distinct from national identity. The former stems from the state’s ideological work, which entails ‘hard’ government institutions and policies. Conversely, national identity is characterized by ‘softer’, ground-up sentiments of attachment and solidarity. A convergence of the state’s metanarrative and national identity indicates ideological hegemony, where the governance model attains consensus from the citizenry[9] who accept and internalize state-defined goals.

The state’s metanarrative is the ideal Singaporean life course, comprising meritocracy, pragmatism, and the ideal family. The typical Singaporean grows up in a supposedly meritocratic education structure that provides equal opportunities for all. If he studies hard, he graduates with qualifications that find him a full-time job. With regular income and CPF contributions[10], he can afford to purchase an HDB flat with his fiancée[11]. Homeownership, heterosexual marriage, and employment are the state’s desired conditions for couples to then have children[12], and this metanarrative is reproduced among the next generation of Singaporeans.

This ideal Singaporean life trajectory renders meritocracy, pragmatism, and the ideal family coherent, perhaps even mutually reinforcing. Their coherence is reinforced by how fulfilling one (having children) necessitates another (homeownership), which is predicated on meritocratic education and employment. Thus, the ideal family and meritocracy form a neat chain with pragmatism; they further Singapore’s productive work ethic that contributes to economic growth[13], and they constitute material stakes for Singaporeans to stay rooted[14].

These constituent elements—education structures, the family, and housing policies—are ideological state apparatuses[15] that construct a coherent metanarrative as an interlinked, ideal life course. It becomes ideologically hegemonic when individual Singaporeans accept it as a convincing and desirable storyline, perceiving it as natural and right. Thus, they internalize this metanarrative as part of their identity and consent to abide by its processes[16]. Citizens are disciplined to adopt the state’s desired practices, which reinforces the government’s political legitimacy and social control. Hence, it is crucial for the metanarrative’s elements to remain compatible[17] and convincing for it to cohere with national identity, in order to sustain a common will for the national project.

#3.     Disillusionment with an incoherent metanarrative

However, the state’s metanarrative is increasingly facing contestation and disillusionment from the citizenry. This is possibly because of the state’s adamant adherence to deeply entrenched policies and rejection of alternatives. This essay explains two tensions between the metanarrative’s elements, before exploring their implications on national identity.

First, pragmatism offsets the idealism embedded in the belief in meritocracy, regardless of whether such idealism is realistic or unfounded. Pragmatism, when taken to the extreme, has transformed practices that have worked well in the past[18] into unchangeable success formulae, which become dogmatic, cemented institutions. As these “sacred cows”[19] cannot adapt to burgeoning social problems like widening inequalities, the aforementioned chain that gels the metanarrative’s constituent elements might break apart. This undermines the persuasiveness of meritocracy, including its premise of equal opportunities[20], which disillusion mobility aspirations toward the ideal Singaporean life course.

An example of this tension between pragmatism and meritocracy is the government’s insistence on maintaining a standardized national examination—the PSLE[21]—while removing examinations for non-graduating levels to reduce the obsession with grades and increase the joy of learning[22]. The pragmatic adherence to “fair” standardized testing[23], as a tried-and-tested talent sorting mechanism[24], coupled with some education reform via the removal of other examinations, might actually render the PSLE more unequal in terms of access to private resources. This is due to the scramble for private tuition[25], as a result of parents’ paranoid need to assess their children’s performance. Thus, the persistent adherence to pragmatism can weaken meritocracy, revealing contradictions within Singapore’s metanarrative that might erode its legitimacy.

Second, an insistence on the ideal family may also conflict with pragmatism, because it devalues citizens who do not conform to the aforementioned family ideal via discriminatory policies. For instance, new public houses are allocated mostly to married heterosexual couples[26], excluding singles and LGBT groups. Moreover, the government continues to limit civil activism that contravenes heteronormativity, evident from how requests to register LGBT activist groups as an organization have consistently been rejected[27]. Although it is also pragmatic to placate the conservative “silent” majority[28], incalculable costs are incurred. Such instances of rejecting homosexuality might signal a broader norm—an intolerant society that cannot embrace diversity—which also deters foreign investors repulsed by perceived bigotry. On the local level, the state’s metanarrative disadvantages Singaporeans who cannot conform to it, who would likely feel more alienated from this national identity. This increases the risk of losing local, productive talent and consequently contributes to brain drain.

If disillusionment with the metanarrative becomes widespread, it becomes difficult for Singapore to preserve its already weakening national identity — Singaporeans who feel abandoned by globalization or the state might lose their roles and obligations to society, as they no longer feel integrated with the nation[29]. The state’s metanarrative then loses its legitimacy, as it might be perceived as serving only the interests of the conformers, the highly educated, and the rich. Singapore might then become a divided society, which is already evident in recent studies[30]. Hence, imagined solidarity, an important component of national identity, is threatened by a potentially incoherent metanarrative that some Singaporeans no longer subscribe to.

#4.     Defense against objections

There are two potential objections to this argument that an incoherent metanarrative exacerbates national identity erosion.

First, negotiations about these contradictions in the metanarrative are still part of the state’s attempt to achieve consensus and ideological hegemony[31]. The state recognizes such contradictions that may render the metanarrative incoherent; what “matters is an analysis of the struggle to make [it] coherent – and therefore broadly convincing”[32]. Contradictions are negotiated with the public and reconstructed in ways that construct a veil of coherence, resulting in consent and hegemony (see Section 2).

However, this negotiation process cannot endure Singapore’s eroding national identity. This is because state-society negotiation is increasingly drifting away from consensus-building and moving towards heterogeneous discourses instead[33]. In other words, public discourse today is less about consolidating conflicting elements to form one coherent whole, but it has become multiple “language games”[34] that do not necessarily intersect[35].

For instance, in the recent parliamentary debates, the opposition advocated for a national commission to examine the possibility of a minimum wage, based on principles like compassion and shifting towards equity instead of efficiency[36]. However, some PAP parliamentarians asked about the exact minimum wage level and details on when to implement it, speaking in a pragmatic language focusing on facts and figures[37]. Evidently, they are rationalizing in different language games[38]; the former prioritizes points of principle, while the latter concentrates on details and numbers. This example shows that public discourse is not unified by a common denominator and risks bifurcating into diverging agendas. If these dissonant language games or narratives persist, it might eventually result in a public discourse where the incumbent government’s interests are perceived to be misaligned with national interests. Such irreconcilable narratives threaten national identity by undermining social solidarity.

The second objection is the claim that anti-globalization, neoconservative movements can strengthen national identity. Opportunistic politicians may exploit nationalistic language to rally the segments disenchanted with globalization for politically conservative, nationalistic movements[39].

However, Singapore has not seen such anti-globalization countermovements against neoliberalism[40] and towards nationalism. Even if this were to happen, it would likely be characterized by a bifurcated society rather than by a common identity. In such neoconservative movements like those in the US and western Europe, the disgruntled masses are (mis)led by anti-globalization and anti-immigrant discourses, without actually changing the system that has disadvantaged them. In other words, they subscribe to a new, aestheticized[41] metanarrative that diverts them away from underlying, material conditions. In Singapore, this might be increasingly manifested in the attribution of local PMET job loss to foreigners[42]. This might harbor xenophobia and scapegoat foreigners as the main cause of unemployment. This risks politicizing an economic problem, which, if sustained, threatens a common will for nation-building. Even if the state maintains that its policies are designed to ultimately benefit the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans, their narrative may no longer be insufficient to placate burgeoning nationalism, should such a neoconservative movement arise. This does not bode well for Singapore, as neoconservative movements tend to aestheticize politics and divide society, rather than construct a genuine, concerted will for making progress as a nation.

Feature image by Terence Tan, follow him on Instagram @terencetzc.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 6-7.

[2] Ernest Renan, “What is a nation?”, in Nation and Narration, edited by Homi Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 19.

[3] Miriam Sobre-Denton and Nilanjana Bardhan, Cultivating Cosmopolitanism for Intercultural Communication: Communicating as Global Citizens (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 4.

[4] Parliamentary Debates (Lim Biow Chuan), “Preserving our Heritage, Culture and History – Conserving Dakota Crescent” (Hansard, Vol 94, Sitting 25, 2016). His examples were Chinatown and Bugis.

[5] Public Service Division, Conversations for the Future: Singapore’s Experiences with Strategic Planning (1988 – 2011) (Singapore: Public Service Division, 2011), p. 10. Please refer to the notion of Hotel Singapore.

[6] Tharman Shanmugaratnam, “An investigative interview: Singapore 50 years after independence – a success story at a turning point?”, 45th St. Gallen Symposium (London, 2015).

[7] Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The postmodern condition”, in The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory, edited by Steven Seidman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kenneth Paul Tan, Governing Global-City Singapore, (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2017), p. 89.

[10] The Central Provident Fund, Singapore’s mandatory savings scheme. Originally as a retirement pensions fund, the CPF has gradually expanded to allow for investment in housing, education, and more. Regular full-time employment would allow for homeownership since monthly mortgages are usually deducted directly from the CPF account.

[11] A public flat, the majority of which are sold by the government, usually at subsidized prices for first-timers. New Build-To-Order subsidized flats are especially targeted at young married couples.

[12] Teo You Yenn, Neoliberal Morality in Singapore (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), pp. 2-5.

[13] Chua Beng Huat, “Pragmatism of the PAP government”, in Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 70.

[14] National Library Board, “HDB begins selling flats under Home Ownership Scheme”, History SG (2016).

[15] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Mapping Ideology, edited by Slavoj Zizek (New York: Verso, 1971), p. 110.

[16] Alessandro Olsaretti, “Croce, Philosophy and Intellectuals: Three Aspects of Gramsci’s Theory of Hegemony”, Critical Sociology 42,3 (2016), p. 341.

[17] Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The postmodern condition”, p. 27.

[18] Kenneth Paul Tan, Governing Global-City Singapore, p. 60.

[19] Ong Ye Kung, “Education for Our Future”, Ministry of Education, Speech in response to the 11 July 2018 parliamentary motion (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 2018), p. 2. Retrieved–response-by-minister-for-education–mr-ong-ye-kung.

[20] Kenneth Paul Tan, Governing Global-City Singapore, p. 21.

[21] The Primary School Leaving Examination, which is a compulsory examination for graduating primary school students, whose academic results are used to allocate them to secondary schools.

[22] Amelia Teng, “Many primary and secondary schools to scrap mid-year exams in 2020, a year ahead of schedule: Ong Ye Kung”, The Straits Times (2019, May 28).

[23] Ong Ye Kung, “Education for Our Future”, p. 3.

[24] Kenneth Paul Tan, Governing Global-City Singapore, p. 21.

[25] Alfred Chua, “The Big Read: No exams? No problem! Some tuition centres rush in to fill gap, soothe anxious parents”, Channel News Asia (2018, October 16).

[26] Housing & Development Board, “HDB Flat: What are the eligibility conditions?”, HDB (2020).

[27] Lynette Chua, “Pragmatic Resistance, Law, and Social Movements in Authoritarian States: The Case of Gay Collective Action in Singapore”, Law & Society Review 46,4 (2012), p. 742.

[28] Charmaine Ng, “Amending 377A: Unlike courts, Parliament will take into account views of public”, The Straits Times (2018, September 8).

[29] Emile Durkheim, “The Anomic Division of Labour”, in The Division of Labour in Society, translated by George Simpson (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1933), pp. 356-358.

[30] Derrick A. Paulo, “Class – not race nor religion – is potentially Singapore’s most divisive fault line”, CNA (2018, October 1).

[31] Kenneth Paul Tan, Governing Global-City Singapore, p. 23.

[32] Ibid., p. 55.

[33] Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The postmodern condition”, p. 36.

[34] Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The postmodern condition”, p. 36.

[35] Isabelle Stengers, “The cosmopolitical proposal”, in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (London: MIT Press, 2005), p. 1001.

[36] Ng Jun Sen, “WP MP Jamus Lim’s minimum wage, ‘compassionate policymaking’ proposals draw fire from Tharman, PAP MPs”, Today (2020, September 3).

[37] Kok Yufeng, “Coronavirus: ‘Nuclear option’ of lockdown highly unlikely in Singapore”, The Straits Times (2020, March 20).

[38] Chew Hui Min, “Heated Parliament debates, but did they shed light on key national issues?”, Channel News Asia (2020, September 9).

[39] David Harvey, “The Neoliberal State”, in A brief history of neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 82, 85.

[40] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 136-137.

[41] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 235.

[42] Linette Lai, “Parliament: Minister, opposition MPs spar over efforts to protect local PMETs”, The Straits Times (2020, September 2).

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