Singapore 21 & Nation Building

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Singapore 21 & Nation Building

In August 1997, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the Singapore 21 Committee with the aim of strengthening the “heartware” of the Republic in the 21st Century. This comprised of five subject committees that were formed to study the pertinent issues Singaporeans would have to face in the building of such a new society during the 21st Century. Some 6,000 Singaporeans from all walks of life were then consulted for the time span of one year in order to understand their concerns and aspirations. At the end of this period, a report was published consolidating the results of this study. It served as the basis for the Singapore 21 Vision as adopted by the Republic.[1] By examining this Vision, the essay seeks to understand the nation-building process in Singapore as well as the role that Singapore 21 plays in the process. It argues that Singapore 21 functions as part of the ideological layering of nation-building and also serves to concretise the government’s approach towards this process. Hence, the essay will first discuss the aims and objectives of the nation-building process before the launch of Singapore 21, subsequently evaluating the role of Singapore 21 in the overall nation-building process. The Southeast Asian approach towards nation-building was coloured by its decolonisation experience. Due to the idea that Southeast Asian states were generally created out of territories under colonial administration, the formation of such states did not instil in their populations an acute sense of nationhood as might have been experienced in revolutionary-democratic states that were formed as the product of a popular uprising.[2] It was therefore the task of postcolonial elites to engineer a sense of nationalism among their populations, which marked the beginning of their long and arduous journey along the road towards nation-building. In a similar manner, the Singapore approach towards nation-building began in the wake of the Republic’s separation from Malaysia. The political leaders in the country were then faced with the task of shedding Singapore’s pre-independence identity and replacing it with a viable alternative. In Southeast Asia, two options were available. One alternative was to resort to a “regressive” identity by appealing to the “glorious past” and reviving a long-standing cultural tradition. The other option was to build a “progressive” identity by establishing a society based on primordial loyalties.[3] In the Singapore case, both alternatives were unviable as the country did not have a “glorious past” to resort to; neither was it feasible to build a society based on the primordial loyalties of the dominant ethnic Chinese group, as this would be too closely associated with the spectre of communism threatening to overpower the region. To address this dilemma, Singapore’s strategy towards nation-building was instead centred on the establishment of a legitimate authority and the creation of a national identity. This embodied the need for effective and efficient government, as well as the necessity of manipulating, adapting and creating new “national” values.[4] To this end, the Singapore leadership embarked on the construction of a nation in terms of the civic-instrumental as well as the cultural-symbolic dimensions of the process. While the civic-instrumental aspects of nation-building are expressed in terms of the material and utilitarian concerns of administration and resource control, the cultural-symbolic dimensions entail the development of a collective identity that would enable individuals to associate with the state.[5] Both aspects of nation-building are equally important and an absence of either process would result in an incomplete attempt at creating a nation. For instance, if a particular government only emphasised the civic-instrumental dimension, this would result in an affluent society but with its citizens possessing no sense of belonging to the country....
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