From colonial segregation to postcolonial 'integration' - constructing ethnic difference through Singapore's Little India and the Singapore 'Indian'

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Theses / Dissertations
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Thesis discipline
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
University of Canterbury. School of Culture, Literature and Society
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Volume Title
Aiyer, Subramaniam

In Singapore the state defines the parameters of 'ethnic' identity on the basis of the ideology of multiracialism, in which any particular 'ethnic' identity is subsumed under national identity and permitted expression in cultural and economic, but not political, terms. Multiracialism's appeal for the state as well as for its citizens lies in its objective: social cohesion between and equality for the four officially recognized 'racial' groups. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of the 'Indian' community, this thesis demonstrates how the multiple layers of meaning given to the doctrine and practice of multiracialism by various social actors and their interactions create tensions and contestations in reconciling 'ethnic' and national identity. Public expression of 'ethnic' politics is considered by the state as subversive towards the nation, although the state itself implements its ideology through a stringent regime of 'racial' management directed at every aspect of a Singaporean's social, cultural, economic and political life. The thesis addresses important issues involving 'racial' and 'ethnic' identity, modes of 'ethnic' interaction and nation building in the multiethnic and globalised context of Singapore in general and in 'Little India' in particular. This area, though theoretically democratic in nature, is embedded in state-civil society power relations, with the state setting the agenda for 'ethnic' maintenance and identity. My research interviews demonstrate the dominating and hegemonic power of the state, its paternalistic governance, and its wide network of social control mechanisms organizing 'ethnicity' in Singapore. The historical decision, made firstly by the British colonial administration and thereafter perpetuated by the nation state, to make 'race' the basis of all social classification has had far-reaching consequences. With the postcolonial state wishing to be the sole authority over 'ethnic' practices and discourse, Singaporeans' lives have been heavily conditioned by its impact, which I argue resembles to some extent the 'divide and rule' policy of the colonial regime. 'Race' as the structuring principle and accepted reality of Singapore society since colonial days is so entrenched that it has been essentialised and institutionalised by the state as well as by the people in contemporary Singapore. The terms 'race' and 'ethnicity' are used interchangeably and synonymously in daily usage, though "race" is preferred by political leaders, academics and the population at large. I will argue that with 'race' as the reference point ethnic communities that migrated from China, India and other places became socially, culturally and economically segregated and polarised from colonial days to such an extent that extensive stereotypes and prejudices have fed on their lives. Such perspectives have led to differing constructions of national identity discourses presented by the nation state based on its objectives of 'racial' integration, economic development and national identity. By way of interview and survey material I demonstrate that 'race', ethnicity and national identity as defined and managed by the state have not only been inextricably linked in the everyday lives of Singaporeans but more importantly they have resulted in a resurgence of ethnic consciousness in the last three decades or so, thereby undermining the state's attempts at national identity. My findings are based on responses by Singaporean Indians to various social engineering policies employed by the state as strategies for integrating the diverse ethnic groups and anchored on the ideologies of multiracialism, multiculturalism, multilingualism, multireligiosity and meritocracy. My respondents perceive that these policies are not proactive in fostering 'racial' integration because of growing social and economic inequalities brought about by the collision of ethnic and national identities with 'race'. They feel that the government has strayed from its declared goal of 'multiracialism', emphasized all along as critical to the strength, stability and growth of the nation. Such a situation, they argue, does not augur well for a common national identity that remains elusive in the eyes and minds of Singaporeans.

Singapore, ethnic identity, Singaporean Indians
Ngā upoko tukutuku/Māori subject headings
ANZSRC fields of research
Copyright Subramaniam Aiyer