Thursday, February 27, 2014


Post by Josh

Singapore has been a glittering jewel in our travels of Southeast Asia. It is easily the cleanest, most organized, and most developed location along the peninsula, and the scale and technical sophistication of its downtown are unrivaled.

On on way into the city, we got off the subway a few stops early to walk through town and get a feel for the neighborhoods. On the way, we passed Balestier Field - one of the town's oldest parks and athletic complexes. It has been hemmed in by modern construction in recent years, but still boasts a proud collection of historical Sports Clubs along its margins. We passed Indian and Sri Lankan clubs, each advertising live music and cover bands in different languages, and saw Chinese and Islamic athletic clubs along another side of the park. A bit beyond, our hostel was on the south side of Singapore's Little India, where the streets became narrower, pedestrian density became much greater, and Bollywood music spilled out of all the produce markets and pungent streetfront restaurants. It was a lively and delicious place to stay.

The next day, we visited Kampung Glam, the area reserved for the Sultan under British rule and now regarded as the city's Muslim Quarter, and wandered later down to China Town, decorated with paper lanterns and selling all manner of touristy Oriental objects. Each area was surprisingly self-contained. No signs were necessary to know when we had exited or entered a district - the immediate changes in people, shops, and music immediately made it apparent. And while these examples are historicized and commercialized districts, their cartoon-like separation of different ethnic groups became something of a theme as we talked with people there. Singapore is a very diverse country, but it is definitely not a melting pot. There are four official languages - English, Chinese, Malaysian, and Tamil. The ethnic Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities all coexist but fail to actually engage with each other, instead developing their own parallel community centers, sports clubs, restaurants, and shopping centers. Even in the ubiquitous government-sponsored housing projects with ethnic quotas for their residents, neighbors tend to not interact if they are from different ethnic groups.

This has been a continuous and surprising theme for me throughout Southeast Asia - the continuing importance of ethnic identity. Thailand marketed its ethnic Hill Tribes as though they were people's forgotten by time, Myanmar is still unable to forge a lasting political alliance between its 130 fractious but surprisingly similar ethnic groups, and Malaysia has strong affirmative action policies for its ethnic Malay population that have begun to treat the rest of its population as second class citizens. Simmering resentments, either from modern political power imbalances or legendary slights between ethnic groups in the past, threaten to derail current agreements and progress.

Mayhaps the melting pot of the US worked because the sheer number of different immigrant ethnic groups never allowed any single group to achieve dominance - cooperation between smaller groups was required to move project forward, reducing the importance of ethnic identity. Singapore is very diverse, but has long had three strong and separate groups that could function independently. They each have their own well-developed culinary, political, and religious traditions, which remove a lot of the common ground on which US groups tend to move. People we spoke to mentioned a difficulty in actually making friends in Singapore - that interactions tend to be conducted in a transactional manner, purely to achieve an end rather than to build connections. The city was also described as very transitory, with young people tending to stay for only one to four years before getting out. This might create an environment where the effort required to make connections or friendships outside of your ethnic group seems too high, based on how much effort it takes to reach out and on how long such a connection may last.

I wonder how long it will take to build a unified Singaporean national identity. In discussion, we floated that the lack of external threats to the nation encouraged the different groups to focus on their internal conflicts rather than banding together to achieve a common objective. Or maybe the endowment effect is at play, wherein people on the island value the safety of their own ethnic group and identity more than the potential gains of forging cross-ethnic links or a comprehensive national identity. Singapore has compulsory military service for all males, which may be an effective common ground for social bonding, but we were not certain how well this worked or what other shared avenues of experience exist.

I am very curious about this, and look forward to seeing how racial dynamics will play out as we continue to move further west. I would also love to hear your comments on this post and to get a dialog going here.  For now, we'll continue to watch things unfold in our last days in Kuala Lumpur, then in Uzbekistan tomorrow.

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