Review: Singapore, Incomplete

Typically one to shy away from most 'heavy' non-fiction titles, especially ones that are political in nature, I was apprehensive when I first picked up Singapore, Incomplete. Hence, I surprised even myself when I found the collection of essays easy to read. One of the reviews mentioned that they were originally written as a series of blog posts which explains their accessibility. The essays address a whole range of topics such as the media, politics and governance in Singapore in a reasonable and rational tone. Right from the start, Cherian George makes it clear in the preface that Singapore, Incomplete is "not a manifesto" and predicted that the reader might even be frustrated by its lack of "a clear programme for change". Rather, I felt that he intended for the essays to provoke discussion and for readers to look at Singapore society in new ways.

In one of my favourite passages, Cherian George points out how the government regards Singapore’s diversity not as a source of national strength, but as a possible threat:

Template government speeches refer to Singapore’s cultural landscape as ridden with “fault lines”, a geological term that treats our multiracial, multireligious character as a permanent risk factor, ready to erupt in violent disorder if we are not vigilant. In contrast, countries that are comparatively homogenous are considered blessed: thanks to their shared culture, those nations are said to have enough trust and social capital to sustain levels of political freedom and social welfare that wouldn’t work for Singapore, the government claims. In line with this bleak view, Singapore’s Racial Harmony Day doesn’t commemorate, say, the drafting of the national pledge, with its inspiring promise of unity beyond race, language or religion; or the 1960 founding of the People’s Association as a nationwide network to foster multicultural values. No, it marks the anniversary of the 1964 race riots that killed 22. The overriding ideological message is not we’re diverse, let’s celebrate; it’s we’re diverse, so beware.

As someone who is very much a product of the local education system, I was struck by the extent to which I have internalised the cautionary message about Singapore’s multiculturalism after reading the passage above. This collection of essays boasts many more interesting perspectives like the one above. Even if one disagrees with Cherian George’s, I’d say that Singapore, Incomplete is still a must-read for Singaporeans and for the ones who are interested in Singapore politics.

by Dawn Tan

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