Letter from… Singapore

Axel Gelfert reports from where the ivory tower meets the crystal palace

(cc) Nathan Hayag

(cc) Nathan Hayag

When Fyodor Dostoevsky visited London in 1862, one of the lasting impressions the city left on him was the extraordinary Crystal Palace, a huge iron and glass structure built by Joseph Paxton for the World Exhibition of 1851. So impressed was Dostoevsky that only a few years later the Crystal Palace would feature prominently in his Notes from Underground (1865), perhaps the first explicit anti-globalisation diatribe in the history of world literature. In this book, Dostoevsky’s narrator (“Underground Man”) declares: “New economic relations will follow, ready-made and also calculated with mathematical precision, so that all possible questions will disappear in a single instant, since they have all been provided with answers; and then the Crystal Palace will arise.” The narrator then takes exception to his imaginary interlocutor’s view of the Crystal Palace as a modern utopia: “I am perhaps afraid of this edifice just because it is crystal and forever imperishable, and because it will be impossible even stealthily to stick out a tongue at it.” In the words of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, what Dostoevsky rejects in this passage is the promise of an “air-conditioned golden cage of luxury, governed by an eternal springtime of consensus.”

I was reflecting on Sloterdijk’s remark recently, while I was having dinner with a friend at one of Singapore’s better Chinese chain restaurants, appropriately named Crystal Jade Palace and located amidst the usual brand-name luxury boutiques in the (heavily air-conditioned) upscale Ngee Ann City Mall. What, I asked myself, would Dostoevsky have made of the ritualised consumerism that goes on daily along one of Singapore’s main tourist attractions, the three-mile long Orchard Road, believed to have the biggest concentration of shopping malls in the entire world? Perhaps he would be appalled by the excesses of modern materialism, but he would hardly be surprised. He might even find it ironic that his very own “Underground Man” would also find his place in this environment – after all, Singapore is also home to the region’s largest underground mall, which links its subway system to the city’s new concert hall and, yes, more malls. No doubt, Underground Man would quickly be assimilated into the system, his dissent channelled into more productive forms of expression.

Few cities have profited more from economic globalisation than Singapore. Indeed, the history of modern Singapore only dates back to 1819, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established a British trading post on the tropical island. Only moderately successful at first, the island was made a Crown Colony in 1867 and quickly became the major port in the region and, after World War I, an important naval base for the British. In a country with little patience for nostalgia, the colonial history nonetheless does provide a common focus – if only because most of the major ethnic groups (Chinese, Indian, most Malays, and of course the local Eurasians) ended up in Singapore as the result of successive waves of immigration that were closely associated with Singapore’s colonial history. Etched into the more recent collective memory, however, are two major events: the Japanese occupation from 1942-5 and Singapore’s eviction, in 1965, from the newly formed Malaysia. It was this last event, and a series of shrewd (and, on occasion, ruthless) political moves that set Singapore on the path “From Third World to First” (also the title of the first prime minister’s, now “Minister Mentor”, Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography).

Throughout Singapore’s brief history, philosophy seems notable only by its absence. One reason, it seems fair to suggest, is the island’s tropical climate. As Lee Kuan Yew once put it, “before air-con, mental concentration and with it the quality of work deteriorated as the day got hotter and more humid.” (Hence Lee Kuan Yew’s firm belief that the air-conditioner was one of the most significant inventions in history, which has led at least one political commentator to refer to Singapore as “the air-conditioned nation” with its “politics of comfort and control”.)

But even if philosophers do not figure prominently in the history of Singapore, philosophy nonetheless has a long tradition on the island. A “Straits Philosophical Society” was founded as early as 1893, with the goal of engaging in critical discussions on philosophy, theology, history, literature, science, and the arts. Its Proceedings and Transactions were edited by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) educational reformer Lim Boon Keng (who also was the first Malayan to enter Edinburgh University on a Queen’s Scholarship). Others were less fortunate in their pursuit of philosophy in Singapore: the moral philosopher R.M. Hare recalls how he was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942, and sent to Changi prison, where he spent the next three and a half years writing “a few pages at a time” of a 150-page essay, tentatively (and, as Hare admits, pretentiously) titled “My Philosophy”.

In the post-war period, and especially after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, much emphasis was placed on improving secondary as well as higher education, utilising both as a tool of nation-building. This meant that authorities were sometimes quick to pounce on any perceived interference with domestic politics, or mixing of politics and academia. One of the culmination points of these tensions was the so-called “Enright affair” of 1960, when the newly appointed Professor of English D.J. Enright was publicly denounced as a “mendicant” and “beatnik professor” for including in his inaugural lecture some (by most standards, quite tame) remarks on the government’s attempts to impose from above its vision of a “proper” Asian culture.

Tensions rarely boiled over again in this spectacular fashion, not least because the rise of Singapore as an economic centre was accompanied by a transformation of the once vibrant, if sometimes violent, political culture of the country into a more predictable (and, hence, investment-friendly) political climate. While the days are gone when, as Paul Theroux (who was a lecturer at the University of Singapore in the late 1960s) wrote, “the media are dull beyond belief because of the heavy censorship”, the alignment of economic and political interests ensured that, for a long time, public debate was tame and heavily moderated.

Higher education in Singapore over the last decade has seen a dramatic expansion and shift in attitude. New major publicly-funded universities were created, such as Singapore Management University with its focus on economics and the social sciences; and it is not uncommon for academics – including philosophers – to be recruited for national committees on bioethics and, more recently, to be asked to make recommendations on how best to liberalise some of the country’s more restrictive laws (such as a wholesale ban on “party political films”).

After years of focusing on engineering and the natural sciences, universities have seen a steady growth, both in terms of faculty and student numbers, in the arts and social sciences. Following a series of new appointments, both at the National University and at Singapore Management University, academic philosophy in Singapore has now fully entered the mainstream of English-language academic philosophy, while also maintaining a leading presence in Chinese philosophy. What makes the situation special is that many, if not most, of those philosophers working in Asian philosophy are also well-versed in Western traditions (though, admittedly, not the other way around), thus making communication across disciplinary boundaries possible and fruitful.

Over the past few years, Singapore has begun to invest heavily in biotechnology. Researchers in the arts and social sciences recently joined forces in the form of a “Science, Technology, and Society Research Cluster”, in order to analyse the social and historical basis and the philosophical implications of modern biotechnology. Such interest in the history and philosophy of science is not without precedent: from 1962 onwards, the University of Singapore ran what, by all accounts, was one of the first dedicated B.A. programmes in the history and philosophy of science – only for the course to be closed down in 1967 as the result of internal university politics (though “low student numbers” were cited as the official reason).

Singapore’s most recent foray into biotechnology has resulted in new science parks springing up like mushrooms, with such fanciful names as “Biopolis” or “Fusionopolis”. For philosophers, historians, and sociologists to study those “crystal palaces” of science will be a serious temptation. What will eventually come out of this encounter between philosophy, the humanities, and the biosciences, is an open question. This much seems certain: consensus will remain as elusive as ever.

Axel Gelfert is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy, and a member of the Science, Technology, and Society Research Cluster, at the National University of Singapore.

  1. Philip Chrighton

    Is Singapore the least philosophical country in the world?

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