Friday, March 25, 2011

Hard truths on hard culture

Guest essay by Robox on Yawning Bread

I had been prompted to write this in response to a comment following this Yawning Bread article in which Alex Au reports Peter Lloyd as having observed in his book Inside Story, that three in four prison inmates were Malay or Indian. I would urge readers who have yet to read that article and the comments that followed to do so first in order to be able to follow this better.


The comment in question, by reader Christopher, proffered that in examining the causes of this gap, one would have to investigate it from two angles: circumstances – the “fault” or “shortcomings”, evidently cultural ones according to him, of Malays and Indians themselves – and government policy. Christopher arrived at the conclusion – somewhat pre-emptively without examining, even cursorily, any policy or administrative acts that might have been a contributing factor – that:

In terms of policy, I would hardly think that [there is] any socio-economic disadvantage faced by our minority groups [that] are the direct result of government policy. On the contrary, I believe that Singapore has good and fair policies in place in regard to race that not only do not discriminate, but they also promote multi-racialism, and serve to improve the social mobility of the minority races. In this regard, the government does subtly admit that there is a socio-economic gap that exists between the race majority and minority.


Hence we are left with circumstance. Adopting a pragmatic point of view, different races have different cultures and these will inevitably churn out different socio-economic outcomes. Closing the socio-economic gap would require one or more groups of people to adopt a different set of thinking, or adapt their lifestyle accordingly for progress…[Emphasis added]

I take a diametrically opposite position to Christopher’s: There is, to me, sufficient evidence existing in the public domain that point incontrovertibly to government policy being a possibly major cause of the disparity between the Chinese population on the other one hand, and the Malay and Indian ones on the other, in the prison population.

At the same time, I posit that, in the absence of any explicit admission by the PAP government to the existence of such a policy, and exacerbated by the lack of transparency by them even when queried in Parliament, we are left to a more unorthodox method of intellectual inquiry, though one that is in widespread informal use, to make these deductions. We perform intelligent guesswork by matching the following:

1. the public opining of government officials;

2. administrative acts, such as the police work that takes place on the ground; and,

3. anecdotal evidence provided from a variety of sources, only one of which is Peter Lloyd’s book.

The pre-requsite for performing the above though, I might add, is a healthy distrust for the PAP government which I am happily and amply endowed with.

Public Musings

In his paper, Lee Kuan Yew: Race, Culture and Genes that is well known to Singaporeans in cyberspace, Michael D Barr recites a 1967 parable attributed to Lee Kuan Yew in which, out of three women – presumed to be Chinese, Indian and Malay – admitted into hospital in the same condition and needing a blood transfusion, only the Chinese woman survived. As Barr explains:

…”hard” and “soft” countries not only produce “hard” and “soft” cultures, but their people acquire “hard” and “soft” physiological characteristics. This explains why in Lee’s parable of December 1967, the woman from the “hard” East Asian society lived after her operation, while the women from the “soft” South Asian and Southeast Asian societies died.

(see footnote 1)

Neither would it seem that these idiosyncrasies are confined to only one man and would have been abandoned with the passage of time (footnote 2).

Fast forward to the present day, and by sheer coincidence, the same Yawning Bread article on which this one spins off from relates an observation made by Peter Lloyd in his book: “[Lee Wei Ling’s] first contribution of 2009 [to her Sunday Times column] was a startling assertion that Singaporeans are guilty of becoming too soft and comfortable in their affluence”. While Ms Lee did not attribute this softness to any cultural contamination of “hard” culture by the “soft” cultures, her comment does belie her uncritical acceptance of her father’s beliefs. Even more recently – just last week in fact – Goh Chok Tong would praise the “stoicism” that he observed in the Japanese in the face of calamity and personal tragedy, and then make the outrageous leap as to conclude that it was a necessary ingredient in nation building (footnote 3).

Indeed, Barr notes that, “[Lee Kuan Yew’s] speeches also reveal a fear that he and the ethnic Chinese of Singapore will lose the drive which has made them successful, not only because they have left the “hard environment” of their forebears and are now living in the tropics, but because they are also living in a more prosperous, but “softer” and thus inferior culture.”

While it is clear that Lee Kuan Yew is not alone in his fear, it is indeed frightening that what should have been denounced as just more of Lee Kuan Yew’s many idiotisms, instead permeates all strata of state and society, the latter of which was also exemplified in Christopher’s comment.

The Mounting Evidence

What then is to become of Malays and Indians who espouse “soft” cultures, and who are believed by government officials not to have contributed to the nation’s success nor to nation building itself? It stands to reason that the only course of action open to the PAP government, one given to punitive action to accomplish behavioural change, are exactly those reserved for all who betray their nation on any account: punishment and rehabilitation (footnote 4).

Sylvia Lim’s assertion in Parliament in that ‘the Government had been reluctant to publish figures on ethnicity and crimes’ was an expression of the disquiet that already exists on the Indian and Malay grounds. Peter Lloyd’s book offers some of his own observations; Alex Au‘s article itself should be viewed as an expression of that same disquiet. In response I cited my own observations and those of others. Though there was one detractor in the discussion that ensued, another commenter Prison Volunteer wrote that, he could ‘vouch that there is an over-over-over representation of Malays and Indians in prison especially those under 25’. Indeed, the SDP website even published an email more than year ago from a Malay reader making the observation that Malays seem to suffer harsher sentencing in the justice system.

All of these constitute the anecdotal evidence. It would have been quite normal in a more mature society with democratic public institutions to have treated anecdotal evidence as raw material for further empirical investigation. The stumbling block here seems to lie in the not infrequent observation that the government insists on a monopoly in information as well as a monopoly on its flow: the hard evidence could have been made available in Parliament but wasn’t, leading one to suspect that a policy that could cause the government untold embarassment had to remain under wraps at all costs.

The information in this and the previous section leads me conclusively to believe that government policy does in fact play large a role in the disparity between the numbers of Chinese inmates on the one hand, and Indian and Malay ones on the other, in the prison population.


One possible rationale for the government’s evasiveness might be understandable, though only from the perspective of protecting their own backs. It could provoke questioning such as the type that I have already made. It could provoke the emergence of the true stories of police action. And it could result in accusations of government racism. Beyond just the matter of the lack of transparency, the flipside of this evasiveness goes far beyond. It does nothing to quell the disquet that is already on the Malay and Indian grounds, and which is moving beyond the two communities. It also has the potential to perpetuate the culture of rumor mongering so prevalent in all autocratic states

All in all, we have a government that cannot, even in our wildest imaginations, be described as possessing well-honed problem solving instincts. If anything, they are the net cause of more problems.


1. It has to be noted that Lee’s beliefs in “hard” and “soft” countries, cultures and the resulting physiological traits are at its most fundamental level sexist ones. Applied to cultures, “hard” or “soft” ones, and with no regard for the heterogeneity within them, it acquires all the connotations of ethnic superiority and inferiority, such as it does in the power disparity between the sexes; Lee’s beliefs are undeniably racist.

2. I have often wondered what Lee Kuan Yew could have meant by “hard” culture. While this is by no means authoritative, it would seem to me that he really refers to an orientation towards militarism, a culture complete with rigid hierarchies with room for exactly one person at its apex, unquestioning attitudes, blind loyalty, and a steely exterior suggesting a determined refusal to factor in feelings and emotions in the course of executing one’s public duties: the ingredients that predispose a people to autocratic rule. The belligerence that often accompanies militaristic attitudes would become immensely useful in fending off the Islamist hordes at our gates.

By sharp contrast, consider a possible reason for Indian cultural rehabilitation in Singapore. In Ethnicity, Gender and Entrepreneurial Tendencies: The Singapore Perspective by Ramin Cooper and Christopher Ziemnowicz, the authors cross reference Hofer (1997): “…Hinduism accepts the validity of many paths leading to the same goal.” This in effect precludes, in the average Hinduism-impacted Indian mind, a singular source as an absolute authority, a pre-requisite in democracy and anathema to Lee’s penchant for totalizing. Though I am not suggesting that this attitude is present uniformly in all Indians, it is also that quintessentially Indian attitude that might have given rise to the common stereotype of Indians as being ‘difficult to control’, providing justification for cultural rehabilitation as well as for being denied employment..

I suspect that a parallel rationale for punitive action against Malays exists as it does with Indians. In the past, it could have been due to some Malays having placed the authority of the Malaysian government in their lives over that of the Singaporean one helmed by Lee Kuan Yew. Lately, it seems to have morphed into an antagonism against Islam as the penultimate authority in the lives of many Malays.

3. One would have thought that good coping skills might have sufficed to cope with disaster, however, I surmise that Goh fancied that the militaristic attitude I wrote about in the preceding note, ‘a determined refusal to factor in feelings and emotions in the course of executing one’s duties to the state’, would not only be politically expedient for his autocratic government, but it presents yet another opportunity to reinforce the notion that Singapore’s success could only come about by the espousal of East Asian cultural attitudes and behaviour.

4. It is in this light that the recent Thaipusam controversy might be viewed, with the event producing a bumper crop of arrests of Indian individuals annually by the Singapore Police Force for “crimes” such as drumming on plastic pails. It’s also a matter of curiosity that in the same Yawning Bread article, Alex Au describes rehabilitation services as such: “The daily routine of prison life was one of obeying orders. Roll calls came several times a day. Inmates had to snap to attention, saying “Yes, sir” this and “Yes, sir” that when spoken to by prison officers.”


Robox said...

Hi Seelan, this a pleasant surprise. Thank you for running my article.

I really think that this is an issue of great importance. Someone posted this in SBF, and as can be expected from the denizens there, the reactions were typically racist. My guess is that in the other venues that this was posted, the truths stated here were so evident that it was too uncomfortable for the readers there to take up the issues raised.

Still, I think that I have performed a service in the sense that some important seeds were planted.

This issue will probably come into greater fruition at some later date.