OPINION | Reorienting Singapore – Singapore News

By Peter A. Coclanis

In a recent opinion piece in the Singapore Straits Times, associate editor Chua Mui Hoong captured some of the downsides of Singapore’s remarkable economic success over time.  Such success, she argued, has been underpinned, reinforced, and increasingly characterized by an excessive concern for individual material success among Singaporeans, the striving for more of the markers of individual success—once captured in the fixation on the island with the famous five Cs, but now by the “Singapore Dream”—and an (over) valorization of cognitive achievements and accolades.  

In so arguing, Chua based part of her case on a formulation in British journalist David Goodhart’s 2020 book Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. More specifically, she uses Goodhart’s tripartite scheme to argue that in recent decades Singaporeans’ have overvalued “head skills”– mind work based on cognitive ability—over skills associated with manual dexterity (hand) and caregiving (heart), which has led or at least helped to lead Singapore down the path to greater inequality and diminished mobility for large segments of the resident population, which segments are falling further and further behind the cognitive elite, to the detriment of the nation as a whole.  

With the possibility of two Singapores emerging, the government, Chua notes, has increasingly moved to shore up the prospects of those on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder, through moves, for example, to render income taxes more progressive and to extend the Progressive Wage Model to more sectors of the economy. Chua views such moves positively, as do I, and we both support more moves in that direction going forward.

In some ways, what Goodhart and Chua describe is the negative outgrowth of an economic shift in many developed countries to what French scholar Yann Moulier Boutang called “cognitive capitalism” in a book of the same name published in 2012. In this system or stage of capitalism, wealth is generated increasingly by knowledge creation via cognitive labor, which reshapes social relations in fundamental ways. 

Somewhat earlier—in Empire, published in 2000–theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri anticipated this formulation with their concepts of “informational capitalism” and “immaterial labor.”  Whether we choose to describe the recent shifts in Singapore as an over-emphasis on the “head,” on cognitive capitalism, or informational capitalism and immaterial labor, we come up with the same results analyzed so effectively by Chua: a rise in relative terms in the economic, social and cultural power of so-called knowledge workers vis à vis other individuals and groups. 

Although there is already much to appreciate in Chua’s piece, in the Singapore case, her analysis might be further refined by employing an important conceptual distinction made in an earlier book by Goodhart: The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (2017).  In this book, Goodhart emphasizes the growing dichotomy between what he calls “Anywheres” and “Somewheres.”  Anywheres are the cosmopolitan globally-oriented elites with the types of knowledge-based skills and intellectual and cultural capital that are translatable across space, and that is, in a sense, borderless. 

These elites can and often do work or at least engage economically with people and institutions anywhere. Their orientations are international, and they often see themselves (in many cases, correctly) as having as much or more in common with “Anywheres” anywhere–that is to say, with people in places such as Hong Kong, London, New York, Silicon Valley, Dubai, or Shanghai–as they do with national compatriots in, let us say, places such as Boon Lay or Choa Chu Kang.

“Somewheres,” on the other hand, are more rooted, more place-based, and according to Goodhart, traditional in orientation and worldview. They are often less educated, have fewer skills that translate easily internationally, and, as a result, have not fared as well as have “Anywheres”  during the globalization wave of the past half-century or so.  In the West—Goodhart’s primary concern in his book and elsewhere—these groups have been the primary targets and often eager adherents of various and sundry populist appeals, whether Brexit or Trumpism.

To be sure, the situation in Singapore isn’t exactly the same as that in the West analyzed by Goodhart, but there are sufficient similarities between cosmopolitan groups in Singapore and “Anywheres,” and between Heartlanders in Singapore and Goodhart’s “Somewheres” to merit careful consideration.  

Doing so adds texture, not to say value, to Chua’s interpretation of the situation on the ground in the republic. The government is aware of the distinctions drawn by Goodhart, and hopefully, it will act aggressively to avoid the problems that have arisen therefrom in Europe and the U.S. 

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (US).  He has lived and worked in Singapore and was Raffles Professor of History at NUS in 2005.

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