Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project

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by Michael D. Barr and Zlatko Skrbis

Singapore has few natural resources but, in a relatively short history, its economic and social development and transformation are nothing short of remarkable. Today Singapore is by far the most successful exemplar of material development in Southeast Asia and it often finds itself the envy of developed countries. Furthermore over the last three and a half decades the ruling party has presided over the formation of a thriving community of Singaporeans who love and are proud of their country. Nothing about these processes has been 'natural’ in any sense of the word. Much of the country’s investment in nation building has in fact gone into the selection, training and formation of a ruling and administrative elite that reflects and will perpetuate its vision of the nation. The government ownership of the nation-building project, its micromanagement of everyday life and the role played by the elite are three fundamental elements in this complex and continuing process of construction of a nation. The intense triangulation of these elements and the pace of change they produce make Singapore one of the most intriguing specimens of nation building in the region.

In a critical study of the politics of ethnicity and elitism in Singapore, Constructing Singapore looks inside the supposedly 'meritocratic’ system, from nursery school to university and beyond, that produces Singapore’s political and administrative elite. Focusing on two processes – elite formation and elite selection – it gives primary attention to the role that ethno-racial ascription plays in these processes but also considers the input of personal connections, personal power, class and gender. The result is a study revealing much about how Singapore’s elite-led nationbuilding project has reached its current state whereby a Singaporean version of Chinese ethno-nationalism has overwhelmed the discourse on national and Singaporean identity.

"This book is a welcome addition to recent critical scholarship on the Singapore state and particularly its incomplete and often one-sided version of history. In its detailing of Singapore’s education system over the past few decades, it provides a valuable record of key moments and changes, central logics and tensions." - You Yenn Teo, Pacific Affairs, 84(3), 2011

Publication year: 2009
320 pp / 229mm x 152mm
8 tables, 11 b/w figures
ISBN: 978-87-7694-029-4, Paperback
ISBN: 978-87-7694-028-7, Hardback

NIAS Press