The Asian Modern

The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore

C. J. W.-L. Wee
Foreword by Chua Beng Huat
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Asian Modern
    Book Description:

    How does one comprehend the phenomenon of the modernization of an Asian society in a globalized East Asian context? With this opening question, the author proceeds to give an account of how the modernization processes for postcolonial societies in Asia, such as those of India, Malaysia, and Singapore, are fraught with collaborations and conflicts between different socio-political, historical, economic, and cultural agents. Such ambivalent dynamics contribute to what Wee argues as a 'revealing distortion' of the extant models of Western modernity, which is nonetheless rooted in the politics of worldwide capitalism. Wee's narrative refuses to accept the uncritical interpretation of the modernizing processes in Asia as liberation from the hegemony of Euro-American capitalism. But neither is Wee prepared to concede that all cultural initiatives in the postcolonial societies are, therefore, denied all power to devise alternative forms of expression in the face of this haunting presence. It is the persistent effort to see the many faces of modernization in Asia in their full complexity that sets this study apart. Readers will discover that what seems to be the modernization of a single geopolitical entity is inevitably linked to the dynamics of various agents in other locations at different times, which makes us reflect on the existence of the many 'distortions' in our societies.

    eISBN: 978-988-8052-83-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Chua Beng Huat

    Travelling around Asia, I frequently encounter enthusiastic expressions of Singapore as a ‘desired’ future. Discussions range from ‘how did Singapore alone manage to avoid the culture of corruption that is everywhere in Asia’, to ‘can we borrow your political leaders, particularly Lee Kuan Yew, for a few years to get us off the ground’, and this often only partly in jest, to finally and ultimately, ‘Singapore as model’. Indeed, none less than the late Deng Xiaoping, the instigator of market economy for communist People’s Republic of China, had suggested that its people ‘learn from Singapore’. The irony should not be...

  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    C. J. W.-L. Wee
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    What does the Asian modern of a ‘globalising East Asia’ — a phrase now both clichéd and yet still resonant — look like? In the discourses that have emerged over the past two decades, East Asia has become increasingly viewed as industrial, capitalist and urban — and committed to frenetic development. All the three elements mentioned contribute to what is almost a mantra to be intoned by those who wish to represent East Asian cultural dimensions. In 1999, the Paris-based, mainland Chinese curator Hou Hanru co-curated with Hans-Ulrich Obrist the touring arts-exhibition extravaganza that started in London’s Hayward Gallery called ‘Cities on the...

  6. 1 The Asian Modern
    (pp. 15-30)

    Before the analysis of Singapore’s experiment with an Asian modern commences in detail, it is important to reiterate the point that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s imagining of a local and indeed regional modernity that it was part of was not something quirky: it was one part of the ongoing East and Southeast Asian responses to the colonial legacy of Western modernity.¹ This chapter attempts a limited genealogy of the ‘nativisations’ of modernity, and sees such nativisations as problematic if they are to be conceptualised as alternative sets of modernities that have achieved an Otherness to their Western colonial...

  7. Part 1 Deterritorialisation
    • 2 The ‘Modern’ Construction of Postcolonial Singapore
      (pp. 33-52)

      E. J. Hobsbawm, in an address to the American Anthropological Association, remarks that, ‘Nations without a past are contradictory in terms. What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one nation against another is the past, and historians are the people who produce it.’² The past is thus ‘what we are’, immutably and essentially, and each state has a nation and national culture with deep, primordial roots. The essentialising functions of history and its connection with the discursive construction of nationalism of course have been much criticised,³ not least by Hobsbawm himself; nevertheless, as cultural anthropologist Akhil Gupta has...

    • 3 Economic Development and the National Narrative
      (pp. 53-76)

      Of all Southeast Asian postcolonial societies, Singapore is distinct in the way the People’s Action Party (PAP) government has recreated the city-state for the central purpose of economic development. The now-standard(ised) historical narrative of commercial and industrial emergence reflects this purpose, and a key result is that the usual divisions between pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial are weakened. What also becomes foregrounded is the ruling party’s paramount role in effecting the achievement of ‘happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation’, as stated in the 1966 Singapore National Pledge. This historical position of the party has become entrenched as the economy ‘took...

    • 4 The Homogenised Urban Environment and Locality
      (pp. 77-98)

      What emerges from the previous two chapters is that Singapore seems to be a postcolonial city-state in which both the contradictions and the complexities of becoming a modern nation-state are seemingly resolved by state-directed technocratic and technicist means. This modern-Asian city is a partial fulfilment of a modernising desire to wipe the slate clean, and to invent society from scratch. The purpose of this chapter is twofold. First, I will continue exploring the People’s Action Party (PAP) state’s homogenising socio-cultural engineering by looking at the bland postcolonial urbanism that is contemporary Singapore’s built environment. As I have suggested in the...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  8. Part 2 Reterritorialisation
    • 5 The State, Ethnic Identity and Capitalism
      (pp. 101-120)

      Thus far, my discussion has examined how the demand for ‘progress’ in Singapore has led to industrial modernity itself becoming the metanarrative which frames the city-state’s immediate post-independence national identity. The modernity that Lee Kuan Yew and the other first-generation People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders wanted was not exactly the same as, but also not one alternative, to the advanced economies’ versions of modernity. Indeed the Anglo-American West, broadly taken as either a neutral or universal culture, could be a source for the island’s postcolonial state formation. However, the world has changed a great deal since the late 1960s and...

    • 6 Staging Cultural Fragments, the Singaporean Eunuch and the Asian Lear
      (pp. 121-142)

      In the Introduction, I observed that one way of the ways economic and political power functions is through a global West. Capitalism’s development in the ‘imperial present’, as Fernando Coronil puts it, has led to the West’s ‘invisible reterritorialisation in the elusive figure of the globe[, and this] … conceals [the] diffuse[d] transnational financial and political networks that integrate metropolitan and peripheral dominant social sectors’.¹ The consequence is that ‘the image of a unified globe dispenses with the notion of an outside’.²

      A number of East and Southeast Asian nations from the 1980s actually have benefited from the shift by...

  9. Epilogue Disciplinary Modernisation, the Asian Economic Crisis and Re-Invention
    (pp. 143-160)

    A major assumption in this book has been that economic and political power has shifted away from a geographical location called the ‘West’ to a less identifiable position in the ‘globe’. One thing the 1997 Asian economic crisis reveals is how for the former Asian ‘Miracle’ and up-and-coming Southeast Asian Newly Industrialising Economies (NIEs) there indeed may be less and less of an ‘outside’ to capitalist modernity. At the start of the new millennium, ‘Renaissance’ Asia¹ still consisted of semi-peripheral societies oriented towards a weakened Japan saddled with debt since the 1990s and the US market — though the presence of...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 161-196)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 197-206)
  12. Index
    (pp. 207-209)