Marx (as cited in Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, p. 39) famously said: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. He framed the concepts of a ruling class and ideas within the context of a capitalistic society. Marx ultimately claimed that the workers would unite and eventually overthrow the ruling class once they realised a common consciousness. Contrary to his claims, history paints no such scenario.
Still, to test the validity of his statement requires the minimal operationalisation of a ruling and ruled. Defining the rulers will call for a blurring of the lines between political parties, politicians, leaders, and government, all treated as one entity. Rather than the classical Marxian-capitalistic approach of diametric class groupings, the ruling class shall also be seen as owning influential power in the modern context. This paper will then attempt to demonstrate that a government wields such power through policies to exert control over society, culture, and consequently, its people. Singapore is chosen as the perfect example as it is also a constructed nation-state birthed from extreme circumstances. Its sudden independence necessitated that Singaporean leaders and politicians, unaffectionately termed the “ruling elite” (Goh, 2017), adopt urgent measures dispensed through a top-down approach to ensure the survivability of Singapore and its people (Mauzy & Milne, 2002; Tan, 2003). This trend of government and policy will find itself in nearly all aspects of Singaporean life, for which few will be discussed.
Singapore contains a hotbed of socially constructed ideas and observations that embody the Singaporean culture and ethos (Ortmann, 2009). That culture hinges upon itself being a “uniquely” multicultural and multiracial society (“Uniquely Singapore”, 2004; Benjamin, 1976). Not many countries in the world can boast of citizens living in relative harmony within a multiethnic society (Wee, 1989). That statement is contentious, but it is one that Singapore proudly stakes its claim on as a form of national pride and identity through conscious and ongoing construction (Kong & Yeoh, 1997).
In the same vein, Singapore is itself a construct and it is no accident that its leaders declared and designed Singapore as a multiracial society in a nod to its migrant roots, and also to push a Singaporean narrative and affirm the need for social solidarity (Kelly, 2017). How can this narrative be crafted and strengthened through policy though? By the institutionalisation of race, as seen on the Singaporean national identity cards, as one example. Regardless of one’s ethnic group, citizens were conveniently categorised as being either “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, or “Others” (CMIO). That CMIO model permeates Singapore society on a structural level and is a dominant cultural institution created not only out of necessity, but also due in no small part to its colonial past (Tan, 2019).
Racial policies also shaped the house-buying habits of citizens. Against the backdrop of its colonial days where the British administered Singapore through racial segregation (Benjamin, 1976), Singaporean leaders upon its independence take hold of a fragmented society and implemented policies to curb ethnic strife. The focus then was on public housing as a pertinent issue of the day. Here, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) held power over flat purchases. The CMIO model exerted its influence via the formation of the Ethnic Integration Policy in 1989 as an ironclad rule which mandated that a spread of different ethnicities be allocated to each housing estate. Its purpose was to build imbue racial integration in its citizens and stave off ethnic ghettos. Indeed, the people largely agreed with the importance of a governmental policy (Baker, 2017).
Housing policies also had the effect of shaping the institution of marriage and family in Singapore society (Phang & Kim, 2013). Through policy, the government steered a cultural narrative and tied marriage and public home-ownership for couples and unmarried citizens. It is crucial to note that the government only recognises marriage as being between a man and woman. Analysed together, the government hawks a normative childbearing family model, in an act to keep Singapore’s economic machinery well oiled. After all, the survival of Singaporean citizens is chained to the nation’s economic performance, in turn tied to sound policymaking at the governmental level.
On a similar note, the Singaporean ethos of multiracialism sees heavy governmental influence in its educational institutions (Kelly, 2017). How does a government unite a multiethnic nation of people speaking different languages? The government found its answer in mandating that English be used as a common language of instruction and communication (Lee, 2014). Furthermore, they pushed its people to adopt a “mother tongue”, recognising that its people had to be effectively bilingual since English was not the language that most people spoke at home, owing to a deep-rooted migrant societal past. These linguistic policies also had the effect of vesting Singaporean citizens with the ease of communicating with the English-speaking world, for chiefly economic reasons.
The policies that enabled Singapore to be seen as a successful multiracial, multicultural, and multiethnic nation can thus be said to solidify support for the ruling party: The People’s Action Party (PAP). Prime Minister Lee (2019), secretary general of PAP, made it exceptionally clear that the party had to ensure that the people maintain trust in the party. He stated the importance of government crafting policies that benefited its people instead of a select group. Lee further stated that “Singaporeans believe that the PAP will improve their lives and take the country forward”.
In conclusion, the story of Singapore and its culture, is instead a story of PAP’s dominance as a political party, tightly woven with the future of its citizens, bonded together by trust given by the people, and power exerted carefully by the ruling government. In so doing, the rulers are legitimised to stay in power, potentially perpetuating a gap between the elites and people (Chua, 2014; Austin, 2009). This paper hopefully, demonstrably contends that it is the formation of policies by the government that enabled the elites to stay in power.
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