Micro-Managing Identity Politics in Singapore

Identity politics in Singapore has long been a complex issue under the People’s Action Party (PAP). The new amendments to the constitution continue this trend.

The Singapore government’s recent announcement that it intends to repeal Section 377A of the constitution – the bit that outlaws male homosexual acts – has brought fresh attention to the rise of identity politics in the city-state. Rights claimed by homosexuals, or anyone else for that matter, have always been peripheral to the ruling PAP’s concerns. Of much greater importance for the party are the politics that might be sparked by either resisting or granting a change to the status quo, especially when either stance might heighten political awareness in a hitherto quiescent social fraction.

Of particular concern in this case are the responses of Muslims and Christians, who together make up around 35 percent of the citizen population and are overwhelmingly socially conservative. Both groups are usually well represented in Cabinet as well. With these factors in play, the last thing the government wants to provoke is a reaction that might elevate religious identities into adversarial political identities.

Yet continuing to resist change was also becoming problematic because Singapore’s LGBTQ community was already well along that track. Not only does the “Pink Dot” movement claim 15,000 active participants, but the government surely cannot have helped but notice how over-represented homosexuals and lesbians are in broader civil society, suggesting that LGBTQ grievances are serving as consciousness-raising triggers for unrelated issues.

The government’s solution is a halfway house that seems unlikely to be a permanent settlement. The repeal of Section 377A will be twinned with the recognition of heterosexual marriage as the only valid form of marriage. Overseas experience suggests that it will become increasingly difficult to hold the line on the traditional definition of marriage once same-sex relationships are regarded as lawful and legitimate in every other context.

The party politics of identity

The PAP government has long had a complex relationship with identity politics, regarding it as either a problem to be managed, as in this instance, or more commonly, as a management tool to be exploited – or both. The government generally encourages communal identification once a group’s registered leaders accept that they are working as part of the government’s team (which, perversely, is regarded as being “non-political”). Then, and only then, is the PAP willing to manage the community with a relatively light touch. This is the reward for good behaviour. If necessary, the government will take direct and sometimes brutal control of the situation, but it much prefers to avoid such extreme measures.

The government’s record over many decades demonstrates these operational principles again and again, exemplified most starkly in the management of religion and ethnic identity. These principles are not a secret, they are routinely expounded by prime ministers and civil servants without any hint of embarrassment.

Actively constructing Malay-Muslim identity

In 2002, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong used his National Day Rally Speech (directly comparable to the US President’s State of the Union Address) to announce a new programme to use Islam to build a new, modern-Muslim identity for Singaporean Malay-Muslims. The programme, known as the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI), set out to build a “Singapore Muslim Community of Excellence.” The key to the programme’s operation was the fact that Islam in Singapore is totally administered by a government statutory board, answerable to a cabinet minister.

Eight months after Goh’s 2002 speech, I interviewed the secretary of that statutory board (a civil servant on secondment), and he told me all about the programme, making clear that it had the enthusiastic backing of Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

This co-operative, top-down programme of state-driven identity construction contrasts with the experience of the Malay-Muslim leadership early in 2001, when they gently proposed that it might be helpful if they could form a non-partisan but independent collective leadership to represent Malays. In that instance, Lee Kuan Yew as senior minister slapped down the proposal simply on the basis that such leadership would be independent of government:

We are fighting for votes, for the right to govern Singapore. We are not going to allow our Malay MPs to be undercut so that they can’t pull the Malay votes. And if you believe you can find a nice-sounding formula that would allow that to happen, then you must think we are stupider than we are.

Put simply, in the case of the Malays and the Muslims, identity politics was completely acceptable and indeed it was something to be encouraged, but only after it was recognised as being fully at the political service of the PAP.

The Churches learned their place, too…

The Christians received an even harsher lesson than the Muslims. It was the Catholics who took the brunt of the government’s brutal messaging, but there was no doubt that it was a message for all the churches.

In the 1980s, a loose grouping of Catholic priests, tertiary students, workers, and solicitors became active in helping, advising, and organising foreign workers – particularly Filipino maids – in their dealings with their employers and the government. Catholics were not alone in this work, but they were the most prominent.

Critically for our consideration of identity politics, this small group was also stirring the consciousness of the broader Catholic community at the parish level and through the weekly diocesan newspaper, doing so with the explicit permission and encouragement of Archbishop Gregory Yong.

According to internal government documentation, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was fully aware that the Catholic activists were innocent “do-gooders.” Yet in 1987, they and a few others not associated with the Catholic Church were detained in a security sweep called “Operation Spectrum.” They were fancifully accused of being part of a communist conspiracy to overthrow the state and detained without trial for up to three years.

Archbishop Yong quickly disowned both his priests and the lay activists, and the Church emerged from the episode as a strictly “non-political” entity. In other words, it joined the PAP’s team, albeit as a mostly passive partner. There was never any chance of the Catholic Church being run by a government statutory board or becoming the PAP’s pro-active political partner, as was the case with the Malay-Muslims, but after 1987, all the Christian churches got the message. And in case anyone did miss the message, Parliament passed new legislation governing the practice of religion in 1990.

Thus, an episode that might have easily led to a breach between the Catholic Church and the government was wrestled into an accommodation that avoided identification with Catholicism, and Christianity more broadly, raising any question of a political identity at all.

This settlement fell well short of the government’s direct conscription of the Malay-Muslim community into its political apparatus, but it has been sufficient to make the Christian churches compliant and helpful to the government –a relationship that the government is not likely to squander on a whim.

A new accommodation

Thus, the abolition of Section 377A has been left a bit messy, with no party likely to be completely satisfied. The government seems to be fully aware of how unsatisfactory and unstable the current settlement is, and so it has been privately messaging all involved parties, including academics working in Singapore, to go quiet on the whole issue, eschewing triumphalism, protests, webinars and symposiums.

Michael Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and the author or editor of several books and many academic articles, mainly on Singapore politics and history.

This article was originally posted by Michael Barr at the Australian Institute for International Affairs on 12th October 2022.