The Singapore identity beyond SG50: an integrated systemic approach

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro, Singapore at 50, SG50.

View of Boat Quay, Singapore.
Text & Photo © CM Cordeiro, Sweden 2015

SG50: Singapore at 50, 2015

I read with inquisitive delight the introductory paragraph cited below, in a book entitled Reframing Singapore: Memory – Identity – Trans-Regionalism, a collection of scholarly articles in exchange of ideas of the different narratives of Singapore, edited by Derek Heng and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied published by the Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

“Any tourist who strolls along the Singapore River will find picturesque cityscapes that evoke paradoxical mental images in the mind. Skyscrapers are juxtaposed with shop houses that have been synthetically pre- served so as to suggest memories of the island’s past. Painted black and raised high on a concrete pedestal, the statue of the colony’s British ‘founder’, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, stares at the modern, durian- shaped Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. Colonialism was here, and so were the Japanese. A tour of the Asian Civilizations Museum adds to the sense of confusion and ambivalence. Impressed by high-tech dis- plays of the tapestry of cultures that evolved over the last two centuries and the migration of men and women from far-off lands, the tourist wonders why Chinese, Malays, Indians and ‘Others’ are the only categories, which have been accorded demographic significance. She would be informed later of the authoritarianism and the technocracy. But the orderliness, security and comfort she has enjoyed thus far tend to disguise the assertions of injustice. The hotel manager says he is from Chennai, India. The chambermaid who changes the bed sheets proudly affirms that she is a Filipina. The Chinese men talking amongst them- selves along the sidewalks of a nearby shopping centre sound like they are from Guangzhou. What is this place? What has kept it going? Who are its indigenous inhabitants? When did its history begin?

Indeed, no single word could better describe Singapore to a visitor than ‘paradox’.” [1:11]

As one who has lived in Sweden for more than a decade, visiting Singapore for both business and leisure since 2002, I could well identify with that opening paragraph. Every visit to Singapore was met with the astonishing speed of change in landscape and infrastructure systems. At one point in my return, I had to ask an elderly lady how I was to top up my Mass Rapid Transit (MRT)-card, only for her to look at me in contemplation if I was actually making fun of her in her elderly years. That incident was quite some years ago. For some reason – the genuine confusion registered on my face perhaps? My lost sense for tropical dressing perhaps? – she came to the correct conclusion that I was blur as sotong, and she helped me fix my MRT-card.

When well-travelled economic geographer colleagues in Sweden ask upon my return, “So how was Singapore?” I could only afford as utterance, “It’s changed. Wow. So fast!” And then go back to the start of my understanding of the Singapore narrative, “You know it began as a fishing village not too long ago.” Else, the alternative familiar, “The country had no resources, you know.”

But picking up on socio-political discourse and rhetoric on the Singapore scene, a circulating topic of interest for some time is exactly the Singapore Story and what of the Singapore Identity that touches upon the question of culture, beyond SG50?

This article is focused on just that paradoxical quality that Singapore exudes and how that might be accounted for in a systematic way from the perspective of Singapore’s influence and being influenced by the forces of globalization, the integrated knowledge economy and Industry 4.0. Drawing from discoveries in natural science framed against an increasing systemic perspective to the unity in complexity, the article puts into perspective the seeming illogicalities witnessed as paradoxes in the Singapore society into a fabric of integrated systemic symbiosis, forces that have both created and defined Singapore, the Singapore identity and ultimately, the geographically-unbounded definition of what it is to be Singaporean.

Globalization, Industry 4.0 and increasing fragmentation

At a university post-doc course on cultural studies, there was a long debate over the use of the words “emic” or “etic” with a general disgruntlement around the seminar table over how the resulting concepts have been used in different contexts of cultural studies, which further fragmented the field of cultural studies in terms of methodology. This unhappiness came on top of how the word ‘culture’ itself remains just as fragmented if not more so today in the context of Industry 4.0 from the time Kroeber and Kluckhohn critically reviewed 164 concepts and definitions of culture back in 1952 [2]. For statistical scholars whose work was capable of predicting future (social) behaviour [3], the fundamental question when it came to researching culture came down to two – which cultural characteristics can we describe to be truly universal? And if so, how can these characteristics be measured in a standardized manner?

With the realization that what seemed like universal emotional responses in human beings could be culturally conditioned, the seminar session ended with one of the most prominent scholars in the field of statistical cultural studies raising his hands in the air saying, “The more I think about, the more we can’t generalize and we can’t do statistical analysis on that. So I’m frustrated!”

That session brought my thoughts to the context of the knowledge economy and the context of Industry 4.0, characterized by customized interconnectivity and the humanizing of artificial intelligence. In this era, the focus shifts from diminishing physical geographical landscapes and boundaries to the digital landscape. Industry 4.0 has laid a new digital infrastructure that enables the integration, sometimes assimilation of what is virtual and real, putting peoples of different cultures into similar contexts depending on activity. So what does this mean for the concept of race, culture and national identity?

In the course of the evolution of knowledge, it is most often new discoveries in the natural sciences that have had a cascading effect on other academic disciplines. Discoveries in natural sciences have spurred new perspectives not just in the social sciences in new areas of research, but have influenced society in their ways of living, the fabric of culture itself [4]. So it is to the natural sciences, specifically that of quantum physics that is most successful in proving unity, that I return.

Logical antithesis in nature

Much of the work of Nobel-prize quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) was devoted to the understanding of physical laws from the perspective of different levels. He noted that while physical laws remain unpredictable at microscopic levels, they accumulate to greater degrees of structure and stability at the macroscopic level. The perspective from microscopic to macroscopic needed the human mind to not only accept arbitrariness in a context, but an application of this understanding as a way of how things are:

“I would describe the present state of our knowledge as follows: The light ray, or track of particle, corresponds to a longitudinal continuity of the propagation process (that is to say, in the direction of the spreading); the wave-front, on the other hand, to a transverse one, that is to say, perpendicular to the direction of spreading. Both continuities are undoubtedly real. The one has been proved by photographing the particle tracks, and the other by interference experiments. As yet we have not been able to bring the two together into a uniform scheme. It is only in extreme cases that the transverse – the spherical – continuity or the longitudinal – the ray-continuity shows itself so predominantly that we believe we can avail ourselves either of the wave scheme or of the particle scheme alone.”

“According to the new concept… We are confronted with the profound logical antithesis between

Either this or that (Particle Mechanics)
(aut – aut)


This as well as that (Wave Mechanics)
(et – et)” [5].

This logical antithesis, not only inherent in the wave-particle phenomenon but for many observations in quantum physics, was also been referred to by fellow Nobel-prize physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr (1885-1962). Transferring the understanding of logical antitheses into social sciences, Bohr spoke about relativity in perspectives with regards to epistemology, observational perspectives and the type of knowledge gained:

“While in relativity theory the decisive point was the recognition of the essentially different ways in which observers moving relatively to each other will describe the behaviour of given objects, the elucidation of the paradoxes of atomic physics has disclosed the fact that the unavoidable interaction between the objects and the measuring instruments sets an absolute limit to the possibility of speaking of a behaviour of atomic objects which is independent of the means of observation.

We are here faced with an epistemological problem quite new in natural philosophy, where all description of experiences has so far been based upon the assumption, already inherent in ordinary conventions of language, that is possible to distinguish sharply between the behaviour of objects and the means of observation. This assumption is not only fully justified by all everyday experience, but even constitutes the whole basis of classical physics, which, just through the theory of relativity, has received such a wonderful completion. As soon as we begin to deal, however, with phenomena like individual atomic processes which, due to their very nature, are essentially determined by the interaction between the objects in question and the measuring instruments necessary for the definition of the experimental arrangements, we are forced to examine more closely the question of what kind of knowledge can be obtained concerning these objects. In this respect we must, on one hand, realize that the aim of every physical experiment – to gain knowledge under reproducible and communicable conditions – leaves us no choice but to use everyday concepts, eventually refined by the terminology of classical physics, not only in all accounts of the construction and manipulation of the measuring instruments but also in the description of the actual experimental results. On the other hand, it is equally important to understand that just this circumstance implies that no result of an experiment concerning a phenomenon which, in principle, lies outside the range of classical physics, can be interpreted as giving information about independent properties of the object; but is inherently connected with a definite situation in the description of which the measuring instruments interacting with the objects also enter essentially. This last fact gives the straightforward explanation of the apparent contradictions which appear when results about atomic objects obtained by different experimental arrangements are tentatively combined into a self-contained picture of the object.” [6:269]

There are three themes of equally important consequence once realized, that can be derived from Bohr’s writings:

(i) The first has to do with that relativity in quantum physics is reflected in linguistic relativity, both as phenomenon (language to be studied as an entity) and meta-phenomenon (language used to study other entities). The idea that the use of language both constructs and confines one’s reality, where the arbitrariness of meaning is in part resolved by the anchor of context was put forth by a Prussian philosopher slightly earlier than Bohr, Wilhelm Humboldt (1767-1835). Humboldt was first to observe and propose linguistic relativity within the fabric of universal grammar [7,8]. Humboldt’s thoughts would be further refined and put forth as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis [9,10]

(ii) The second has to do with point of observation (perspective), and that to a large extent, empirical findings depends much upon what has been chosen to be observed, and how that observation is carried out.

(iii) The third is that the language used to describe observable logical antitheses in natural phenomena in quantum physics on the microscopic scale, is one that has been deeply entrenched and influenced by observations of classical physics, of phenomena on the macroscopic scale. The result of applying a circumscribed or even different lingua unto new observations is one of confusion and/or inaccuracy. Still it is within this framework that all types of discourse and rhetoric have continued, evolving as coping mechanism.

Language: mapping perspectives, mapping knowledge types.

“[N]o proper human thinking is imaginable without the use of concepts framed in some language which every generation has to learn anew.” [6:270]

One could begin addressing the three themes above by deriving and mapping perspectives from language.

Perspectives can be derived from various dimensions, the individual / singular and the collective / plural. Taken together, these Individual / Singular and Collective / Plural dimensions can be looked at from both the Inside / Intra and from the Outside / Extra of it. These points of observation are often represented in language by the use of the pronouns I, You/We, and It/Its, the variations of the first, second and third person pronouns. Mapping this on a four-quadrant model [11], one gets eight elemental perspectives as shown in Figure 1. One could have an intra-perspective (inside-I, You/We, It/Its) or an extra-perspective (outside-I, You/We, It/Its). Further dimensions to these elementary perspectives can be added if taking into account their subjectivity and objectivity.

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro SG50 perspectives Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Perspectives represented by language pronouns I, You/We and It/Its.

The Upper Left (UL) quadrant accounts for the subjective perspectives. In terms of the study of human behaviour and human psychology, the UL helps situate things pertaining to consciousness. The Upper Right (UR) quadrant accounts for the objective perspective of physical observations, actions that materialise based on consciousness. The Lower Left (LL) quadrant accounts for collective and intersubjective perspectives. In this quadrant, things to do with culture and values of society can be studied. These can be studied also from an intra- or extra- perspective. The Lower Right (LR) quadrant accounts for the collective workings of the other quadrants in a systemic manner. How societies organize themselves and what infrastructures are in place in order to manage living is an example of a topic that pertains to the LR quadrant collective perspective.

From Figure 1. one can further map the types of knowledge or ‘knowledge zone’ that can be obtained from each of these perspectives. Using only the various branches of philosophies as illustration of knowledge types as a form of example consistency, Figure 2. shows the type of knowledge and the corresponding example of methodology example one could use to gain access to that knowledge type that characterizes each quadrant.

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro Methodologies Fig. 2.

Figure 2. Eight examples of knowledge types / zones mapped from the perspectives and their corresponding methodologies.

Moving from the UL to LR quadrants increases the influence of perspectives, from individual / singular entity I to Its in collective / plural. As such, perspectives from the LR quadrant would subsume and encompass those in the UL quadrant but not vice versa. The eight knowledge types and their methodologies shown in brackets are by no means exhaustive, nor are they exclusive to each quadrant. Rather, they serve as (potentially extreme) examples of how the different types of knowledge zones obtained by using these methods from the different angles of perspectives can be mapped using a four-quadrant system. These figures model a perspective of systemic relativity when looked at from UL to LR.

Reframing Singapore: a systemic approach

In the case of Singapore, the pragmatics of political rhetoric could be said to have an asymmetric influence on other rhetorical spheres even if by definition the process discourse influence is inherently dialogical. The influence of political rhetoric can be traced from the evolution of the general themes of address that transition in connecting phases of each other on the country’s time-line of development, such as framing Singapore’s history in the context of post-colonialism, its inseparability from British Malaya, arguing for a modern history of Singapore, to what is most current in its geographical, social and political context, the country in its role as regional, trans-regional and international actor in the context of Industry 4.0.

It is at the intersection of the context of Industry 4.0 characterized by increasing complexity, the relatively recent discoveries in natural sciences, particularly in the field of quantum physics and the reflections on language as a coping, evolving mechanism that I sometimes follow Singapore’s socio-political rhetoric, and read the collection of articles on ‘reframing Singapore’ [1]. The multi-levelled perspective on the Singapore narrative was framed in the introductory chapter, followed by Heng’s [1: 21-38] literature review of scholastic works post-1965 on various types of Singapore narrative that have emerged between academia and the political sphere, with a tone of lament that the academic discourse seems to fall a step behind that of the political rhetoric.

The systemic perspective to the governing of Singapore is reflected most clearly in official political rhetoric and discourse, where examples of concepts addressed from three speeches [12-14] (some taken in-vivo) in the past year in example of a broad coverage of urban governance as an integrated system science is mapped on Figure 3.

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro SG50 systemics Fig. 3.

Figure 3. Topics of interest (some taken in-vivo) from Singapore’s political rhetoric and discourse [ref. 12-14] that reflects an integrated systemic approach to the governance and management of the country, mapped in the four-quadrant knowledge type zones.

Figure 3 indicates in which quadrants some of the topics of interest in Singapore political discourse might reside, pointing towards an overall integrated systemic perspective, that depending on the perspective chose, can present a picture of logical antithesis. But when recontextualized in the understanding of relativity, it can be recognized that all concepts in all quadrants are somehow interrelated as co-dependent entities in their development and evolution. The colour coded topics could be said to have a more explicit consequence / influence on each other. Schools and the Continued Education & Training (CET) in the LR quadrant for example, will influence the education context found in the LL quadrant in the manner of how it cultivates a culture of continued learning and change. Population policies, Foreign PMEs (Professionals, Managers, Executives) and Foreign construction workers in the LR quadrant will also have influence on the cultural fabric of the society in the LL quadrant, whilst at the same time having influence of Economics, Business and Free Trade in the UR quadrant.

Seeing that systems exist as an open process of a constant calibration of equilibrium, two observations from natural sciences can be applied to looking at the mapping of Figure 3, going back to Bohr and Schrödinger:

(i) “[T]he lesson which we have received from the whole growth of the physical sciences is that the germ of fruitful development often lies just in the proper choice of definitions. When we think, for example, of the clarification brought about in various branches of science by the argumentation of relativity theory, we see indeed what advance may lie in such formal refinements. As I have already hinted earlier in this address, relativistic viewpoints are certainly also helpful in promoting a more objective attitude as to relationships between human cultures, the traditional differences of which in many ways resemble the different equivalent modes in which physical experience can be described.

The unity of the relativistic world picture, in fact, implies the possibility for any one observer to predict within his own conceptual frame how any other observer will co-ordinate experience within the frame natural to him.” [5:271]

(ii) “The Second Law [of Thermodynamics] rests on – nay, it is statistics; it is the pure embodiment of the statistical law itself, nothing else. Events move in the direction in which they are most likely to move.

The philosophical implication can scarcely be overrated. Forces, charges, potentials, collisions – the whole armoury of detailed mechanisms we invent – are apt to retain, in spite of all our striving for the contrary, a slightly mystic tinge or at least much arbitrariness.” [3:705]

Beyond SG50: a consciousness reflected in a practical application of systemic symbiosis

The functions of Singapore exist within a multilevelled, multi-perspective systemic framework. The infrastructure of Industry 4.0 requires that Singapore, as member and actor of the international and global community have a corresponding complementary discourse regarding its own identity and what it is to be Singaporean. It will require its people to possess a cognitive capacity of a spanning range that while beginning with an exclusive I at group or national level, can also transcend that boundary to include a broader, more inclusive We and It/Its at the level of global community.

While this transcending of perspectives might come with seeming illogicalities, because realities might shift with perspectives, the theoretical framing from discoveries in the past centuries in natural sciences indicate a perpetuity in relativity. The idea shared here is that this witnessed seeming illogicality in the workings of Singapore whether in its architecture, the different approaches adopted in its domestic-international rhetoric, and the resulting policies adopted at various levels of perspective, might after all have a consistent systemic fabric behind it. And one could look to the history of Southeast-Asia as a region prior to the 1800s for a broader spectrum of understanding of the movements of its peoples and cultures in the region.

At the risk of the mantra Uniquely Singapore becoming almost a parody unto itself, Singapore’s national and cultural identity, and what it is to be Singaporean needs to be grounded in a likewise perennial philosophy – one of agility in evolution, and the unashamed embracing of logical antitheses. The Singapore identity will continue to evolve beyond SG50. Perhaps it is well to say that there is no Singapore-model, but rather a perspective and an approach. If the trajectory of its past (pre-colonial times) and current narrative has shown itself to be grounded in the management of paradoxical values and circumstances, then it will be that the country has all the while been cultivating and putting into effect, a practical understanding of a systems type knowledge, existing as part of and contributing to the global systemic symbiosis.

This systemic perspective is what could be described as uniquely Singapore that contains within it, an educational value of export. It holds within its philosophy / approach, the innovative edge to what the country can offer not only on the local platform, but also on the global platform.

[1] Heng, D. T. S., & Aljunied, S. M. K. 2009. Introduction. In D. Heng & S. M. K. Aljunied (eds.), Reframing Singapore: Memory, Identity, Trans-Regionalism. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
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[12] Lee, H. L. 2015. Transcript of Dialogue with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the SG50+ Conference on 2 July 2015. Prime Minister’s Office Singapore, Media Centre, Singapore. Internet resource at Retrieved 6 August 2015.
[13] Lee, H. L. 2014. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally 2014 (Speech in English), Prime Minister’s Office Singapore, Media Centre, Singapore. Internet resource at Retrieved 6 August 2015.
[14] Lee, H. L. 2014 Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Speech on the Debate on President’s Address on 28 May 2014, Prime Minister’s Office Singapore, Media Centre. Singapore. Internet resource at Retrieved 6 August 2015.