The following is a literature summary that I undertook as part of my broader interest in modelling social systems, using identity in Singapore as a case study. I should preface all of this by saying that the ideas below are not ‘my own’ as such, but rather my attempt to synthesise the literature and opinions of experts in Singapore.

Identity in Singapore

Since independence, the Singaporean government has actively worked to construct a civic national identity for the country. Three main phases can be identified (Ortmann, 2009): (1) 1965-1980s, focused primarily upon the objective of economic growth, the idea of a multiracial and meritocratic society that harmoniously worked towards collective prosperity; (2) 1980s-1990s, in an effort to counter-act the Western vices of individualistic behaviour and materialism, ‘Asian values’ focused upon the family and community over the individual; and (3) 1990s to present, where an effort is being made to combine a sense of rootedness with the notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’.

Interacting with these notions of Singaporean identity are two main types of foreigners, each of which is considered necessary by the Singaporean government for economic growth: (1) ‘foreign talent’, who are highly-paid professionals, and (2) ‘foreign workers’, who are low-skilled and low-paid (Teng, 2014). Anxieties about these two groups manifest in different ways related to their class and income differences, and present different challenges to the notion of cosmopolis. Cosmopolitanism is associated with fundamental devotion to the interests of humanity as a whole, “universalism plus difference”, openness and acceptance, inclusive egalitarian heterogeneity, and tolerance of difference. However critics argue that it is an ideology of the neo-liberal managerial class that serves to reinforce their hegemony and is devoid of social or political transformative power (Yeoh, 2004). The potential fault-line between foreign talent and Singaporeans was illustrated in Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong 1999 National Day Rally Speech, where he drew a contrast between ‘cosmopolitans’ – who speak English and work internationally in jobs like finance – and ‘heartlanders’ – who speak Singlish and work locally (Yeoh, 2004). A dualism based in class and income feeds into economic anxieties and a fear of foreign talent as competitors for scarce resources and jobs (see below). The cosmopolitan project seeks to re-engineer Singapore as an urbanised, modern, and efficient city that attracts cosmopolitans, and instil in Singaporeans the cosmopolitan mindset that will allow them to work harmoniously with foreign talent and successfully navigate a globalising world (Yeoh, 2004). However it implicitly means that some groups of people are constructed as much more important for Singapore’s success than others, and more valued by the state (Ye, 2016).

On the other side is the relationship between Singaporean identity and the cosmopolis and the foreign worker. The cosmopolis that emphasises the transnational professional elites also ‘forgets’ low-skilled foreign workers, relegating to them a ‘use and discard’ principle (Yeoh, 2004). While there is some recognition of how this mirrors the Singaporeans’ own ancestral experience (Yeoh, 2004), the systemic exclusion and a number of high-profile events (e.g. 2013 riots) continues to pit locals against foreigners (Mathews, 2016). In return, foreign workers focus upon their individualistic reasons for being in Singapore – including economic empowerment, attainment of language – creating their own cosmopolis, but bounded, centred primarily on the workplace and their interactions there (Chib and Aricat, 2016). In general, the racial and intercultural confidence in Singapore seems relatively safe, however the confidence between native and immigrant communities appears less stable (Noor and Leong, 2013). In some ways this is indicative of the success of the national identity project: “There’s apparently enough of an “us” to generate an “us versus them”” (Chang, 2010, July 5). The divide seems clearest in two places: economic anxiety about competition, and transience versus rootedness.

Fear of foreigners interacts in interesting ways with preexisting mindsets about economic anxiety, confidence in one’s place in society, and zero-sum thinking. It appears to be well-established that these mindsets interact with xenophobia and outgroup hostility. For example, the multicultural hypothesis proposes that confidence in one’s identity – involving a sense of security for one’s ethnocultural group – leads to sharing, respect for others, and reduction of discriminatory attitudes Berry (2006). Conversely it has been found that decline of social trust with immigration could be ‘mitigated or even reversed … in more economically equal societies’ (p. 321 Kesler and Bloemraad, 2010). As another example, realistic conflict theory proposes that intergroup hostility arises as a result of conflicting goals and competition over limited resources in zero-sum games (real or perceived), though this can be ameliorated somewhat by superordinate goals (Muzafer Sherif: to read).

A potential synergy exists between economic anxiety and fear foreigners, and of foreign talent in particular. This intersects with the construction of the Singaporean project around economic growth, and loyalty between citizen and state being dependent upon what each can do for the other economically. A survey of 10,000 Singaporean youths found that 58 percent felt threatened by foreign talent (The Straits Times, 17 November 2002), and competition for jobs is a recurring theme in the literature. Zero-sum thinking is also characterised as a national personality trait in Singapore, named kiasuism, meaning ‘the fear of losing out’ (Ortmann, 2009; Chong, 2014). Chong (2014) puts forward the argument that survivalist rhetoric and materialist anxiety that was used by the PAP in the construction of national identity is now feeding anxiety about competition from foreign talent.

Ortmann (2009) suggests that the Singaporean government’s emphasis on economic growth and merging of identity of government with nation has also created a situation where one’s patriotism is contingent upon the government’s ability to govern effectively. Likewise Noor and Leong (2013) summarises the argument that harmony will only remain so long as the government ‘delivers the goods’ in terms of economic development, employment, etc. It is interesting to note that this contingent patriotism in some ways mirrors the disloyalty and transience (real or perceived) suspected of foreign talent, and perhaps ultimately of the state. Chong (2014) notes that more than half of local-born Singaporeans suspect new citizens 1 are using Singapore as a stepping stone to other countries or will return to their country of origin after succeeding in Singapore. In ‘A Singapore without Singaporeans, a nation without nationhood’, blogger Goh Meng Seng linked people in their forties realising that “the state is not going to take care of them” to people in their twenties planning their exits now. Perhaps ironically, the project to make Singaporeans think like cosmopolitans has succeeded too well.

The Internet

The construction of identity in Singapore has been, from the beginning, a top-down, government-driven project. With the advent of the Internet and growing importance of social media, an interesting question may be how the government can intervene to influence or shape the construction of identity in this flatter power-landscape.

Singapore has a high potential for political engagement online, with high literacy and highly-developed infrastructure (Skoric et al., 2009), and there is some evidence that online media is playing a key role in shaping young people’s views (Tan et al., 2011). There are several issues being discussed in the literature, including: radicalisation (Von Behr et al., 2013), click-bait type websites deepening racial rifts and using sensationalism for profit (e.g. Au-Yong, 2015, May 3), and the creation of ideological echo-chambers (Sunstein, 2009; Norris, 2002). On the latter topic, the degree and role of internet in this still being debated (O’Hara and Stevens, 2015).

When it comes to countering anti-foreigner and racist speech, the recommendations reflect the relative lack of control that the government has of the online space. Recommendations include improving media literacy with a mind towards self-policing, encouraging users to express disapproval towards insensitive comments (report to administrator or ‘thumbs down’ in Silence the Hate campaign), along with general movements for social harmony both offline and on (e.g. Singapore Kindness Movement, (Soon and How, 2013).

Connections to game theory and allied approaches?

There is a long history of investigating questions of group identity in games (Dawes et al., 1988). For example, shared group identity is known to influence the degree of cooperation in a number of trust/cooperation games (reviewed in Chen and Li, 2009). Even in investigations of purely synthetic agents, a form of identity and ingroup/outgroup dynamics is found. For example, in the Axelrod Tournaments (repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma) it was found that being able to send a signal of group membership (a kind of synthetic identity) permits group strategies to function and succeed over cooperative individual strategies. Examples include groups that cooperate only with other group members (Rogers et al., 2007), and groups with a hierarchy where the Godfather/hitman will switch from a group-cooperative strategy/defection strategy to exploitation/self-sacrifice after identifying each other (Slany and Kienreich, 2007). There are also examples that could be relevant to the interaction between cooperation and the mindsets discussed above (economic anxiety, zero-sum thinking, and transience). For example, relationships have been found between the degree of social trust people exhibited in a dictator game and the level of deprivation in their own lives (Nettle et al., 2011). The study by Hilbe et al. (2014) could be interpreted in terms of how transience influences cooperation levels. More biologically-based mechanism may also be relevant. For example, risk-taking behaviour in humans can be related to deprivation using a general life-history theory that is applicable to all kinds of animals (Griskevicius et al., 2011). However going further, it has also been suggested that therefore increases in affluence will lead to the development of ideologies of cosmopolitan, open, and diverse societies, in which generosity, universality, and self-control became more attractive strategies (Baumard et al., 2015).


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Chang, R. (2010, July 5). Life is tough at 24 with us and them, The Straits Times p. A2.

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