Crazy Rich Identities

In Singapore, the state is attempting to govern the ungovernable.

Chris McGrath / Getty

The movie Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, has been widely celebrated in the United States as a big step toward diversity: It’s a Hollywood movie with an Asian cast. But in Singapore, some people are complaining that the film doesn’t capture their country’s actual diversity. That’s even granting the film’s focus on people who are crazy rich (not—to avoid confusion—crazy and rich, though some are both). “The focus is specifically on characters and faces of East Asian descent, which plays into issues of racism and colorism that still exist, not only in the US but in Asia,” the Singapore journalist Kirsten Han writes in Vox. The film’s “all-Asian boast,” in her view, is “nothing more than a perpetuation of the existing Chinese dominance in mainstream media and pop culture.” Sangeetha Thanapal, an Indian Singaporean writer and activist, takes issue with the way the movie is being sold as “this big win for diversity, as this representative juggernaut,” telling a New York Times reporter, “I think that’s really problematic because if you’re going to sell yourself as that, then you bloody better actually have actual representation.”

To be fair, Kwan’s novel—which was satirizing his Chinese players more than celebrating them—wasn’t meant to cover the Singaporean waterfront. But the way Singapore handles national identity and ethnic difference makes for a fascinating comparison with the United States. It’s a bold experiment in ethnic engineering, and, since Singapore has existed as an independent country for little more than half a century, that experiment has been witnessed in its entirety by many of its inhabitants. (It boasts the third-highest life expectancy in the world; the United States is 31st.) The national project was always to be, in a sense, multinational. It’s worth taking notice of how this was achieved, and at what cost.

First, a caveat. Singapore itself may be crazy rich in that it has the highest concentration of millionaires in the world (152,000 households qualify), and a strikingly high per-capita GDP, but it’s not like Liechtenstein or Qatar; it’s no theme park of bling. In fact, it’s a largely middle-class country where most people live in public housing (Singapore’s solution to the housing-cost problem that blights San Francisco), although they generally own their flats. But here, as in so many aspects of Singapore, you can see the vigorous engineering of what its officials like to call “racial harmony.”

Those public-housing blocks are subject to the Ethnic Integration Policy, which enforces quotas; the government doesn’t want single-ethnicity enclaves, and the housing authority won’t approve sales that violate its ethnic ratios. This is big. Ethnicity is often territorialized; that’s why in America, inner city became a synonym for black, and in France, say, the banlieues signal beur. When a French prime minister decries the phenomenon as apartheid, though, it’s because he sees it as an impediment to national unity. So you might think that the Singapore state’s commitment to integration involves a commitment to assimilation—and you’d be deeply mistaken.

The Lion City (singa is Malay for “lion,” pura is Sanskrit for “city”) has always defined itself, in part, by its ethnic heterogeneity. Its citizenry is about 76 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay, and 7.5 percent Indian. And the trauma that shapes its domestic policies to this day took place in the summer of 1964, when a Malay procession celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad was beset by interethnic clashes and, with startling speed, race riots scourged the island. A similar riot took place not long afterward. “Our diversity is our strength” would have been a hard sell. So when Singapore’s national independence was certified in 1965, its leaders saw the place as supremely susceptible to violence among groups of varied descent. Its National Pledge, formulated that year, begins, “We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.” Race, language, and religion were considered the three lethal fault lines. The question was how to stabilize them.

One strategy would have been erasure. And an earlier version of the pledge began, “We, as citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves to forget differences of race, language, and religion and become one united people.” The shift in language was significant. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s prime minister for its first three decades, and members of his circle had made a calculation. If Malay families or Indian families thought the state was hostile to their heritages (notably, those of language and religion), they would be hostile to the state, in turn.

At independence, the ruling party decided that all citizens would be categorized, for government purposes, into one of four “racial” groups: Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Other, in what came to be called the CMIO system. Choosing a language of government that was associated with any of the major groups would have significantly disadvantaged the other two major groups. So the government made the same decision that had been made in many other parts of the former British and French empires in order to avoid ethnic conflict: It stuck with the colonial language as the official language of government. Lee also calculated that being Anglophone would help Singapore enlarge its role in global trade, the lifeblood of a port city.

At the same time, the government adopted the following complex of policies. Malay was designated as the national language, recognizing the status of Malays as the indigenous people of the region. The national anthem is in Malay, as are the parade commands of the Singaporean armed forces. All citizens would learn English in school. If you were Chinese or Indian, you would also learn Mandarin or Tamil, respectively. (More than half of the island’s Indians were of Tamil-speaking ancestry.) If you were Malay, you would study Malay. Everyone had to be at least bilingual, with your second language to be determined by your ethnic origin. And if you ever felt that you had been discriminated against or derogated because of your origins, the government had your back.

What’s not to like? In America, minority groups have always pursued rights, respect, and recognition through exemptions and accommodations. Religious groups could invoke the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause against rules that burdened them. Catholics sought a sacramental-wine exemption from Prohibition; Native American groups later sought a waiver from drug laws forbidding the use of peyote. The agricultural Amish have asked to be exempt from laws that determine school-leaving age. Observant Jews and Muslims ask that public facilities, such as prisons, accommodate their dietary requirements. Sikhs in the U.S. Army have asked for exemptions to wear turbans and beards.

Especially with more populous groups, accommodations can involve significant provisions from public institutions—sometimes local, sometimes national. A Glendale school district, for instance, has established a holiday for the commemoration of the Armenian genocide. On a national level, the NAACP advocates for affirmative action, positive discrimination to undo the effects of past discrimination; the more rigorous enforcement of civil-rights laws; and a national holiday to commemorate the emancipation of the slaves. Bilingual education, after many setbacks, had a big win in California a couple of years ago. School districts there must provide the option of bilingual education if 30 parents (or 20 from one grade level) ask for it. That’s what liberal accommodation looks like.

If you’re an advocate for ethnic minorities, continually battling for every advance, Singapore’s proactive approach can look like a dream come true—crazy woke. But we should be careful what we wish for. Here’s the critical difference: Singapore’s program of ethnic management isn’t about accommodation; it’s closer to entrenchment. Parents aren’t safeguarding the transmission of cultural identities; the state is. It’s almost as if UnidosUS, the NAACP, the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, and the like were state-run enterprises. And when identity politics becomes a matter of statecraft, it takes on some rather odd features.

Take bilingual-education policy, which has generally grown more stringent over the decades. It’s not an option, as it is in the United States. It’s compulsory; you have to learn a language associated with your ethnic group. But which? For most of Singapore’s history, even non-Tamil Indians (about 48 percent) had to learn Tamil, which typically left them unable to communicate with grandparents who might speak only Hindi.

Then there’s the fact that the ethnic Chinese were taught Mandarin as their “mother tongue.” In fact, the Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore over the centuries spoke Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese; only 2 percent spoke Mandarin as a first language. To go by the numbers, it’s a little as if the United States had required Latino kids to learn Portuguese. Lee Kuan Yew himself didn’t learn Mandarin until he was in his 30s, but he evidently thought that Singapore’s Chinese majority could use some unification, and blithely dismissed their actual mother tongues as mere “dialects.” (Like a lot of American parents today, he figured that knowing Mandarin would have practical advantages, too.)

The implicit assumption that ethnicity is unitary also runs up against the fact that people sometimes marry across the CMIO lines. Their children have a decision to make—as they do on Racial Harmony Day, when school kids are supposed to wear traditional garments that reflect their heritage. Meanwhile, the one distinctively Singaporean language—the English Malay Chinese Tamil creole called “Singlish”—has been subject to official disapproval. In short, it’s not the language you or your ancestors actually spoke but the identity the state has settled on for you that determines which language is yours. There’s no denying that the CMIO system reflected existing ideas about ethnic identity in Singapore: If it hadn’t, it would not have worked at all. But it entailed a radical simplification of a highly complex ethno-linguistic reality.

And the promotion of racial harmony in Singapore isn’t simply a matter of gentle suasion. Under Singapore’s Sedition Act, it’s a crime to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.” That’s a potent prohibition; after all, given our human clannishness, commentary on differences always carries some risk of creating ill will. In 2012, a senior staff member of the National Trades Union Congress, who was a permanent resident of Chinese ancestry, was fired for complaining about a Malay wedding held in the public space of her apartment building. Her profanity-laced Facebook posts suggested that Malays were cheap (if they paid “for a real wedding,” she groused, “maybe then the divorce rate won’t be so high”) and inconsiderate. “How can society allow ppl to get married for 50 bucks?” she went on.

These are not, plainly, the sentiments of someone who has a fair and balanced view of Malays (whose divorce rates, for the record, appear to be lower than average). So it’s not surprising that her posts, which were widely circulated, prompted outrage, or that complaints to her employer cost the woman her job the next day. But things could have gone much worse for her. Three years earlier, a Christian evangelical couple in Singapore was sent to prison for violating the Sedition Act (and the Undesirable Publications Act) when they mailed out tracts that denigrated Islam and Catholicism as false religions. In the wake of the bad-tempered Facebook posts, law-enforcement officers visited the offending party and issued a warning; taking the hint, she moved back to Australia, where she was born. This is a high price to pay for an irritable posting on the web. As you’d expect, sometimes remarks about other groups that seem less obviously bigoted can also land you in trouble.

There’s a complex bargain here: If the state helps protect ethnic identities in Singapore, it also polices them. Last year, an imam was expelled from Singapore for insulting Jews and Christians, and two Christian preachers were banned for denigrating Islam and Buddhism. The country has a minister in charge of Muslim affairs who issues strenuous warnings to his coreligionists against “self-radicalization.” The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act provides for the state to issue restraining orders against clerics who promote hostility between religions—or, yes, disaffection with the government.

Singapore’s extraordinary efforts to avoid internal cleavages, through a national project of respect for racial and religious differences, embody the promise and perils of what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called the “politics of recognition.” (He’s from Montreal, so for him Quebecois language politics is front of mind.) In this influential model, the benevolent state is to confer public acknowledgement on various identities. And state recognition is certainly a way of being respected; the trouble is that it’s also a way of being reified. I’ve called this the Medusa Syndrome: When the state gazes at us—with its identity cards, educational stipulations, and other instruments of recognition—it invariably fixes and rigidifies a phenomenon that’s neither fixed nor rigid. The strategy is never going to be adequate to the real-world complexities, to compound identities that can grow as pleated as an accordion. But it may be the only strategy that such a managerial city-state has.

In later years, Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches became less focused on values and aspirations and more on policy, precisely because the Singaporean identity had been to some degree stabilized. If the state he created was watchful and intrusive by the standards of a Western liberal democracy, it had also convinced most of its citizens that they were engaged together in a meaningful national project. A friend who spent much of her childhood there once put it like this: The people of Singapore felt watched but also seen. The death of Lee in 2015 produced a vast and genuine outpouring of grief in Singapore. There was a week of national mourning with flags at half-mast. Nearly 450,000 people paraded past his coffin in Parliament over three days and nights, with public transportation running 24 hours a day to enable their visits. But the state-imposed silence about intergroup difficulties remains. Someone is still always watching; younger Singaporeans may not any longer be quite so glad to be seen.

Westerners tempted by the Singapore strategy might note that even there, racism has proved recalcitrant to the statecraft of identity. In a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan has a scion of one of his Chinese dynasts observe that his parents and their crowd have “always been racist and elitist to the extreme.” When he decided to marry an Indian woman, he relates, his father told him, “If you don’t care about your own future, think about the children you will have with that woman. For eleven generations, the blood will never be pure.” When it comes to entrenching ethnic difference, there are ways and there are ways.

The truth is, to set out to govern identities is to set out to govern the ungovernable. Whatever the state does, ordinary people will ignore the boundaries it sets. In the first decade of this millennium, interracial-marriage rates roughly doubled in Singapore. Now a quarter of new marriages cross those boundaries between C, M, I, and O. The point isn’t that the government of Singapore should ignore the ethnic and religious identities of its citizens. But it will have to acknowledge that it’s no longer just the society that’s multiracial; more and more of its citizens are, too.

Maybe some future Singapore-set rom-com will take that on.