Chapter 2 Compensating for the Abdication of the Moral State?
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Compensating for the Abdication of the Moral State? 25 25 C H A P T E R 2 C H A P T E R 2 Compensating for the Abdication of the Moral State? Terence Chong Introduction Introduction One question looms unanswered in the aftermath of the AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) saga. Why did Christian conservatives feel the need to hijack a civil society organisation to push their agenda? This question is intriguing given the fact that societystate relations in Singapore, though heavily prescribed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) state, have been far from static but, instead, have been dynamic and responsive to societal changes. After decades of industrialisation and economic growth, the broadening middle class has ushered in a more diverse identity politics and higher citizenry expectations with regard to the way in which politics is conducted, prompting the PAP state to embark on a trajectory of slogans from “civic society”,1 to “active citizenry”2 to “public consultation”3 when addressing societystate relations. This trajectory reflects not only the changing dynamics in society-state relations over the years but also the PAP state’s ability to respond discursively to the socio-political circumstances of the day. So what prompted a group of conservative Anglican Pentecostal Christians from the erstwhile little known Church of Our Saviour (COOS) to enter the arena of civil society to take over a women’s rights group in a multicultural society where Christianity is well represented in the upper echelons of the professional world and local politics? Any serious attempt to answer the question needs to go beyond economic growth as the sole source of the PAP state’s political legitimacy. It needs 26 Terence Chong to explore the ways in which the PAP state has often portrayed itself as highly moral, and how such portrayals have been politically useful in winning over moral conservatives, and why this changed. The Morally Upright and Morally Conservative State The Morally Upright and Morally Conservative State Moral politics in modern Singapore may be traced to the formation of the PAP, and argued to be the result of an English-educated bourgeois group struggling to bridge the cultural-economic gulf between itself and the Chinese-educated masses against the backdrop of communism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, as a political party made up of middle class, overseas-educated and English-speaking Chinese that had no cultural ties to the working class Chinese-educated and dialectspeaking masses, the language of morals and morality served as a useful ideological bridge for the PAP. After all, the Chinese-educated “held the English-educated in contempt for their lack of knowledge of Chinese culture and language, their ‘commercial-mindedness’, and their receptiveness to ‘yellow culture’ such as juke-boxes, Playboy magazines, sex films and dancing” (Yeo 1973: 177–8). Keenly sensitive to this perceived moral cleavage, the PAP embarked on an “anti-yellow culture” campaign in the 1960s to rid the consumer landscape of pornography, gambling and moral decadence. The PAP, in the effort to demonstrate its effectiveness upon taking charge of government, outlawed “pornography, striptease shows, pintable saloons, even decadent songs” (Lee 1998: 326). More importantly, in the words of Lee Kuan Yew, such a move was useful for “outflanking the communists” which the PAP did with “puritanical zeal” (ibid.), and may be interpreted as an attempt by an English-educated middle class bourgeoisie to out-communist the communists in the morality stakes in order to win popular support.4 Elsewhere, this political leveraging on morality by the PAP has been observed as the conscious construction of the “West” and the “Western Other” as a figure of excess and bodily indulgence, while presenting the “Asian” subject (as epitomised by the PAP) as the binary opposite (Yao 2007). Since forming a government in 1959, the ruling party had always sought to portray itself as moral in two distinct ways. The first is as a morally upright state that did not tolerate corruption, nepotism or patronage. To this end, it has always emphasised high moral and ethical standards as criteria for politics and governance, and has brought into its fold those whom it considered were individuals of sound moral Compensating for the Abdication of the Moral State? 27 character. It is a socio-cultural system where the ideals of integrity, lawfulness, honesty and impartiality were accorded high levels of political capital. The morally upright state does not see itself as an entity that needs...