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  • A Mimetic Theoretical Approach to MulticulturalismNormalizing the Singaporean Exception
  • John Choo (bio)


At the time of writing, the multicultural ideal, if there had ever been one, within North America and Western Europe appears to be in a state of unprecedented precariousness, given recent political developments. The term "multicultural" here, and in fact in the rest of this paper, refers not to a description of the prevailing state of affairs, but to a normative attitude, reflected in public policy, that seeks a relatively pluralist approach to "culture." Apparently confirming political pronouncements by then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that multiculturalism has failed,2 "far-right" sociocultural politics in North America and Western Europe has achieved several popular victories, with the British exit from the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump arguably being two of them.

In comparison, the ideological standing of multiculturalism in the small island country of Singapore seems to be safer than ever. With a widespread consensus, even among the political opposition, regarding the desirability of [End Page 209] multiculturalism, and the Singapore Parliament recently passing a Constitutional Amendment securing minority representation for the Presidential office,3 the repeated mantra locally that multiculturalism is the defining feature of this nation-state looks not without reason. Cracks in this façade are explored later in this paper.

Yet in relation to the stated developments, proponents of liberal multiculturalism, of which Will Kymlicka has been the most outspoken, have sought not only to reevaluate the multicultural model in North America and Western Europe as being successful,4 but also to deny the case of Singapore as having any relevance to thinking about the problem of multiculturalism elsewhere. Singapore is depicted as a unique case, for which the success is predicated upon the common "foreign" status of all its constituent "cultures."5 This notion of Singaporean exceptionalism dovetails neatly with the political agendas of local politicians, who enjoy highlighting the supposedly "unique Singapore identity," drawn from "a diverse immigrant society with hardly any common ground to stand on."6

This paper seeks to challenge the prevailing assumptions of liberal multiculturalism by first examining the Singaporean case in depth. While acknowledging the existence of a gulf that seemingly separates the multicultural policies of Singapore from those of North America and Western Europe, this paper argues, contra Kymlicka (2005), that it is located not in the qualitative differences of the problems that each polity faces, but rather in the dominant ideological imaginations that take hold of overt discourses on "culture." While North American and Western European thinking about multiculturalism seems to largely take the object of analysis to be the individual, the focus in Singapore generally concerns the group. By relocating the rift between Singapore and the West to the level of the conceptual, this paper simultaneously exposes the common workings of multiculturalism in both contexts as a process of exclusion and intrusive individual-formation, producing self-identified victims that tend to be ignored by the liberal multiculturalist paradigm.

Seeing potential affinities with the mimetic approach inspired by cultural theorist René Girard, this paper then attempts to provide a different understanding of multiculturalism that avoids the individuationist or collectivist biases that have purportedly implicated existing thought, and is thus capable of even-handedly treating both the Singaporean and the Western situations. A hypothetical characterisation of multiculturalism as a postsacrificial system is brought to bear on the empirical case studies of Singapore and the United Kingdom, fleshed out through a systematic comparison with a distrustful ally in the form of Foucauldian critiques of neoliberalism employing the language [End Page 210] of governmentality. In essence, this paper understands "culture" as employed by multicultural arrangements in practice to serve at once to arrest preexisting rivals from eliminating each other, and at the same time, to produce the self-identified victims of the previous section. Flowing from and thus justified by narratives spontaneously developed or evolved in concrete settings, "culture" is hence made sacred, collectively thought about as lying outside standard political contestation. This paper therefore attempts to make the case that multicultural practice must be recognized as always implicated in forms or practices of...


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pp. 209-235
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