The Struggle Over Singapore’s Soul: Western Modernization and Asian Culture.

The Struggle Over Singapore’s Soul: Western Modernization and Asian Culture. – book reviews

Peter Beyer

Like many Western observers, Joseph Tamney seeks to understand the much-discussed East Asian “tigers.” In this case, it is Singapore. The focus of this volume, however, is not so directly the reasons for the economic success, as the values of Singaporeans. More specifically, Tamney explores the straggle in Singapore between the values we usually associate with (Western) modernization and those that come from historic (East) Asian cultures. The central question concerns what kind of society are Singaporeans trying to build and whence do they draw their cultural resources for this endeavour?

The structure of Tamney’s argument runs along two axes: there is the distinction contained in the subtitle; and then there is the tension between the official, dominant version of Singapore and the alternative visions of various oppositional groups. One of the strengths of the book is that the author shows very well the complex intersection of these two dimensions: nearly everyone operates from a selective blend of modem and Asian values, but they do so in different combinations. There is, therefore, no straightforward “clash of civilizations.”

The five core chapters of the book each treat a different value domain, namely religion, politics, ethnicity, gender/family, and art. In each area, the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) has sought to impose its vision, usually brooking very little opposition. Tamney’s central point throughout these chapters is that the dominant ideology has as its centerpiece the modern value of economic growth, but with an overlay of purportedly Asian values. A key part of the argument, however, is that the PAP’s ideology is in fact not irreducibly “Asian” at all, but instead quite similar to what Tamney analyzes as Western conservatism, the worldview of people such as Thatcher and Reagan. Asian, in particular Confucian, values are somewhat accidental and certainly subordinate: “Life in Singapore,” the author concludes, “is being shaped by the demands of international capitalism, not by Asian traditions” (p. 183).

Sample analyses from the chapters on religion and gender/family can serve to illustrate how the author supports his case. In the earlier 1980s, the PAP instituted a religious knowledge program in Singapore’s schools. Each student had to study one of several recognized religions. The general idea was to inculcate an ethic for hard work and social discipline that all religions supposedly shared. The study of Confucianism was especially encouraged as its ethics were considered to be particularly suitable, a sort of Asian “Protestant ethic,” as it were. By the end of the decade, however, the PAP dropped the program largely because leftist Christian groups criticized the government and because few people chose the Confucian option. Given that the policy failed to encourage the attitudes deemed vital for continued economic growth and even did the opposite, the PAP abandoned it.

As concerns gender and the family, on the one hand the dominant ideology officially favours a Confucian view of women in traditional subordinate roles and patriarchal families structured by the hierarchical value of filial piety. Yet, following Tamney’s analysis, the main purpose of this is so that families will relieve the state of social welfare responsibilities, especially for the aged. On the other hand, the PAP also wants women fully involved in the work force for the sake of economic growth, and so encourages their pursuit of independent careers. This, in turn, leads many women to forego the duty of family responsibilities, seeking instead romance and personal fulfillment in their relationships. Modern values prevail for the most part in this situation, concludes the author, because successful capitalism requires a happy and dedicated workforce. The emphasis on traditional “family values” reduces to a means for keeping the government’s social welfare expenditures down, thus maintaining a favourable investment climate.

The analyses of the domains of ethnicity, art, and politics have a similar flavour. The dominant ideology publicly promotes Asian values, but only to the extent that these encourage attitudes and behaviours suitable for strong and competitive capitalism.

This book is an excellent contribution to various contemporary sociological discussions. Tamney shows how the somewhat tattered modernization model can still help us understand important aspects of current social developments. In addition, although not presented as such, it is an admirable empirical study of what Roland Robertson and many others mean by globalization. Not only do we witness Singaporeans particularizing various global universals, especially capitalism, Tamney also points out the degree to which the product then has the potential to change that universal for all of us. Indeed, in a concluding section, the author expresses genuine concern that the authoritarian and cutthroat capitalism embodied in Singapore’s dominant ideology may be the direction in which world society is headed. And “if the world becomes an investor’s paradise, the East will dominate the West” (p. 210). Does this mean that the “materialist West” will become the new carrier of counterbalancing “spiritual values”? Not just for this delicious irony, this book is well worth reading.

Peter Beyer University of Ottawa

COPYRIGHT 1997 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group