Subsistence And The Culture Of Singapore Cultural Studies Essay

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Increasingly and in the wake of globalization, a distinction exists between local and global culture (Chong, 2003). In many Asian nations, including Singapore, the local culture is being dominated by the global culture of Western commercialism, birthing significant changes in the sociopolitical structures of the region (Chong, 2003; Lim, 1999). Singapore is unique, however, as it is a relatively young country with a multifaceted local culture birthed largely from a union between horticultural, wet rice subsistence and foraging, fishing-based subsistence. The current culture of Singapore is, by extension, defined by its previous modalities of subsistence meeting Western-style industrialism, and this is evidenced by the nation's kinship practices, social and political organization, beliefs and values, and embodiment of social change. Singapore no longer has a purely agricultural economy but the culture remains significantly influenced by a long history of rice farming and fishing, with collectivist values being of particular importance.

Singapore's culture, more so than other Southeast Asian nations, is markedly enigmatic; it has a history of colonialism, civil unrest, and extreme ethnic diversity (Bovensiepen, 2009). The influence of Western commercialism is rendering Singapore's culture even more complex, with industrial development forging a significant and visible cultural shift away from collectivist values and toward those of individualist capitalism (Lim, 1999). Singapore, along with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, is known as one of the "little tiger" states, labeled as such for its significant economic success (Lim, 1999). The World Bank has attributed Singapore's economic surge to government policies, a free-market economy, quality education, and an extremely hardworking populous (Lim, 1999); and yet, there may be another reason why global culture has been able to take such a strong foothold in the nation.

Singapore's significant diversity has led to significant discourse regarding the absence of a national culture, with even those who contend the nation has a distinct culture admitting that it is a weak one, at best (Chong, 2003). Over years of conflict, colonization, and migration, the nation's culture has become defined by intra-ethnic harmony, with its policies and practices responding accordingly (Chong, 2003). Singapore separated from Malaysia less than forty years ago, and the population is defined by Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Christianity and Islam coexist with Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and there are four, official languages in the nation.

Despite the diversity of the population, there are several mainstays of the Singapore culture that are common to many cultures of Southeast Asia. The kinship practices, social and political organization, beliefs and values, and manner in which the nation embraces and internalizes social change are all rooted in Singapore's subsistence practices, most of which predate the birth of the nation as a political state by centuries. A small, island country, Singapore has long-held fishing and rice farming as its primary modes of subsistence.

Fishing and Wet Rice Subsistence in Singapore

Though fishing is classified as a type of foraging, societies relying on fishing for subsistence are generally more stable than those relying on other types of foraging, such as hunting and gathering. Aquatic resources are generally more reliable than those of the land, and communities were traditionally able to remain in one place longer than hunters and gatherers who might deplete their resources quickly and be forced to move (Seavoy, 2000). Forager societies are generally egalitarian, with some evident class differences, and Singapore has retained much of the egalitarianism of its historical roots, manifesting it in a myriad of contexts.

Typical of Southeast Asian societies and of Malaysia in particular, wet rice farming is classified as a type of horticultural practice. Horticulturalism is generally combined with some type of foraging due to the unpredictable nature of growing cereal crops like rice; they can be destroyed easily due to erratic weather conditions (Seavoy, 2000; Yamashita, Bosco, and Eates, 2004). Horticultural societies may be more stratified according to gender than foraging societies, though both types of subsistence support patriarchy.

Kinship and Subsistence in Singapore

Kinship is essentially created and manipulated by the way in which food is produced, consumed, and shared (Bovensiepen, 2009). In most Southeast Asian countries and Singapore included, kinship is not innately fixed but instead is forged through ongoing food consumption (Bovensiepen, 2009). Unlike Western European kinship, for example, that of Singapore is malleable and dynamic (Bovensiepen, 2009).

The practice of rice farming is integral to Malaysian nations and deeply engrained in Singapore's culture, though rice is more challenging to grow on the island nation than in other Southeast Asian regions (Bovensiepen, 2009). There is a symbolic significant of rice in Singapore's culture that is birthed from wet rice farming practices, with fertility and nurturing deeply engrained in family life. Rice is a metaphor for life in Singapore, concurrently representing a connection between older and younger generations, men and women, and living and passed ancestors (Bovensiepen, 2009).

The growing of rice is a delicate and elaborate process, often demanding the work of a range of individuals; this is a significant informant of the collectivist, egalitarian nature of Asian cultures. In rice-growing and fishing societies, cooperation and collaboration between households was necessitated by the nature of subsistence (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eates, 2004). The kinship practices of Singapore are strongly defined by collectivism, with close links between the nuclear household and the extended family maintained fervently. Kin groups are valued in all ethnic groups in Singapore, with food offerings common to most religions in the nation (Bovensiepen, 2009).

From an alternative perspective, the sharing of food has been a means of transcending kinship divisions in Singapore, a critical channel for maintaining inter-ethnic harmony (Bovensiepen, 2009). The extreme diversity in the Singapore population demands that kinship not be valued only in terms of familial ties, and the collectivist nature of fishing and wet-rice subsistence supports a sense of community that extends outside of the household. In her article entitled "Kinship and Food in Southeast Asia," Bovensiepen writes that "the production, preparation and consumption of food are closely linked to people's understanding of how their identity and their bodies are constructed and regenerated from different substances. Food consumption is, thus, a medium through which people create collective and individual identities, and express both unity and distinction" (2009, p. 290). The author continues by citing that there is a "rice-based kinship" that emphasized fertility and nurturing, both of which resonate in Singapore's collectivist culture ((Bovensiepen, 2009, p. 290). Unlike Western cultures that are individualistic, Singapore embraces a collectivist identity that is indicative of subsistence horticulture and community-organized fishing practices. Families were, and remain, a microcosm of the greater, sociopolitical sphere.

Sociopolitical Organization and Subsistence in Singapore

Fishing in Singapore fortunately supplemented the wet rice farming as a form of subsistence, with year-round rainfall significantly jeopardizing the rice crop (Henley, 2005). Prior to colonial intervention during the nineteenth century, Singapore, then a part of Malaysia, flourished economically, with poor rice crops and conversely respectable fishing conditions fostering trade with other Asian regions (Henley, 2005). Trade routes, in turn, fostered migration and the beginnings of populational diversity for Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations, with extreme population expansion occurring in direct conjunction with commercial growth (Henley, 2005).

Local food exchanges became more popular following colonization, with strategic partnerships between villages safeguarding subsistence to a certain extent (Henley, 2005). There is evidence of nutritional decline following colonization, however, in Malaysia as well as other Southeast Asian nations (Henley, 2005). In general, the food exchanges were indicative of collectivist practices prior to colonization and effectively maintained the health and wellness of the population under English domination (Henley, 2005).

Singapore in the twenty-first century continues to value community relationships and embody a collectivist society. What began as food-sharing and strategic subsistence practices has today forged a sociopolitical system that is tolerant of diversity and shaped by a wide range of ethnicities. During the twentieth century, Singapore began to be affected by growing, global markets that have broken collectivist ties in other nations (Henley, 2005); and yet, social ties continue to be valuable and this manifests in national policy.

Economic prosperity that benefits the nation as a whole rather than any one, distinct ethnic group is integral to Singapore's identity. Following Singapore's independence in 1965, the nation embarked on a "policy of survival," aiming to fortify the national infrastructure and attract foreign investment as fervently as possible. The socioeconomic challenge of the nation following a history of colonization and recent secession from Malaysia fostered little room for civil unrest resulting from racial conflict. By extension, Singapore engrained racial and ethnic tolerance into its practices, with separate ethnic identities not a part of the collective, national identity.

For example, there are strong policies focusing on equality and education, and economic prosperity is cultivated in much the same way that it is in America. The political system is unique, however, in that there is one party that dominates decision-making. The People's Action Party (PAP) has largely been in power since the nation's independence, faced with little opposition (Tan, 2008). There are rigid penalties for engaging in politics outside of the approved parties, and this stems from collectivist values. In short, civil conflict is not tolerated and is avoided at all costs, particularly through the squelching of political dissent. The crime rate in Singapore is thus markedly low, with corporal punishment still a mainstay for even relatively minor offenses such as littering, and there is a formidable respect for the law (Tan, 2008).

Overall, sociopolitical life in the nation is reminiscent of its days as a fishing and rice-growing subsistence society. The greater good remains a central concern of contemporary policy and there is little regard for political freedoms that have no economic or social benefit (Tan, 2008). The tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity stems largely from the valid need for such tolerance during colonization and times of intense migration, and policies focused on education and economic growth divert attention from possible, racial tensions.

Beliefs, Values, and Subsistence in Singapore

Similarly, the diverse nature of the nation's religious landscape has been central to Singapore's political agenda (Goh, 2009). The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act mandates a range of state controls over practices religions, all of which are geared toward preserving multiculturalism without jeopardizing the harmony of the nation (Goh, 2009). Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Christianity are all practiced in the nation along with folk religions, with Christianity associated with being socioeconomically fortunate and Taoism associated with the Chinese elite (Goh, 2009). Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are generally practiced by those who are socioeconomically challenged, forging distinct religious-class lines (Goh, 2009).

Most of Singapore's population is religious, however, making it challenging for the state to adopt a purely secular stance. The diverse nature of the population's beliefs, however, demands that there be policies of religious tolerance, though many assert that the state's control over religion is draconian, at best (Goh, 2009). While the wide spectrum of religions in the nation is less indicative of subsistence practices than it is of a history of colonization, the willingness of Singapore's people to tolerate a multitude of spiritual systems is grounded in the collectivism forged through fishing and rice growing.

Social Change and Subsistence in Singapore

Egalitarian societies are generally more receptive to social change than class-based societies, and the subsistence practices of Singapore support egalitarianism. In the wake of globalization, however, the nation is becoming more class-based and less receptive to social welfare programs (Lim, 1999). There is a system in place reminiscent of the United States' Medicare, and there are extensive policies in place that protect the family's well-being. A strong focus on education and healthcare is indicative of egalitarianism, and Singapore values both parts of its infrastructure.

Unlike other Southeast Asian nations, Singapore has strong policies in place to protect the environment, with ecological consciousness being a mainstay of the nation's culture (Lee, 1998). While most Asian societies are collectivist in nature, Singapore's collectivism is markedly fertile ground for global, social responsibility (Lim, 1999). Particularly in the country's urban centers, environmental consciousness has come to the forefront of industry and development (Lim, 1999).

While a respect for the environment would be ostensibly akin to a history of subsistence farming, with care for the Earth and the ocean supporting the food supply and, by extension, human life, it is clear that not all cultures are ecologically conscious despite their history of relying on the environment. Foragers would be less likely than horticulturalists to respect the environment as a rule, but fishing societies are different than those that relied on hunting and gathering. By extension, Singapore's respect for the Earth and receptiveness to social change is grounded in its history of needing the environment to thrive in order for its people to survive.


Increasingly, Singapore's local culture is being informed by the global culture, one of industry and commercialism. The nation's collectivist values are, by extension, being slowly but surely dominated by Western individualism. There is a strong drive to gain personal wealth in a way that would not have been conducive to a subsistence culture, but developing nations generally do relinquish collectivist, subsistence-based roots in favor of industry (Seavoy, 2000). The current culture of Singapore is defined by its previous modalities of subsistence meeting Western-style industrialism, and this is evidenced by the nation's kinship practices, social and political organization, beliefs and values, and embodiment of social change. The practices birthed from a long history of rice-farming and fishing have embedded themselves into the national identity of Singapore, which has emerged in the absence of a single, ethnic affiliation. Tolerance of the nation's range of ethnicities, languages, and spiritual practices have sensitized the nation to be receptive to global change, and the extreme economic growth during recent years is evidence of the small country's openness to development. Because the nation is young and globalization, in its current form, is relatively new as well, it is unclear precisely how the nation's culture will manifest Western values in its otherwise collectivist landscape. However, the nation's environmentally conscious policies and fervent intolerance of prejudice may be indicative of how the country will facilitate all changes, with proverbial open arms and acknowledgement of social equality. Subsistence practices deeply inform cultures long after they have become obsolete, and Singapore is a prime example of how visibly previous, food practices appear in a country's culture.