By Cheryl Narumi Naruse, author of Becoming Global Asia: Contemporary Genres of Postcolonial Capitalism in Singapore

Becoming Global Asia is part of the UC Press Transpacific Series

Though once widely regarded as a punitive, culturally sterile island-nation, or what William Gibson deemed “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” Singapore is now celebrated around the world as a fun, alluring Asian setting for capitalist flourishing. This transformation is partly the result of a socio-economic restructuring policy known as “Global-Asia.” But more than mere policy, Global Asia in my work signals a new kind of soft power and cultural capital that accompanies the nation’s authoritarian governance and accumulated wealth.

In order to comprehend the workings of this power, I turn to a literary and cultural archive comprised of novels, anthologies, films, short stories, policy documents, political speeches, and political ephemera. My readings of these materials find that Global Asia is fueled by transnational imaginaries of capitalist desire, anti-Third World sentiments, and Eurocentric interpretive practices. I also found that the economic exceptionality of the Singaporean challenges the critical vocabularies and assumptions from fields that study postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Consequently, I argue that Global Asia should be historicized with respect to “postcolonial capitalism,” a term I use to describe capitalist formations motivated by a consciousness of colonial subordination. The excerpt that follows discusses the stakes of understanding Global Asia as a postcolonial formation (and not only as another neoliberal development) as well as some of the theoretical and methodological influences over my thinking.

The following passage is excerpted from pages 12—14 of Becoming Global Asia.

Besides performing its continuity with colonialism, Singapore’s use of “the global” often acts as another way of erasing postcoloniality. Take, for example, the state’s presentation of diasporic Singaporeans as the protagonists of Global Asia. The emergence of a cosmopolitan, diasporic workforce seemingly aligns Singapore more with the ideological priorities of a deregulated, globalized free market economy and has the further effect of dissociating Singapore from traditional markers of postcoloniality that insist on a nationalist sense of sovereignty. And there is the rub: tracing postcolonial capitalism through representations of Global Asia is the conceptual challenge precisely because Global Asia does not intuitively register as “postcolonial.” This book takes that challenge head-on in its focus on what are ostensibly genres of Global Asia—that is, post-1997 texts that easily lend themselves to neoliberal or global approaches. Certainly, that is what they are and this book elucidates how biopolitical governance, neoliberal individualism, and neo-orientalism function for Global Asia. But Becoming Global Asia also demonstrates how genres of Global Asia put pressure on our conceptions of “new,” as these contemporary texts consistently reference earlier moments of Singapore’s independence and nation formation: they must also be read as contemporary genres of postcolonial capitalism. Centering postcolonial capitalism counters the colonial alibi. My book therefore retheorizes postcoloniality to clarify its crucial role in the material and ideological movement of global capitalism. I argue that it is precisely the obfuscation of postcoloniality’s entanglements with global capital that has enabled Singapore to be reduced to an imitative colonial state rather than a postcolonial state. Ironically, this obfuscation has been promoted both by the Singaporean state and by its critics, each having their own reasons for tying postcoloniality to a particular time, locale, and politics.

Postcolonial capitalism understands postcoloniality as an ongoing, globally uneven condition. For its more contemporary instantiations, postcolonial capitalism thinks through the ways that Singapore’s economic trajectory develops in the aftermath of British and Japanese imperialisms alongside the assertion of US empire in Southeast Asia. In pursuit of a methodology that grapples with US empire while not inadvertently recentering it, I follow the “transpacificism” developed in Nguyen and Hoskins’s work. In their formulation, Nguyen and Hoskins offer the transpacific as a way of breaking free of an Asian American or American studies that insists “on the United States as the primary object of inquiry.” Becoming Global Asia contributes to this project of transpacificism by thinking through the more attenuated role of US empire. At times, this means reckoning with the context of US imperialism as it interacts with the global economy rather than examining a relation of power that is connoted by understandings of the transpacific as a contact zone. At other times, reckoning with such a context appears in brief historical details or notes, as in chapter 1, when I discuss how initial perceptions of diasporic Singaporeans as national traitors were in part shaped by the ways US immigration policies were unsettling Singapore’s worker pool. Still at other moments, understanding the attenuated role of US empire simply means not assuming that all things Western should be read as a symptom of Singapore pandering to or glorifying the United States. For example, in forming language policies so that Singapore could offer the world a workforce fluent in English, the state was able to attract transnational corporations to set up headquarters in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s—American ones among them. Obviously, English as a language has an audience beyond the United States. Still, of course, the United States is a significant and desired audience. The point is that through the English language, we can see how Singapore’s governance was negotiating and constantly aware of its positionality within a US-led global configuration. Rather than directly responding to US power, it was devising ways to benefit from that world order. The book demonstrates that the goal of transpacificism does not simply mean leaving the fact of US empire to Americanists.

Although Becoming Global Asia is routed into Asian American studies as the result of Singapore’s transpacific geography, it is more directly indebted to Asian Americanist theories and methodologies that situate the significance of Asian racialization—of both people and place—within systemic frames of oppression and inequality. When perceived as a nation that has successfully transcended its postcolonial condition of underdevelopment and therefore one worthy of emulation, Singapore, in its prescribed role as a model nation, is vital in symbolically reinforcing global inequality and rationalizing postcolonial capitalism on a global scale. Distinguishing Singapore as “model” nation operates as an economic wedge between the Global North and the Global South, much in the way that model minority Asian Americans serve as a racial wedge and anti-Black buffer in the United States. This wedge function obscures the subaltern forms of migrant labor that build the cityscape and maintain homes to keep Singapore functional at all. When Jared Kushner cited Singapore as an economic model for the Peace to Prosperity plan, he minimized—if he did not completely erase—the role that Israeli occupation plays in Palestine’s ability to “meet the daunting challenges” of determining a “better future,” thereby positioning Palestine as incompetent (and we know that is exactly the point). Like Kushner, Lamb’s unctuous admiration for Singapore appears to be based in part in his disdain for other postcolonial nations: “At independence, instead of tearing down the overt symbols of colonialism in a burst of ultranationalism, Singapore accepted the reality of the past.” Studying Global Asia and postcolonial capitalism is never simply what Singapore or its wealth is about; it is about the many scales of power that Singapore makes possible.