State carnivals and the subvention of multiculturalism in Singapore

Authors


email: socgohd@nus.edu.sg

Abstract

Increasing attention is being paid to the specificities of Asian multiculturalism in relation to ethnic pluralism, citizenship and developmental state formation. This article examines these relationships by analysing three carnival events in colonial and postcolonial Singapore that were organized by the state to promote its official multiculturalism. Through its cultural logics of horizontal racial segmentation, cascading symbolic authority from the state to co-opted communal representatives and multi-modal ritual iteration, the 1937 King George VI coronation celebrations proffered an imperial multiculturalism based on mediating plural groups and procedural norms. Adopting the same cultural logics in the 1970s, the newly-independent nation-state revived and transformed Chingay, a creole Chinese religious procession, into an annual parade celebrating the nation as comprising racially plural groups bound together by the modern ethos of progress the developmental state exemplified. In the 2000s, Chingay has been turned into an international spectacle celebrating Singapore as a cosmopolitan global city of hybridizing multiculturalism. But indicative of new racial-class segmentation, the old nation-building pluralism is promoted by Racial Harmony Day carnivals held in suburban public housing neighborhoods. This bifurcated multiculturalism reflects the developmental state's attempts to deal with new citizenship trends as they grind against the old ethnic pluralism. While faced with the same issues globalization brings, this postcolonial multiculturalism is distinctively different from liberal multiculturalism, not least because the subvention of multiculturalism is achieved through the state appropriation of vernacular cultural practices through its carnivals.

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