IPS Singapore Perspectives 2024: Welcome, Culture Wars


Two weeks ago, at the Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Perspectives conference, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Dr Janil Puthucheary asked LGBTQ+ youths to “stay, fight stand up for what you believe in…”

We covered the political implications of SMS Janil’s message. Pink Dot called it a “significant shift in government rhetoric,” though they still felt “pretty mixed” since “it remains to be seen if society and government are truly evolving to be more open to change.”

Two out of three panellists speaking on “Family” at the same conference also pushed for the redefinition of the family. One of them asked to expand fertility options to all, regardless of marital status—”parenthood at all costs”—to combat flagging birth rates. What he did not seem to realise was that many other jurisdictions with relatively more liberal fertility laws still face the same dismal or abysmal fertility rates – if only the solution was that easy.

Where Have We Heard This Before?

The rhetoric to expand the definition of family that was pushed at the conference is radical and new at the local level – new definitions of family would require a shift in policies in all sectors since family is typically seen as the “basic building block of society.”

Yet, this kind of rhetoric is not new at all. Activism to redefine the family and liberalise fertility has been raging for decades, most prominently in the USA.

Given that test balloons are often floated at IPS, will IPS go the same way and begin to offer policy suggestions along these lines in the months and years to come? How will that play out in Singapore? Will the public be as divided as in other countries?

Will Singapore take another step deeper into the proverbial culture wars?

What Culture Wars?

James Davison Hunter, often credited with coining the term in the 1990s with his book titled “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” observed a new axis of conflict – the shift from religious denominational issues to those related to the sexual revolution and identity politics.

He later described the two sides of the conflict as follows:

“On one side is a traditionalist vision that holds truth to be “rooted in an authority outside of the self,” Mr. Hunter says, be it Nature or “the Bible, the Magisteria, the Torah.” Thus this view’s emphasis on maintaining “continuities with the truths of the past.” On the other side is a “post-Enlightenment” vision that rejects “transcendent and authoritative traditions.” In the progressive view, “freedom is predominant”—especially freedom for groups seen as oppressed by tradition.”

In a bid to help liberals understand conservatives, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt also spoke to the division between liberals and conservatives as having overlapping foundations for their morality. He argued that out of six or more aspects – being care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation – liberals are focused on the first three, while conservatives, he argues, are concerned on all six (some summaries here).

While the term “culture wars” has its fair share of detractors, two aspects are interesting. The first is why Hunter used “war.” It was the overwhelming sentiment of those he researched; they said “It feels like war. It feels like war.”

In The Atlantic’s “The Forever Culture War,” writer Shadi Hamid observed that when it comes to axes of disagreement, “it matters much more on race, identity, and the nature of progress than it does on business regulation, markets, and income redistribution,” because the former relate to “divergent conceptions of the good,” and are “less amenable to compromise, expertise, and technocratic fixes,” relating to questions about “who we are” rather than “what works.”

Perhaps this is why the metaphor of “war” is unavoidable: identity-driven activists who see systems and structures as oppression of their very sense of self will ultimately clash with the cautious, pragmatic, and principle-driven folk who have vastly different ideas of what’s good.

A 2019 IPS study on religion and morality hints at a possible divide among locals, calling it an “area of concern”. It found that those who were conservative on issues such as those who felt it was “important to be careful when talking about sensitive matters,” and that the “Government should lead societal change rather than the citizenry,” were also likely to believe that homosexual sex and marriage were wrong.

The researchers said this “points to the possible emergence of multiple areas of friction between different camps that hold vastly different beliefs on issues.” How these two “camps” differ from American categories of right/left or conservative/liberal requires deeper analysis.

Five years after the 2019 study, has IPS become a platform for such areas of friction between the “camps” to play out publicly? It did, after all, feel like a budding local liberal triumvirate – left-leaning activists meet policy institute meet the media (also another hotbed of liberal thought in the West).

The most recent conference platformed ideas such as the redefinition of family, increased LGBT representation, and featured liberal activist organisations such as Pink Dot, AWARE, and even Wake Up Singapore.

Woke University & The American Rhino

It would be interesting to survey the political and cultural inclinations of IPS management and researchers. Has it gone the way of the West, which has seen a marked tilt towards the left in some areas of academia (particularly in the social sciences and arts/humanities faculties, like philosophy and psychology)?

News coverage of the UK culture wars has identified the university system as the main evidence of a new puritanism, where “preoccupations are less about morality than identity, even if dissenting opinions can still be denounced with a puritanical zeal.” Apparently, academics are complaining off-the-record of witch hunts and intimidation.

The export of culture wars is not that surprising, considering America’s influence. In describing the overwhelming presence of American influence in online spaces, a journalist in the UK notes how “every country using the English-language internet experiences a version of this angst — call it the American Rhino Problem. With so many dominant tech companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, the rules of the web are set there — and by politicians in Washington.” “America,” she adds, “won the internet, and now makes us speak its language.”

The American Rhino is most obvious in social justice activism; another writer argued that “When asked to analyze the experiences of Black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent.” Similar things could be said of local activists – one example being “Chinese privilege,” when speaking of racism in Singapore.

Destination: Bourgeoise First World Problems

Shadi Hamid wrote of the US, “Elites in both parties enjoy a certain privilege, one appropriate to a rich, advanced democracy, that allows them to emphasize culture while deprioritizing economic well-being.” Both counts of levels of prosperity and democracy are relevant in Singapore, a thriving nation-state.

With some sectors of society getting richer and enjoying abundance, especially among the educated, will there be a push for cultural changes at the expense of bread and butter, or more accurately, rice plate issues?

On this, Martin Gurri, American political commentator, reflected on how the US has “children of abundance who loathe where we come from, who we are, and would happily abolish the habits that got us here, ostracize the persons who embody those habits, and smash the institutions that support them.” Will similar trends happen here?

With Singapore maturing as a democratic-ish state, will we enter a stage where civilizational concerns edge out worries about survival?

Hamid adds that while in the US, both sides (right and left) experience growing perceptions of civilizational decline, “this particular kind of decadence — characterized, per The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, by reproductive sterility, economic stagnation, political sclerosis, and intellectual repetition—is an ideal foil for young conservatives cum reactionaries. It gives them something worthy of reaction.” 

Many in the US are concerned over issues such as increased narcissism, polarisation, a loss of meaning, isolation and loneliness, and mental health decline. IPS Singapore Perspectives also took a look at quite a few of these issues, such as isolation, mental health, and birth rates.

Based on some lines at the conference, it seems likely that IPS has taken or may take a leftward turn, with issues such as LGBTQ+ representation and redefining family gaining prominence.

As in the US, there will be conservative pushback, which may strengthen as signs of decadence intensify, with news of plunging birth rates and more youths reporting a sense of isolation.

And so, we find ourselves deeper in this fight over culture. It does feel a little like war.

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