City of Stars or City of Tears?: A Questioning of Singapore’s Development

When development comes to mind, it is almost instinctive to relate it to economic achievements, capital accumulation or profit maximisation of a society or country. However, when understood as a discourse, development is indeed a vast subject, which is not limited to purely economic terms. Since independence, the dominant discourse on development in Singapore has remained largely focused on economic and physical advancements. Of late, however, there has been a reassessment of the development model in this country. From the recent 2020 General Elections, for example, growing rumblings of dissatisfaction from the ground regarding cost of living, unemployment and widening income gap in Singapore are clear.

However, the problematising of development has been done much earlier by many Singapore Malay literatis such as Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. As early as the 1970s, Latiff has been producing works, calling the society to inspect the costs of economic development and emphasised the need to pay attention to the human and social aspects of development too.

One of his prominent works is Kota Airmata[1], or ‘City of Tears’, a novel set against the resettlement period of 1970s from kampungs to flats in Singapore. It is in this novel that we could see Latiff problematising the notion of development and progress. While these two ideas, dominantly associated with comfortability and advancements, are willingly and unquestionably embraced, Latiff presents to us the daily sufferings of the socio-economically marginalised in the society.

THE SUFFERING OF THE MARGINALISED
In this novel, the harsh life faced by Ani, a female teenager living in Singapore is apparent through the perpetual pressure and strain to keep her stomach filled and worrying about her unsettled school fees.

Ani’s family is dysfunctional – her father is an unemployed drunkard, and her siblings are either missing or imprisoned for crimes. Ani only relies on her mother’s occasional earnings from laundry services for financial sustenance and Siti, her schoolmate for emotional solace.

The story of Ani is a representation of a community grappling with capitalism amidst a rapid, burgeoning economy. In trying to fit in and keep up with the demanding system, Latiff shows how there are many, especially in the Malay community, who become socio-economically displaced because they are consumed and racked by the rigorous capitalistic structure.

The non-negotiable task of the Malay community to keep up with development so that they do not ‘lag behind’ could be seen as the coercion of the community into the larger ideology of capitalism and pragmatism[2] instituted by the state. This has been very well encapsulated by Latiff as he illustrates how the Malays are held responsible for their failure in being progressive. In Kota Airmata, he questions the dominant discourse on Malay underdevelopment that has been mostly centred on cultural deficit explanations, rendering other ideological and institutional factors less important in explaining the socio-economic malaise faced by the Malays.

For example, Ani’s inability to pay her school and examination fees was seen by her teacher as a ‘Malay problem’: “Our people usually can’t afford school fees of $4.00 but can afford watching movies in the cinema…” [3] However, Ani’s disadvantageous socio-economic circumstances were not paid attention to by her teacher.

Instead, the blame was entirely put on Ani and her family. No regard was given to the fact that only Ani’s mother is supporting the family with her meagre earnings and that Ani did not manage to receive any bursaries.

Latiff also highlights the ignorance towards the existence of the economically marginalised in a city like Singapore, which is deemed by Ani’s teacher as one that is developed: “…in Cikgu Majid’s mind, everyone lives comfortably like him… He does not believe that there are poor people like Ani in a city like this…” [4]

Ani’s story in Kota Airmata unfortunately ends in a tragedy. The dreadful predicament she was confronted with worsened when she got pregnant after getting raped. The narration ends with Ani committing suicide because of the immense shame, pressure and depression that she experienced.

Through this novel, Latiff highlights to us the immense suffering and vicious cycle that the socio-economically displaced are trapped in, specifically because of the capitalistic ideas on development that the state has adopted. More significantly, Ani’s death was not given a second thought. The city dwellers of Singapore continue with their busy lives after reading the report of Ani’s suicide in the newspapers[5]. Here, Latiff is emphasising the unfeeling nature of the Singapore society, as they do not question the reason for this suicide, as though they are desensitised by news like this.

Being cognisant of the rights and dignity of the economically marginalised like Ani, Latiff brings to light their sufferings which have been silenced by the larger, dominant narratives of development and progress. Writers like Latiff urge the society to pay attention to the human aspects of development, such as the welfare and psychological needs of the marginalised like Ani. To him, because of development, life in Singapore has made the society ruthless and lack humanity[6].

THE COSTS OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Another work where he criticises development in Singapore is his short prose, Nostalgia yang Hilang[7]. This prose tells a story of the narrator, who reunites with his brother who migrated to London for 30 years. In the conversations between these two siblings, we will be able to glean Latiff’s questioning on the very idea or definition of development: “Does progress mean that we destroy or demolish everything that is old? Moral and cultural development must be on par with economic growth too.” [8]

For Latiff, therefore, development does not equate to progress. For him, economic development should not be the only aim of a society. Resettlements, constructions of high-rise buildings, and great infrastructure do not suggest and guarantee the development of thought and values of a society. For him, development should not just be denoted by material terms, it should be an ideal and an objective that permeates the moral and value spheres.

While on one hand, dominant state narratives celebrate the move towards economic growth and development, works by Malay literatis like Latiff present to us the tears of people living in a city like Singapore. He sheds light on the human dimension of development, specifically highlighting the cost of this material pursuit. Through his writings, Latiff calls upon our society to think of alternative models of development, which is synonymously argued by intellectuals like Walter Mignolo[9]. Mignolo argues that societies based on economic growth and development first have continued to disregard the consequences of achieving these goals. Economies based on a Western capitalistic model “[have] continued to create increased economic inequality, wars to secure natural resources and [have] incited people to believe that happiness consists of acquiring commodities.” [10] It is therefore pertinent that societies come up with other, more balanced and sustainable models, which writers like Latiff have proposed.

While Francis Fukuyama[11] has argued that capitalism is inevitable, we cannot lose hope and have to continue to think of a recourse to economic development, “where the final horizon is the wellbeing of people and the survival of nature.” [12]

Overhauling our ideas and definitions of progress and development is a tedious process but it is not impossible. If, in this highly competitive society, stars have always been marked by economic and academic achievements, there must be a way to build a city of stars where the stars – ambitions and aspirations of the people in this city – are not just made of dollars and signs, but moral and humane values too. ⬛

1 MOHAMED LATIFF MOHAMED. KOTA AIRMATA. SINGAPURA: COKELAT, 2013.
2 VELAYUTHAM, SELVARAJ. RESPONDING TO GLOBALIZATION: NATION, CULTURE AND IDENTITY IN SINGAPORE. SINGAPORE: ISEAS, 2007.
3 MOHAMED LATIFF MOHAMED. KOTA AIRMATA. SINGAPURA: COKELAT, 2013, PP. 10-11.
4 IBID, P. 12.
5 IBID, P. 83.
6 IBID, PP. 13-14.
7 MOHAMED LATIFF MOHAMED. NOSTALGIA YANG HILANG IN ANTOLOGI CERPEN PENULIS-PENULIS SINGAPURA, ED. SURATMAN MARKASSAN. KUALA LUMPUR: DEWAN BAHASA DAN PUSTAKA: 1987, PP. 130-139.
8 IBID, PP. 136-137.
9 WALTER MIGNOLO. NEITHER CAPITALISM NOR COMMUNISM, BUT DECOLONIZATION: INTERVIEW WITH WALTER MIGNOLO (PART I). CRITICAL LEGAL THINKING. 2012, MARCH 21. RETRIEVED FROM:
HTTP://CRITICALLEGALTHINKING.COM/2012/03/21/NEITHER-CAPITALISM-NOR-COMMUNISM-BUT-DECOLONIZATION-AN-INTERVIEW-WITH-WALTER-MIGNOLO
10 IBID.
11 FRANCIS FUKUYAMA. THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN. HARMONDSWORTH: PENGUIN, 1992.
12 WALTER MIGNOLO. NEITHER CAPITALISM NOR COMMUNISM, BUT DECOLONIZATION: INTERVIEW WITH WALTER MIGNOLO (PART I). CRITICAL LEGAL THINKING. 2012, MARCH 21. RETRIEVED FROM:
HTTP://CRITICALLEGALTHINKING.COM/2012/03/21/NEITHER-CAPITALISM-NOR-COMMUNISM-BUT-DECOLONIZATION-AN-INTERVIEW-WITH-WALTER-MIGNOLO

 


Liyana Nasyita Shukarman is a Master of Arts candidate in the National University of Singapore Department of Malay Studies. Her research interest is in Malay literature, culture and society.

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