Everyday Forms of Collaboration
By Wayne on 29 Nov 2008 1:23 PM
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Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote about the everyday forms of resistance in Singapore on Singapore Angle. In recent months however, I began to take more interest in the other side of the coin, which is more troublesome to think and write about but perhaps far more intriguing - the issue of collaboration or participation in Singapore. This has been partly inspired by Dr. Timothy Brook's recent groundbreaking work on collaboration in China during World War II. Brook's book is both haunting and compelling. He challenges us to consider beyond the binary of collaboration and resistance to think about issues of appearances, costs, rivalry, and depth of state penetration that is associated with the disentangling of the binary. He hopes that one day, that could be a separation of the moralizing power of the rhetoric of collaboration from the scholars' professional investigation of the everyday forms of collaboration on the ground. In addition, he makes a more limited definition of collaboration and renders agency on both the state and the participants, instead of arguing along the thesis that everyone collaborates. Given this context, how do we think about everyday forms of collaboration in Singapore then?

Thinking about collaboration at this stage is largely preliminary and I will be happy to stand corrected at any part of this discussion. Because of the lack of space to discuss the intricacies that underpins collaboration, I would also use the word participation at certain points instead, which entails a less loaded word and requires less explanation in a short SA article. But fundamentally, to what extent then is every Singaporean a willing collaborator if we play with the term too much? Is collaboration the right word to use? Do Singaporeans participate in our regime because there is no choice (bo pian)?

Untangling Bopianess

The discourse of bopianess (沒辦法) is particularly interesting, because it is tied to another contemporary discourse, Sianness . If Sianness denotes an expression of lack of interest amidst one's busyness, bopianess reveals a peculiar Singapore modernity that involves expressing one's busyness amidst the lack of interest for an alternative. This lack of interest, to a modern day critic, would derive from the lack of intellectual rigor and emotional courage to search for an alternative to get out of the bopian situation. To what extent is that true?

A generation of Singaporeans graduating from the JC system that started in the 1969 increasingly fill important positions in Singapore society, ranging from business to politics to government to education. The education base in which elites in Singapore are derived from has shrunk in thinking about the PAP state since 1959. Could concentrated levels of thinking about resistance/collaboration and job opportunities be more contained within the compounds of these institutions that it was in the past? Increasingly, more and more Singaporeans have grown up in Singapore where there has not been an alternative party in power in their lifetime. Over their lifetime, the army's rhetoric in instilling the core values of a citizen-soldier is in full swing and improves with technology over time. It is likely and possibly that the Singaporean women are even more supportive of the military and the ideals of a citizen-soldier than the actual participant in the military. Not only that, much of the autonomous sectors of the economy, ranging from unions to media to government linked corporations, are linked to the state. Very few of them (and maybe us) openly oppose the political regime, and often actively participate in the regime itself. Some have even advocated jingoism, often comparing the superiority of Singapore and the exportation of the Singapore brand in relations to either the increasingly insolvent and decadent West or the economic and cultural backwardness of the East, playing the Oriental and the Occidental simultaneously.

Bopianness in the political context, as one imagined, will likely to be invoked by the participant accused of collaboration (often at a later date) where the participants' actions somehow becomes unacceptable in the contemporary political context. Hypothetically, someone who orders/participate/approves publicly of the detention without trial of political activists at one point in the past, if asked to account in the future or even the present, might argue that he or she "bopianly" did so. The discourse will likely to go like this: I did it because I needed a job, I did it because I have a family, I did it because someone higher up wanted/ordered me to do so. Basically I had no choice but to participate unwillingly given the context of the time.

If collaboration is extended to everyday forms of discourse, a probable scenario as followed frequently occurs too in Singapore. Hey Mr. Tan, I thought you really did not like the government/hated civics and moral education/did not sing national anthem/never tuck in your uniform and also late after canteen break when you were in Jc, how come you are working in the education ministry today? A reply might be, "Bo pian lah brother, I need a job. The economy is bad. The private sector pays poorly loh and the government is actually treating people well. I mean if I was to do it again, I probably would not have tuck out my shirt so much. Aiyah, young days mah. You don't know meh, I resist secretly bysometimes defying my boss, telling people about how bad the ministry is in the pub and taking longer coffee breaks."

Can the idea of collaboration be gendered too? Since women in Singapore have been perceived by some as participating less actively in the regime, will their discourse of "bopianess" have greater currency? As many teachers in Singapore are women, do they play a particular role in forming the next generation of youngsters within the confines of a panoptical school system that might perpetuate the possible rhetoric of bopianess for another generation?

Assembling a Functional State and Individual - From Bopian to "I choose leh" (我?擇的 loh!)

Yet bopianess can be reinterpreted in the realities of the Singapore context. Did not participants in the current PAP regime actually provide essential services to ordinary Singaporeans? Did not/Do not many men and women within the PAP sincerely advocated for the voice of the ordinary people, and often mitigated the worst of the policies melted out from the top above either behind the scenes or openly? Without ordinary Singaporean participants in the RC, would we have lantern festivals and Hari Raya celebrations that bring the Singapore community together? If we all resist, will there be a functional state in Singapore? Can we live/Should we live/How do we live in a state that has more people who resist rather than participate?

What about those who invoke the mantle of "I choose one leh because I believe what I did was best for Singapore at the times?" Are these people necessary morally problematic because they declare themselves so? Do we admire them for their courage and their moral perseverance? What do we intellectually make of the term "collaboration" then?

To sum up, I am interested in writing two more posts in thinking about collaboration - one about the perception of Overseas Singaporeans on the issue of participation and their potential (misfounded) moral high ground and the other about resistance (and lack thereof) in the country. For Singapore, it is not only that people participate in the running of the state, but also that the state depended on participants to enforce its power and privileges. Yet, in the writing of everyday forms of resistance and everyday forms of collaboration, are strawmen created for intellectual musings? Or is it in reality, heterogeneous Singaporeans resist and participate on our own terms on a daily basis free from issues of morality that persist in discussions on collaboration on a previous era?

Comments (7)

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Once again, nice piece that follows from the civil disobedience article. I suspect I may be way off the mark but here are some initial thoughts.

I suppose one useful framework would be economic i.e. what are the payoffs for being a 'collaborator' versus a 'resistor'. And at times it is indeed possible to be both, depending on the situation. Which is quite sad from a patriot's standpoint, but more on that later.

I have not read Dr Brook's book, but I would imagine that it may not go down too well in China. For some reason 'Japanese collaborators' were frowned upon during WWII to put it mildly, and even today there is some element of this sentiment if one looks beneath the facade of diplomatic smiles among the citizenry. And perhaps rightly so -- after all China can hardly be described as a new nation, and so the collective sum of experience is embedded deep within the populace, modernity notwithstanding, that somehow the value of 'China' as a concept is placed rather highly on the economic scale, as it were.

In our island-nation, however, things could not be more different. Since independence, the establishment has sought to inundate its citizens with the value of being hamsters on a wheel -- that somehow there is a worthwhile payoff for being busy by going nowhere fast, and somehow the payoff seems to get larger the faster the hamster goes nowhere. And I suppose the hamster can experience the payoff as he earns another peanut, while conveniently ignoring that the wheel he runs on keeps the establishment warm at night (incidentally if anyone tries this at home, don't be surprised to have SPCA knocking on your door lol).

Which is perhaps why some hamsters choose to groom themselves better than the others, in the hope that they will be rewarded with more peanuts. Some may choose to run on the wheels longer than others for additional pet massage time, even if they cannot really understand why the establishment would value the powering up of one additional lantern (pet massages are of high perceived value to hamsters in case you are wondering). These are the hamsters who will leave when the establishment has no more food, or when another locale has better food (for the sake of argument, hamsters have freedom of movement).

And if hamsters somehow get the idea that they will still be fed without running on the wheel, they are sorely mistaken. Firstly, there will always be hamsters who are willing to run on the wheel, even if they are originally guinea pigs from another locale. Secondly, hamsters that don't perform on the wheel as they should will be replaced by new, hungry and, dare I say, more cost-effective ones. In this sense, hamsters who skive don't really bother the establishment; things will thus carry on regardless. Asking hamsters for their opinion is simply for (mutual?) entertainment.

Lady hamsters (please take this tongue-in-cheek as guy hamsters are not known for being exceptionally tactful) do not have much of a struggle compared to their male counterparts. The dissonance between peanuts and freedom tends not to apply as much to lady hamsters. For this group (in general), the game plan is to run as steadily as one can, raise a few baby hamsters, and gently lobby for as equal number of peanuts as guy hamsters when the opportunity arises. And if this means teaching newly-formed hamsters the (economic) value of being one, so be it -- they are not known to be particularly argumentative, except when having a discussion with their guy partners ;-)

Having covered the local situation, let's turn to hamsters abroad (hopefully I'm not stealing your thunder, Wayne!). Perhaps local hamsters view them with envy, that somehow there ought to be more peanuts 'over there', and wonder why they cannot have the same where they are. Perhaps overseas hamsters view local hamsters as weak and dependent, and may occasionally return to cause a minor mess to the establishment (through their droppings perhaps). Neither is desirable, because when a burglar enters to steal valuables (hamster food included perhaps?), the hamsters will scatter. Which self-respecting hamster would stay in a place where there are no peanuts?

I believe what the establishment needs are not so much hamsters (yes I know they keep one can warm at night -- don't try this, seriously, SPCA is watching!), but a Jack Russell Terrier (JRT). JRT's are intelligent, resourceful, observant, cute, quirky, and yes, some of them can be rather loud at times (JRTs call this 'an independent streak').

However, JRT's are fiercely loyal to the cause, not only because they do have ample dog food, but more importantly because through *interaction* with the establishment over the centuries, a mutual understanding of substantial meaning between the two has been reached. It is said that JRTs are among a select breed of dog that intimately understand facial, vocal and kinesthetic cues of humans, so much so that even before trouble strikes, the JRT alerts the owner. And rest assured that when burglars attempt entry without the establishment being around, JRTs rally to the cause, and battle tooth and nail to ensure its turf, even if they are next door exploring the next place to bury their favourite bone.

These are increasingly uncertain times. Eighteen months ago it seemed that there were plenty of peanuts to go around. Hamsters are sorely ineffectual during stormy seasons. If the establishment truly wants to safeguard this island's shores, get a JRT, and treat it like one i.e. no peanuts please!


Thanks for your hamster analogy. Not much to add to that very interesting analogy but I wonder if overseas hamsters might actually help to propagate a sense of belonging and empowerment to the ruling masters, rather than trying to change the status quo back home? If the hamster's cage and the master becomes one and same in the eyes of the hamsters, does yearning for one's home cage means supporting one's home masters?



Thank you for your kind words.
To address the second query first, hamsters yearn for a return when they perceive that 'the outside' doesn't have sufficient peanuts/pet massages/etc. for their well-being -- it is ingrained in their DNA.

As with most analogies, the moral of the story is mostly left unsaid lol... but I suppose a little hint will not hurt.

Suffice to say that with the current spurt in advances of biotechnology, opportunities for genetic engineering (either sponsored or accidental, or both) are possible for hamsters who tire of being such, whether these be local or overseas ;-)

Hi Wayne

I enjoy tremendously the bopianness packaging. So bopianness is a choice for participation, made for pragmatic reasons where benefits outweigh the costs. In fact, it is hard to imagine a situation where participation or collaboration is because the costs outweigh the benefits. Bopianness is also tied to the "lack of interest for the alternative".

I suspect there is a subtle but significant difference between a lack of interest for the alternative and believing that there is no alternative. There is something worse than bopianness, which sums up the latter belief which is almost frighteningly fatalistic. It is lanlanness and the feeling that there is no alternative yet to the current regime, if we are talking specifically about choice of political parties and not their policies etc. At the GE level, how do we tell if Singaporeans are generally down with selective bopianness or lanlanness?

Every election since 1959, the ruling party has dominated. Their dominance and lack of "successful" challenge by others suggest more that Singaporeans think they are stuck with lanlanness rather than bopianness. If the alternative is "never good enough" for so long, it is tantamount to there being no alternative.

Lau Ah Pek


Hou sei bo? I am not an expert on the historical linguist of bopianess vis-a-vis lanlanness but it would be interesting to trace their development over time.

Could lanlanness be a form of everyday resistance (or sheer lazyness) rather than a form of every form of collaboration? Or are both the different sides of the same coin?

Well, in a sense do you agree that, one has alternative in Singapore if we restrict the term of participation to direct forms of collaboration?

Hi Wayne

All's good! Christmas is coming after all.

True, lanlanness and bopianness in the end might be all semantics. :) Still on semantics and spectrum, if I read it correctly, sure, I agree largely that participation is the grey area between collaboration and resistance, and there is space for an alternative despite participation.


Hi all,

As much as it makes sense to be going with the flow, so to speak, what we need is some sort of check which the PAP in itself is not able to provide. Take, for example, the recent budget debates. What we need is a strong enough resistance, without affecting the economic and social stability of the country.

Hence, political education and more visibility of the opposition would be called for.

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