isop: christmas as usual

christmas as usual

by suiyi tang

lately, life in singapore has taken a turn for the skittish. the holiday season may have started elsewhere in the world, but here, in the island of multistory malls and infinite shop stands, things remain “business as usual.” with efficiency as its motto, life continues as it always has, leaving no room for the exception of holidays. in a week, an island of post-colonial christians will take pause for one day to sing praise for the birth of a white messiah.

outside neoclassical steeples, it is the commerce of christmas that demarcates the “where” and “when” of the foreign holiday. hoards of tourists descend upon singapore for end-of-year vacations, while local queer bars begin to invite sartorial expressions of “ho, ho, ho.” the iconography of christmas presents itself in purely commercial terms—a larger than life “jesus of nazareth” lego showcase in the tang’s department store, framed by gaudy string lights that spell out snowflakes in the pouring rain. There is an indelible sense of incongruence as brown and yellow masses sing for the salvation of their colonizer’s God. it seems that, here, christmas is a faith of its own--you can only see it if you believe. of course, there are more capital ways to mete out the boundaries of “holiday,” a fact that remains true almost everywhere else in the world. but even then, with revenue signs decking the halls, “christmas” is but an opportune moment willed into reality.

if christmas is a story we tell ourselves, i have reason to doubt the indelible nature of faith. aged six, at evangelical sunday school, i learned it is not enough to “have” faith; one must direct her faith toward some end. forgiveness from the Son; punishment from the Father; protection from the Holy Spirit. as if in an ahistorical tango with malleable signifiers of the abusive nuclear family (Father, colonizer; Mother, helpless native; Son, the neocolonial heir), colonial christians learned their rulers’ exegesis, understanding Why and How they must submit, lest they be damned. where the Father of Man could be the sole beacon of hope, he was also the fist of damnation, demanding death and conversion; prayer for equality amidst hierarchy of the Most High.

this is the mobius strip of (post-)colonial christianity. a circular logic of submission which is both “faith” in pursuit of some higher ideal, and “faith” for the sake of faith. “faith” to change the world, but only if the process is never-ending, because incompletion is central to the deprivation that fuels the engines of christian faith. singapore began as a trade port and was colonized for its geopolitical advantage. while christianity founded on a rhetoric of shared prosperity and fraternity can naturally unravel the colonial project, missionaries dispatched to the little red dot made sure that there was no easy way out.

mandates of fraternity became not just an ethical aspiration to brotherhood, but a requirement of supplication meted under the pretense of cooperation. weaponized as part of the colonizer’s system of knowledge, christianity produced unquestioning obedience and powerful mechanisms of social discipline. no longer a half-hearted effort toward salvation, “faith” became a tool to actualize belief in the colonial project. “faith” normalized the realities of british domination, so that closed-eyed supplicants might be ushered toward the only end possible: business “as usual.”

no amity existed along equal lines between the masters of christian faith and their yellow practitioners.

colonial architecture laid with the rhetoric of prosperity and fraternity can be a means of subversion against domination, but when the tenets of fraternity are not just an ethical aspiration but a requirement to the maxim of prosperity, the colonizer’s system of knowledge must produce “faith” as a tool to actualize belief. “faith” as a means which ushers its closed-eyed supplicants toward the end: business “as usual.”

not long ago, i attended a viewing of the film “1987: unraveling the conspiracy.” an hour-long interview with seven former prisoners of the singaporean state, the documentary detailed the torture, censorship, and surveillance employed in pursuit of a fictitious “marxist plot” of insurrection. since the foundation of independent singapore in 1965, the ruling People’s Action Party has reserved the right to detain citizens without trial to protect the “security of the state.” which is to say, the PAP reserves the right to use all force necessary to protect the means-posing-as-ends: forced harmony, unquestioning fraternity, business “as usual.” what the young activists and parochial social workers at the center of the 1987 “plot” failed to understand was that the singaporean state, too, required a faith from its citizens. “faith” in service to “the common good,” but only if faith supports the means (of indoctrinating a belief in singapore’s continual “progress” under an oppressive chinese hegemony) without challenging the ends (a decidedly regressive “production” served by the exploited labor of cubicle farms and migrant workers).

in this economy of supplication, the state must do all it can to maintain the alienation of fact and fiction. but what are the costs of faith, tepid as it may be? perhaps it is best put by a taxi driver i had the privilege to meet: “in singapore,” he told me in chinese, “you can’t starve, but you’ll never be full either.” at an average income of 3,500 SGD a month (excluding a 30% compulsory monthly deduction that goes into funding housing, healthcare, and retirement needs), the average singaporean makes just enough to cover her living costs, with little to nothing left over for savings. but mass availability of public housing ensures that, with a forty-year loan, one can secure a room to call his own. the wide offerings of affordable street food promise safety from starvation while a well-oiled public sector provide transportation and education. it is “bread and circuses” built into the system. in exchange, one surrenders to the call of work for work’s sake, and a safety net with one too many holes than meets the eye.

where the fiction of faith is upheld on paper, the truth of the matter is that singaporean capitalism’s social net is far from secure. in hawker centers all over the island, elderly employees do the blue-collar work of serving food, washing dishes, and cleaning bathrooms. outside, they push levies filled to the brim with collected cardboard and plastic bottles. by the estimates of economics professor ng kok hoe in 2011, nearly six in ten elderly singaporeans made below a living wage—and that number has only gone up. the perils of old age bespeak the trajectory of a working life spent earning just enough to make ends meet.

with costs of basic necessities supplemented by public services, the social contract is a temporally mediated one where vulnerability is the natural condition. the carefully balanced (if paradoxical) spreadsheet of earned rights is fed by a transactional logic between mechanistic labor and the government. but where a system of faith requires productivity in exchange for life, suspension of disbelief begins to crumble as bodies, broken by age, turn from bare life to barren. the presence of thousands of working elderly poor illuminates the fictitious contract of wage labor. alienation completes its cycle thus—while disposed bodies bleed the ink of the social contract, the island progresses without them.

this does not even begin to describe the invisible lives of singapore’s 1.3 million migrant workers. under the 1965 constitution, singaporean citizenship is acquired jus sanguinis (see footnote), with a selective naturalization process that favors the white-collar-skilled. because of limited resources, singaporean citizenship maintains its value as a space of exception. “rights” are strategically denied according to market calculations, extracting maximum labor force from the population. singaporean citizenship occupies a position of currency in singaporean “founding father” lee kuan yew’s biopolitical economy of never ending growth. bengladeshi, mainland chinese, and filipino migrant workers, are kept at arm’s length from a share of the wealth they generate by what anthropologist aihwa ong has called “a hybrid mix of regulatory and incarceral labor regimes.”

look no further than between the wooden cracks of the nearest construction site, or behind the curtains of the upper middle class singaporean household, and you will see brown bodies who will never earn enough to be deserving of the rights of citizenship. free will, some may say; survival of the fittest, others may harp. “inevitable social progress” is usually associated with “market civilization.” but in the case of the singaporean government, constructing a network of global capital that connects the city-state with external sites of technological, investment, and construction industries create a system of subjection and subject-making that imports maximum productivity while exporting minimal payoff. a flawed rubric, even within the confines of a transaction. precariously hung on the tenets of second class “citizenship” and the coercive circuits of global capital, migrant workers chafe under the exploitative terms of survival. in turn, they harvest the crop of a post-colonial empire.

the national spirit of singapore seems to be one of movement. onward, sang the trade ships which courted its docks; onward, declared the Queen, keep the sun from setting; onward, shouted the people, from the shadows of colonialism. over, and ahead shot the singaporean economy, again and again, creating a national myth of acquisition and “progress.” from trade port to colony to independent capital: majulah, singapura. but of what freedom is movement when its converse, stillness, was never an option for those who do the work of pushing? the colonial prowess of “great” britain once developed an elaborate system of faith that coerced its subjects into a contract of servitude. even after the coffers had been closed and the system of colonial domination condemned, the same levers and pulleys which powered the imperial machine remain. the drudgery of production now serves a different god: with a cylindrical head and yellow U’s for hands, the Lego nativity stands in the corner tang’s department store on orchard road. but where the glass windows end and television screen cuts off, it is no longer clear who this new, plastic god is saving, or who He is saving us from.

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footnote:

jus sanguinis: right of blood citizenship, wherein one or both parents must be of singaporean descent. As opposed to birthright citizenship, wherein birth on national soil grants automatic citizenship.

suiyi tang