‘Unanticipated’ cosmopolitanisms: a view from private degree students in Singapore

By Yi’En Cheng, DPhil Candidate

During fieldwork in Singapore, between 2012 and 2013, I interacted with students at a local private institute that offers a range of tertiary educational programs leading to the award of degree, diploma, and professional certificates. One major faction of students whom I encountered was Singaporean youths in their twenties studying for a first degree through the institute’s ‘global education’ arm, where overseas degree programs from partner universities in Australia, North America, and the UK are being administered. In one conversation with a group of these local students, Kit told me, “Maybe we are considered a heartland university, for ordinary people like us who are not the elite and smart enough to get into better universities, but also not so rich we can go overseas to study.” “Actually we study the same thing as students in, say, London and Australia, so maybe the only difference is we don’t get to physically immerse in their cultures,” Jack added. Elson responded to Kit in disagreement, “Actually we are not that heartland leh. Our education is quite globally-oriented, and we also have a lot of international students in our campus, just that mostly are Asians.”

The students’ experiences of the campus as simultaneously ‘global’ and ‘local’, including the contestation over what is meant by ‘heartland’ and ‘international’, raises important issues about transnationalism, im/mobility, global-ness, cultural diversity, and class division. While these issues are distinct and may be separately explored, they also coalesce around the notion of cosmopolitanism understood as a form of openness that is performed through various sorts of mobilities (including those arising from consumerist objects), symbolic competencies to navigate difference, and a willingness to engage with alterity (Skrbis and Woodward, 2007).

In this blog entry, I train the analytic lens on cosmopolitanism, in part due to its particular construction as the counter-discourse to that of ‘heartland’ in the context of Singapore, to explore those imaginaries, identities, and sensibilities among local students that are ‘cosmopolitan’. Specifically, I highlight some ways in which students perform cosmopolitan sensibilities that are counter-intuitive and unanticipated in the dominant imagination of the ‘cosmopolitan subject’ in contemporary Singapore.

Singapore-style cosmopolitanism 

Cosmopolitanism in contemporary Singapore is highly engineered and deeply embedded in the logics of neoliberal economic globalisation, privileging people who possess elite educational capital, social networks, and embody global mobility. The term ’Cosmopolis’ was first introduced in 1999 to fashion Singapore in the image of cosmopolitan ideals, drawing on the language of culture and sophistication, as well as that of multiculturalism and social diversity (Yeoh, 2004). ‘Cosmopolitans’, within the state discourse, are those who possess an international outlook that helps them navigate work and adapt to different cities in the world. If cosmopolitans are characterised by their mobility, high educational level, and flexibility, then ‘heartlanders’ – the counter figure to the ‘cosmopolitans’ – refer to those majority who tend to be rooted, study and work locally, and are concerned with more parochial issues such as everyday livelihood rather than participating in sophisticated activities (Ho, 2006). The purported parochialism and local-ness of the ‘heartlanders’ has its origins in the preceding term ‘heartland’, which first appeared in 1991 on the main local newspaper to describe the public housing neighbourhoods, including those “local tastes, small businesses, and something more homespun” in contrast to the high-end upmarket areas in the city centre (Poon, 2013, p.562). In describing current-day cosmopolitanism in Singapore, Yeoh (2013, p.102) eloquently summarises,

“national narratives on cosmopolitanism (as formulated by Singapore’s political elites operating in a highly centralised system), while they draw selectively on cosmopolitan imaginings of the colonial past and build in highly contradictory ways on the multi-racialism of post-independence times, are constructed with an eye on the future. They are much more part of state-imposed projects to purposively ‘cosmopolise’ the city and its people to ensure its place amidst a global future than sensibilities that emerge from the tumult of Singaporean society.”

Indeed, this form of strategic cosmopolitanism that seeks to include racialised (officially categorised as ‘Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other’), (hetero)sexualised, and economically productive (‘foreign talent’ and ‘skilled labour’) bodies through a narrow construction of multiculturalism and diversity has been widely criticised in existing studies (Ho, 2011; Poon, 2009; Oswin, 2012; Ye and Kelly, 2011; Yeoh, 2004; 2013). The highly selective and exclusionary nature of Singapore style cosmopolitanism has since been described by local journalist Asad Latif as “cosmopolitanism which extends upwards, not sideways” (quoted in The Straits Times, 14 May 2001). Through these writings, we gain much insight into the limits of state-endorsed cosmopolitanism. However, they reveal rather little about how cosmopolitan aspirations  are produced ‘from below’ from the viewpoint of local Singaporeans. 

Ho’s (2006) work on Singaporean citizens negotiating notions of belonging through the state-construct of the ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘heartlander’ binary offers some clue to the existence of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ (Appiah, 1997) among local youths (between 18 and 30 years old). She highlighted that for these people, instead of “being distinctly ‘cosmopolitan’ (global) or ‘heartlander’ (local)… the global and the local dissolve into closely related versions of each other” (Ho, 2006, p. 391). In Chen’s (2014) study on how Singaporean teenagers (between 15 and 17 years old) perceive cosmopolitanism through their citizenship curriculum, a ‘cosmopolitan’ is strongly associated with international mobility such as studying in overseas universities, working in ‘global cities’ in the west, and living a lifestyle of the global elites. Her work reveals cosmopolitan imaginations amongst the young in Singapore are strongly informed by the hierarchical ordering of ‘global’ privilege, education, and work under the state’s vision of a ‘cosmopolis’, rather than the counterpart curricular message around ‘staying local’ and ‘taking roots’.

But in these works, attributes of cosmopolitanism are often discussed with reference and limited to state-led discourses and projects of cosmopolitanism, and we are left with a restricted knowledge about what ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ (Werbner, 2007) might entail for these locals.

‘Unanticipated’ cosmopolitanisms 

The idea of cosmopolitanism as rooted in a sense of the ‘global’ all too often privileges the western modernity, framing conventional forms of cosmopolitan identities and sensibilities through the lens of the ‘west’. As Kang (2012) argues, cosmopolitanisms can be made in and through the image of the ‘Asian global’, whereby the everyday issues related to ‘global’ connections, encounters with difference, and diversity are fashioned by ‘global-yet-Asian’ agendas. Elson’s (introduced at the beginning of this article) intimation that “we also have a lot of international students in our campus, just that mostly are Asians” provides one way of instantiating this notion of the ‘global-yet-Asian’. From this perspective, private degree students are not only engaging with and learning about cosmopolitanisms from the space of ‘transnational education’, which arguably confines students’ imagination of the ‘global’ to ‘western’ forms of capital, ideas and images. Elson elaborated later in that conversation,

“We have students from Thailand, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, where else? I have seen a few angmohs (‘westerners’) but not many. But ya, our international students are mainly Asians but that doesn’t mean we are less international. Maybe we don’t really hang out or mix with them, but they actually add vibrancy to the campus quite a bit, like they have cultural performances and other activities.”

For Elson, the campus in and of itself is a ‘global’ space even if this is against a backdrop of mainly Asian nationalities. An interest of note is also the way the Asian diversity is contrasted with the representation of non-Asian nationalities with a singular category of the ‘westerners’. While he admitted there are limited interactions across these nationalities, he nevertheless acknowledged their contributions in transforming the campus into a more vibrant and diverse space. This to me is an expression of willingness to interpret and appreciate cultural difference and globalisation for its non-western particularities, and hence constitutes the banal cosmopolitan sensibility that pushes away from its normative underpinnings.

Private degree students also redefine cosmopolitanism by bringing in some ‘unexpected’ forms of ‘localised’ cultural competencies to help them navigate difference. 

The first kind of competency has to do with the mobilisation of ‘insider’ knowledge about Singapore as a local. Some of the students whom I spoke with were or have been part of the orientation programmes to assist fresh international students to settle down in Singapore. One such student is Jack. He told me, “I enjoy making friends with international students, showing them around the island, telling them where to find nice Singapore food, the history of say Singapore River. It’s a good ice breaker for me and the students.” As an orientation leader volunteer for two concurrent years, Jack drew on his ‘insider’ knowledge about the urban fabric of Singapore, including local foods and places, to help ‘break ice’ between the international students and him. In a way, he is also transforming those international students into ‘cosmopolitan’ subjects as they too learn about Singapore as a culturally different place.

The second kind of cultural competency derived from the ‘local’ is in the form of ‘street-smartness’. This differs from Jack’s use of ‘insider’ knowledge in that being ‘street-smart’ entails an element of immersion in local networks that goes beyond simply ‘knowing’ about places. Instead, it is about the ability to navigate the city as an urban dweller and cultivate relationships with local actors (Woronov, 2011). A student called Tai, who went to a vocational college, but later on took up a diploma course at a polytechnic, and now paying his own way through the degree education at the institute, is an exemplary embodiment of this kind of cosmopolitanism. He told me,

“After ITE (vocational school), I took up a job and worked for two years. Then I went to polytechnic to do a diploma in technical engineering. After that, my boss encouraged me to do a degree. He’s a very nice guy, I still work for him up till now. I’m the sort of person who learn about the world by ‘venturing around and toughing it out’.[1] I’m not very good at studying, but I find my own ways around, maybe I take a longer time, but I still get here.”

Tai described himself as a resourceful young man who espouses a rugged form of masculine attitude towards life. This, however, is not the same ‘rugged masculinity’ that promotes individualism but stresses the skill to build relationships. He takes the ‘local’ as his ‘world’ (as opposed to local-as-parochial), prides himself as a vagabond who navigates the local space, ventures around to build local contacts, and learn to overcome obstacles by toughing it out. In doing so, he continues to expand his sense of ‘worldliness’. This self-forged subjectivity of ‘worldliness’ is also reminiscent of the one that is espoused by middle-class male students in Jeffrey’s (2008) work, which may indicate a degree of ‘masculine resourcefulness’ key to such cosmopolitan imagination. Nevertheless, this deeply ‘localised’ and ‘immersed’ form of cosmopolitan is perhaps the most ‘unanticipated’ and ‘antithetical’ to the Singaporean state-led strategic cosmopolitan, who is cushioned by elitist cultural capital, a dense network of ‘global’ contacts, and a mobile lifestyle that can take them to any part of the globe.

Concluding thoughts  

Relatively fresh ideas about cosmopolitanism are emerging in recent geographical writings. They have adopted a more practice and performance oriented approach to theorise cosmopolitanism as sets of cultural repertoires or resources differently available to people from across a range of contexts and social backgrounds, thereby overcoming the problematic confinement of cosmopolitan identities and sensibilities to exclusive circuits of powerful actors. Such ‘ordinary’ or ‘vernacular’ forms of cosmopolitanism are not only grounded in the everyday experiences of ordinary, non-elite people, including what they eat, learn, and dream about (Bishop, 2011; Miller, 2008; Yeoh and Soco, 2014), but also constitute the discursive and practical resources for them to manage and negotiate emergent, everyday issues related to ‘global’ difference and diversity (Gidwani, 2006; Kothari, 2008; also see Jeffrey and McFarlane, 2008).

By exploring these non-normative “actually existing cosmopolitanism” (Robbins, 1998), this entry highlights the creative and emergent dimensions of cosmopolitanism. If we accept that cosmopolitanisms are cultural repertoires, rather than (pre)dispositions that are either held or not held by individuals, then new relations to the world and sensibilities of ‘openness’ can emerge in our (researchers’) own cosmopolitan imagination. Even if these cosmopolitan performances are not counter-hegemonic or ‘revolutionary’ in their current styles, they do offer alternative versions of cosmopolitanisms that are counter-intuitive and unanticipated by the western-centric and corporatist framings of the ‘cosmopolitan subject’. It is in this way that we might begin to appreciate a more expansive ‘cosmopolitanism’.

[1] Original Chinese phrase used was chuangdang jianghu (闯荡江湖).

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