Thursday, January 26, 2006

Confucianism in Singapore

From a Singapore Angle
has an interesting post on Confucianism.

The question of communitarianism is quite a thorny one. I've often thought that communitarianism works better the more homogenous the society. Quite a lot of the old Arab traditions - consensus, equality, sharing - are quite communitarian in nature, and when Arabs were more alike each other they worked really rather well. Then oil came along and created quite stark divisions of wealth and power, and communitarianism became a way to paper over the cracks of inequality and relations of power.

The argument in Asia is similar, but what intrigues me particularly about Asia is that the population is much less homogenous than it is in individual Arab countries. Singapore is very much a mixed society, what with Indians, Chinese and ethnic Malays; China itself is an empire whose populations have been more or less assimilated - though there are still noticeable tensions around the peripheries. To a greater extent than is the case in the Arab world, communitarianism in Asia requires the use of an image of an archetypal citizen whose history is shared amongst all the real citizenry.

It all rather reminds me of growing up in Singapore. I remember there was a campaign to promote the use of Mandarin as the official Chinese dialect, and advertisements encouraging parents to be less demanding and more nurturing of their children's academic careers. All blatant social engineering, and all wrapped up in a reassuring communitarian bow. Rather than the ideal type being a charismatic individual, the ideal type was diligent, thoughtful and responsible, and cared about the people around him or her. That, of course, in a country where press freedom was limited at best. That's before even moving on to China, which I won't talk about more because I simply don't know where to start.

I look at the Arab world and I don't see a communitarian national spirit, actually. There's a lot of individualism and a lot of standing on other people's faces - particularly those of the poor immigrant bastards dying out there on the scaffolds in the blazing sun, in the Gulf. The main communitarian ideal seems to come from tribal links and wasta, though that seems to have been corrupted, thanks to oil, into nothing much more than the horribly materialistic and clientilistic badgering of well-placed uncles for well-paid jobs doing nothing. Only in the most deprived areas of the Arab world - the slums of Egypt and the Occupied Territories - have communitarian movements actually gained political clout, and their imagined community is primarily the umma, rather than any ethnic/national grouping. But that's besides the point: the point is that only in extreme circumstances in which groups of people are actually all in the same boat does communitarianism seem to stick in Arab societies.

And now politicians are talking about how communitarianism could revive Western politics. I'm a little concerned about the implications of that. The liberal democratic system emerged out of vicious struggles in heterogenous societies. Western democracies have all had their revolutions, civil wars and bouts of bloodletting: the systems that they have developed are designed precisely to prevent further bloodletting and to preserve a status quo in which no one side has conclusively won. For the Western world to adopt this communitarian ideal would be to choose one of the competing visions of the 'good' life and to hold it up as an obligatory standard for the rest of society.

Hmmm.... Not very conclusive this. I think I need to think more and return to the subject. But right now I have to go write some articles.


Anonymous talasim said...


3/2/06 16:15  
Anonymous collounsbury said...

Hey mate, need to see you back in the Aqoul pit.

Re the obs., hmm as usual the Maghreb feels different.

There is a substantive reflexion to be made on Khalije vs other patterns, and perhaps comparision w Asia. Sadly ignorant I am about Asia.

17/2/06 07:55  

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