When I came across Agamben’s conceptualization of bare life, I thought of how applicable it is to a wide range of Singapore’s policies. Agamben conceptualizes bare life (zoé) as distinct from political existence (bíos), thus creating a gap between the natural existence and the legal status of a human being.
Bare life has since been applied to a variety of contexts; for instance, bare life has been applied to Indian governance by Gupta (2012) and Corbridge et al (2005), who demonstrate how various actions by the state reduce citizens to statistics on paper (e.g. through census enumeration) and exert power over life and death (e.g. choosing who receives a food ration).
I began thinking about the ways in which bare life could be applied to some of Singapore’s policies. Broadly described as a paternalistic state, the Singapore government has micro managed the population in a variety of spheres with the stated aim of leading a ‘third world country into the first world’.
One of the earliest set of policies was initiated after the racial riots of 1964, a year after independence, that left 23 people dead and hundreds injured. The new government was conscious of Singapore’s status as a small, new city state, and feared that racial strife would tear apart the new nation. A number of policies were put in place to actively inculcate racial harmony, for example:
- The government was building public housing estates for the population – known as HDBs, over 80% of the resident population now lives in HDBs. The government instituted a racial quota within HDB blocks, forcing different races to live together as neighbours; the aim was avoid racialized clusters of housing, that have emerged in other countries such as the United States.
- Singapore has a National Service scheme, wherein young men are conscripted into the army for 2 years; this was also viewed as an attempt to instil racial harmony by ensuring that young men live and work at close quarters with those from other races and backgrounds.
I argue that while these racial harmony policies (among other policies), combined with a strong state presence, have been effective in curbing explicit racial strife, it also reduces the Singapore citizen to his bare life identity. On official documentation, Singaporeans are registered as one of four categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other (this is known as CMIO). (Note, however, that racial strife does erupt from time to time, such a minor riot in Little India in 2013, described by a past student on this very blog: https://unrulypolitics.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/the-inexistent-the-homo-sacer-of-singapore/).
2013 riots in Singapore. Image credit: http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2013/12/riot-singapore
The state’s attempt to classify citizens into neat statistics, and thus dictate their housing and army allotments, among others, has come under fire in recent years; with immigration and inter-marriages, a growing segment of the population no longer fits neatly into either of the four buckets.
Another aspect of life in which the state reduces citizens to bare life is through the intersection of family planning and housing policies. The government has made no secret about being pro-family and pro-child birth; the state has had numerous policies over the years to stem declining birth rates.
Government housing blocks (HDBs) in Singapore. Image credit: http://dollarsandsense.sg/price-guide-hdb-bto-launch-february-2017/
One of the most interesting ones, for me, is the not-so-subtle push towards marriage through the housing scheme. A bit of background information – although a private housing market exists, it is significantly more expensive to buy a private flat than a government (HDB) flat; combined with an expensive rent market, this means that most Singaporeans live at home with their parents until they can afford to buy their own HDB flat. The catch is that one can only buy an HDB flat if they are married; singles are eligible for a flat only when they turn 35.
Conversations with some of my classmates and friends in Singapore revealed how deeply this policy shaped personal decisions. I recall a conversation with a Singaporean boy, who said he wanted to have his own home by the time he was 28 years old (he was 22 at the time of this conversation). He calculated backwards and said – “Well, there’s a one year waiting list for the HDB, so I’ve got to get married by 27, I want to be engaged for at least a year, so I need to get engaged by 26; I’ve got to date my wife for 3 years, so I have to meet her when I’m 23. So I need to find my future wife in university this year.”
Through a combination of these policies – there are many more which I’ve not touched on in this post – the Singaporean government in essence reduces individuals to their bare life existence, shaping their personal experiences in profound ways.
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Corbridge, S., Williams, G. Srivastava, M. and Véron, R. (2005). Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gupta, A. (2012). Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.