Bare Life in Singapore

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:


2013 riots in Singapore. Image credit:

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.

BTO-FlatsGovernment housing blocks (HDBs) in Singapore. Image credit:

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.


Unruliness in a Game of Thrones

game-of-thrones-power-rankingPicture credit:

The beginning of the Unruly Politics course in January coincided with another milestone in my life: I finally sat down and read A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF), the series of books written by George R. R. Martin which inspired the hugely popular TV show, Game of Thrones (GoT). Despite being a huge fan of the TV show (I used to host weekly viewing parties for the show), I had never gotten around to reading the books.

With the juxtaposition of these two events during the same time period, I couldn’t help but read the books through the lens of the various Unruly Politics theories I was learning at the same time – and I confess I bored my friends (sorry Catrin!) to death by talking about the books non-stop.

Given that Martin took inspiration from medieval English history, it isn’t surprising that much of the events in the books mirror real life and can thus be looked at through the lens of Unruly Politics; the beauty of fiction mirroring real life, for me however, is that the author gets into character’s heads to explain their inner thoughts and actions. To go on a tangent here, while reading about medieval history (or any history in general), accounts tend to focus on the big and powerful players – kings, queens, ministers and so on. The nobody man barely figures in these accounts – but he did play a large role in Martin’s books, which is why I saw unruliness on virtually every page of the books.

On a side note, the TV show did not flesh out the ‘nobodies’ and unruly actions as much as the books did – I recall reading an interesting commentary about an episode in the latest season (‘The Door’) which portrays a puppet show put on by commoners about the royal family, and the commenter says that it was the first time on the TV show that the TV audience understood how commoners perceive the royal family.

While there were many details in the books that tied in with Unruly Politics theories in my head, I’m putting just a few salient ones down here – apologies to those who have not read the books or seen the TV show and have no idea what I’m going on about!


Portrayed by Scott (2009) as members of society who live on the margins, often choosing to live on the margins themselves, to avoid being governed. This closely parallels the Wildlings (or Free Folk, as they call themselves) north of the Wall in the GoT universe, who reject hereditary political authority and refuse to kneel before any man. They follow a different set of laws from those living south of the Wall, and organize their society according to clans, freely choosing their leaders.

When I read Scott’s (2009) piece on Zomia, a number of parallels leapt to mind: those living north of the Wall parallel those living on the hills; both groups are coded as ‘barbarians’; the Night’s Watch south of the Wall attempts to pick one negotiating partner (Mance Rayder) in an attempt to have a negotiating partner; and finally, perhaps most importantly, the Free Folk choose to continue life on the margins, refusing to kneel before the king even under the threat of death from the White Walkers.

Game_of_Throne_Season_5_06The Wildlings. Picture credit:

Hidden Transcripts:

This was by far the theoretical framework that I saw repeated most in the books; it is telling that Scott (1990) draws extensively on novels and plays to frame his theorization about masks and hidden and public transcripts.

The books consistently portray scenes and events in which masks drop and hidden transcripts burst through; the biggest perhaps being (Queen Mother) Cersei’s walk of atonement, wherein she was sentenced to walk naked through streets in atonement for her sins. The common folk took great pleasure in pelting her with food and other items; the scene in the book portrays this as going beyond disgust for her ‘crimes’, as an opportunity for the common folk to drop their masks and express their displeasure with the royal family. Martin later revealed that this scene was loosely based on the penance walk by Jane Shore, mistress of King Edward IV.

Another scene that closely mirrors this is the Riot of King’s Landing, where hidden transcripts burst out because of dissatisfaction over commoners starving in the war while the royal household continues to feast lavishly; the royal procession is attacked by an angry mob; the High Septon is killed, and others attacked.

While there are many more parallels, the last one I wish to highlight is how Varys cleverly taps into hidden transcripts to cement his own political power; through the books, he is portrayed as the one character who knows all the intrigues and plotting in the kingdom. He does so through his band of ‘little birds’ – children he employs to eavesdrop on private conversations that reveal hidden transcripts of the various characters.

Cersei-MAINCersei’s Walk of Atonement. Picture credit:


The last theory I wanted to write about here – though many more can be applied to the GoT universe – is prefiguration. De Sande (2013) and Maeckelbergh (2011) write about prefiguration as essentially living in ways that mirror the ideal that you want revolution to bring about.

As the kingdoms descend into chaos later in the books with a complex war between the Houses, a number of outlaws run amok, inflicting havoc and violence on the countryside. However, the books offer a more nuanced view of these outlaws than the TV show – the primary group being the Brotherhood Without Banners, who operate as a guerrilla resistance movement against Lannister rule.

They create their own set of laws, seeing their primary objective as protecting the smallfolk against those who would harm them, and carry out their own sense of justice through trials against those they capture; essentially creating for themselves the kind of world they want to see post-revolution.

maxresdefault.jpgJoffrey Lannister; reviled by the commoners. Picture credit:


Martin’s books are not the only pieces of fiction that leapt to mind as I engaged with the Unruly Politics course – other notable books that came to mind were White Tiger by Aravind Adiga in the context of hidden transcripts, the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in the broader context of political oppression and resistance, and the Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard as a stark characterization of civil war and resistance (the Red Queen, in particular, came to mind when I watched a documentary on Syria last week).

Perhaps fiction is powerful tool to reflect on reality, after all.


Maeckelbergh, M. (2011) ‘Doing is believing: prefiguration as strategic practice in the alterglobalization movement’, Social Movement Studies, 10(1), pp.1‒20.

Scott, J. (2009) The Art of not being governed – an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Scott, J. C. (1990) ‘Behind the official story’ in Domination and the arts of resistance: hidden transcripts.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp. 1-16.

Van De Sande, M. (2013) ‘The prefigurative politics of Tahrir Square – an alternative perspective on the 2011 revolutions’, Res Republica, 19, pp.223‒229.

Scott, semiotics, and development

Reading Scott’s piece on Civilization and the Unruly got me thinking about the power of language used in the context of development, and how it insidiously frames our perceptions. Scott uses semiotics to describe the construction of the ‘barbarian frontier’; “the padi state…coded those who were not incorporated…as ‘barbarians’”.

This got me thinking about a controversial dam project on the Narmada river in India, which displaced thousands of families, predominantly hill dwellers classified as tribals. The case was one of India’s most politicized conflicts, with successful activism drawing the attention of international media, ultimately leading to the World Bank’s departure from the project. The dam was eventually constructed, and rehabilitation policies put in place after a long struggle.


Image Source:

Tying this back to Scott’s piece, I began thinking of the ‘barbarian frontier’ in this context, and paid more attention to the vocabulary used in state and activist discourse.

The state in its initial attempts to avoid having to provide resettlement packages coded the displaced tribals as:

  • ‘Backward poor people who live in the hills’ – framed in opposition to a World Bank Report that represented the displaced population as indigenous tribals, thus arguing that they had a historic claim on the land and were entitled to rehabilitation. The state’s argument was that they were not tribals as in the North American and Australian sense (i.e. ‘original settlers’ who had occupied the land for centuries) but rather, simply impoverished hill dwellers.
  • ‘Landless encroachers’ – this discourse stemmed from the initial resettlement package which agreed to provide land in compensation to those who had formal titles to land. By definition, this did not include the indigenous population who under the eyes of the law were illegal squatters on Forest Department land.
  • ‘Uneducated gande (backward)’ – this narrative was framed in the early days of the conflict, and used to justify why the government failed to officially notify residents of their impending displacement (most learnt of this through rumours). Officials claimed that it was pointless to inform them, because they were uneducated and would not understand anything.
  • ‘Thieves of government property’ – accounts by anthropologists and activists in the field report that even after the government officially began to hand out resettlement packages to displaced tribals (thanks to successful campaigning by activists), they were treated with contempt by officials.
  • ‘Naxalites’ (communist guerrillas) – At later stages of the conflict, this discourse was used to justify brutal violence and arrests of activists and affected people who staged demonstrations and refused to leave their homes.

The language used to frame the displaced populations was also used as a tool by activists to achieve their agenda (which was also controversial, due to misrepresentations)

  • The most controversial, and most successful NGO to be involved (the Narmada Bachao Andolan) framed the tribals as ‘Mother Earth’s children’, disseminating videos of tribals referring to themselves as ‘Mother Earth’s children’ and claiming to have a close connection with nature and the affected land plots. An anthropologist in the field (Baviskar) debunked this narrative when she discovered that the tribals had never conceptualized themselves as such, and had been instructed to use that phrase in the video; further, their way of life was ecologically destructive and unsustainable, and was not based on the notion of closeness to nature.

In brief, this is the point I wish to make – we as development practitioners, need to be aware of language, words used, and who is framing the discourse, and how the discourse is constructed.

At the risk of making this a terribly long blog post – feel free to stop reading here – I thought it might be interesting to write briefly about my former life as a market researcher/brand consultant. Some of the work I did used semiotics to construct brand identity; easily some of my most exciting projects! For instance, I worked on a project in Thailand that deconstructed the cultural meaning of water – from the origin of the word, to the use of water in religious and cultural customs, to cultural associations with water and associated language used. Unfortunately, I can’t share the end product of that piece of work here because of confidentiality clauses – but I found this image online that perfectly captures how advertisers use semiotics (note how colour code subtly cues seriousness/a sense of mortality). The semiotics of branding goes beyond advertising to include brand logos, brand identity, color combinations, brand personality and so on.

Semiotics-in-Advertising-Guns-and-Lives.jpgImage source:


Baviskar, A. (1995a). In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Joshi, V. (1997). “Rehabilitation in the Narmada Valley: Human Rights and National Policy Issues” In: J. Drèze, M. Samson and S. Singh (eds.) The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 168-183.

Parasuraman, S. (1997). “The Anti-Dam Movement and Rehabilitation Policy” In: J. Drèze, M. Samson and S. Singh (eds.) The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 26-65.

Patel, A. (1997). “Resettlement Politics and Tribal Interests” In: J. Drèze, M. Samson and S. Singh (eds.) The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 66-92.

Scott, J. (2009) The Art of not being governed – an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.