Relocating Malays: housing biographies, the State and multiracial nation-building in Singapore
Mohammad Miharja, Nurhidayahti Binte
Singapore prides itself in being a model and world-class multiracial nation in which over 80% of its residents live in good public housing. Through a very particular system of ‘ownership,’ 90% of public housing residents own their flat (Housing Development Board 2020). The state’s unusual degree of control over urban space across the five decades since its founding has determined the social location of housing. Singapore first began as a developmental state, later becoming a property state where public housing residents were regarded as clients of the state, and where, given the current extent of public housing, (re)housing has increasingly acted as an important socio-spatial praxis of state-led capitalism (Shatkin 2014). Singapore’s housing achievement is viewed more impressive because there is no stigma attached to public housing. Yet a sustained housing hierarchy remains, and crucially overlaps with Singapore’s socio-ethnic stratification. There has therefore been a core tension at the heart of the state’s multiracial nation-building: whilst the government recognises and makes a virtue of the multiraciality of the nation-state, majoritarian priorities have nevertheless characterised Singapore’s evolving nation-building project for more than half a century. One consequence has been the continued marginalisation of its socio-economically more disadvantaged Malay community. This study thus asks: can we understand the state’s housing policies over the past 50 years as instruments of both multiracial nation-building and state-led capitalist development – and with what consequences for those most socio-economically disadvantaged, the Malays? In exploring housing policies directly through the experiences of Malay residents, I chart the spectrum of experiences of those who lived the sharp end of Singapore’s nation-building housing policies. I do this methodologically through the innovative use of ‘housing biographies.’ As I deploy it here, this is a form of narrated history of a person’s housing life with the aim of seeing how structural realities, at the site of constrained agency, are embodied in individual housing lives. Additionally, I contextualise these housing biographies with a variety of historical data sources: newspapers, census data, policy documents, land lot history, maps and photographs. On the basis of in-depth housing biographies exploring the history of five Malays aged 50 to 81, I tell the story not only of their housing lives, but through them that of Singapore’s state-driven capitalist nation-building from its founding in 1965 to the present. Following an empirical contextualisation chapter, the thesis comprises three substantive chapters. Chapter 4, Lives in Housing, explores Malays’ understanding of redevelopment and their own relocation. It shows that Malays are displaced socioeconomically and emotionally through social, political and legal impositions. Chapter 5, Developing the Multiracial State, considers the early relocation policies on the Southern Islands beginning in 1959, which turned the Malays into a political minority and cultural diaspora in the Malay-majority region. In transforming the Southern Islands into a leading oil refinery centre, the fragmentation of the predominantly Malay population in the area spatially consolidated the multiracial nation-state. Finally, Chapter 6, Revitalising the World-class Nation, looks at the present relocation policy known as Selective En Bloc Redevelopment (SERS) and at its operations in Tanglin Halt. I show how this new step in ongoing ‘universalist’ relocation policy, this time associated with clearer state fostering of property-mindedness(Haila 2017), has impacted and has been experienced by the Malays. Here, I find that the culture of property-mindedness as it exists within the larger discourse of housing as an infrastructure for social mobility, functions to support relocation. The main substantive finding is that although each period correlated with a different subjectivating logic – seen in how relocation policies were experienced and justified over time – majoritarian nation-building remained the overriding logic guiding housing policies. I have retrieved neglected voices that attest to the mismatch between the equalising discourse of housing policies and the inequalities suggested by their relocation experiences. The equality mandate espoused by the state’s housing policies misrecognises the very diversity that is acknowledged by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. And in doing so, it reproduces social hierarchies and inequalities. Yet, there is a relative silence around inequalities especially in housing because the majoritarian nation-building project is shrouded in a powerful ethos of social mobility. On this basis, I argue that Singapore’s commitments to multiracialism and social mobility act as cloaking devices because they allow the misrecognition of underlying differences, hierarchies and inequalities. Universalist housing policies misrecognise racial inequalities and therefore perpetuate a form of majoritarian nation-building. Multiracial-meritocratic housing policies, which are synonymous for social mobility in Singapore, paradoxically continue to (re)produce class and cultural stratifications.