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The making of Singapore sociology: Society and the state.

The making of Singapore sociology: Society and the state. Edited by TONG CHEE KIONG and LIAN KWEN FEE. Singapore: Times Academic Press in association with Brill Academic Publishers, 2003. Pp. iv, 467. Index. doi: 10.1017/S0022463405290185

This very useful collection is an unusual contribution to what is sometimes called the 'sociology of sociology'. Internationally, few surveys exist of national sociologies and their origins, growth and characteristics, and--with the possible exception of India--even fewer of Asian sociologies. Singapore sociology, however, is an accessible field because of its relatively recent history and compact size yet substantial output; most of the latter is in English, making it available to a much wider reading audience than, say, Thai or Japanese sociologies. The collection in question consists of an editorial introduction charting briefly the founding and development of Singapore sociology, mostly as embodied in the work of the Department of Sociology at the University of Singapore and its successor, the National University of Singapore, and introducing the content matter of the individual chapters, most of them by colleagues of the editors in the aforementioned department. In fact, the book is really a history of that department and its in many ways remarkable output, as little systematic attention is given to work that came out of the old Nanyang University or other institutions in Singapore including the polytechnics, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies or even the local theological colleges, or from the pens of unaffiliated individuals such as local architects.

The editors have chosen, in what I find to be both an outdated and intellectually unnecessary way, to divide the book into two sections headed respectively 'Modernization' and 'Modernity'. While it is true that a great deal of earlier sociology in Singapore was concerned with and utilized the now very dated paradigm of modernity (and its associated notion in Singapore of 'nation building'), it is very unclear why for example the section on medical sociology amongst others is assigned to the 'modernization' category while religion, crime and the permanently central issue of ethnicity are classified under 'modernity'. In fact, all these themes have always characterized Singapore sociology (and medical sociology as such is amongst the later comers and did not exist as a sub-discipline in the country until quite recently). Regrettably, the notion of modernity itself is given a very simplistic definition and nowhere (especially in the introduction) is there any wrestling with the complex nature of debates on modernity, or the question of how the modernity of Singapore precisely highlights both the society's lack of postmodernity and how this is and has been reflected in the national sociology.

This said, the individual chapters that deal variously with the sociology of development, urban sociology, the sociologies of education, the family, medicine, work, class, religion, language, crime, ethnicity in general and the specific issues of the three major ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays and Indians) provide excellent and well documented surveys, supported by useful although necessarily selective bibliographies of each of these fields. These substantive essays document both the expansion of empirical work and the theoretical developments and limitations of the local sociology, working within a globalized discipline yet deeply caught up in a political environment that constantly imposed (and no doubt still does) expectations and restrictions on what could or can be actively researched or written about. The very derivative nature of development sociology, for example, illustrates these constraints and the national agendas that have since the 1960s provided both the opportunities and the limitations on the directions of sociological work. Nevertheless the book shows a vibrant and productive national sociology at work, much of the output of which has been of global standards even when focused heavily on very local themes.

Indeed, in some ways the book is too modest and is caught perhaps unwittingly in the very modernist paradigm around which it is structured. Singapore throws up many larger comparative questions: of urban sub-cultures in a highly modernized but clearly Asian city state, the key question of class and how it might relate to understandings of class both in the theoretical literature and elsewhere in Asia, of the possible status of Singapore as a global city, and above all of social and cultural life under conditions of soft authoritarianism. In this collection, however, these issues are seen as being only of local interest. Singapore sociology, as I know from experience, is very cut off from other regional Southeast Asian sociologies, and while this book admirably documents the huge productivity of Singapore-based sociologists, both native and expatriate, and does much to combat the historical amnesia in Singapore of which it rightly complains, it also illustrates some of the directions in which a creative Singapore sociology might go: towards a greater globality, a firmer grasp of theoretical debates on the international scale, away from its preoccupation with methodologies, especially those of a very positivist kind, and with more consideration for the alternative voices that fall outside of institutionalized Singapore sociology.


Sophia University, Tokyo
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Author:Clammer, John
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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