Subjugation in Disguise : False models of multiculturalism and reconciliation


Singapore is often cited as a success story of multi-culturalism, Westminster modeled democracy and free-market capitalism. It is likewise projected by Western establishments as a model for pluralistic existence in the troubled regions of the world. Incidentally the city-state republic is situated in one of the most significant strategic locations in South-East Asia; the Malacca and Singaporean straits, through which a large portion of the Indian Ocean sea trade fares through.  Some illumination of the contextual backdrop for Singapore’s multiculturalism and international legitimacy will be fruitful in providing insights into contemporary geopolitics in the Indian Ocean region. Lee Kuan-Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, earned the appraisal of the free-market world during his thirty years reign in Singapore. This period marked an integral economic and defence connection with the U.K. and U.S.A., transforming Singapore into one of the foremost economic hubs of the free market world.

The utopia of Singapore
The Singaporean state has constitutionally recognized the language of the principle ethnic-national groups making Mandarin, Tamil and Malay official languages beside English. While accommodating linguistic rights, the Singaporean system curtailed other dimensions of collective political rights. In terms of the economic system, characterised by authoritarian capitalism, the lower and working classes of the various ethnic groups were structurally disadvantaged in contrast to the elites due to iron hand suppression of labour rights. Such a system and the geostrategic significance of Singapore secured a foreign investment based economic boom as experienced by South Korea, which along with Singapore has been lauded internationally and hailed as ‘Asian Tigers’. It is not an unheard phenomenon that multiculturalism is garlanded by corporate media and much of the economic powers of the world as long as it remains a component of a free-market system and accommodative of geopolitical interests of these establishments. International laud and capitalist growth does not imply the existence of institutionalized equality between various nations and peoples within a given territory and political entity, and neither does Singapore provide a democratic model to resolve vexed national questions and structural oppression. It also lacks the mandate to impose political solutions driven by the geopolitical interests of its masters on oppressed and deprived nations and people.

Lee Kuan-Yew’s death in early 2015, were marked with commemoration by various leaders of the established international community. He was also hailed among the Tamils, in Eelam and Tamilnadu alike. It is necessary to stress that homage to the statesman of Singapore from an oppressed peoples’ perspective should be refined to his constitutional policies regarding linguistic and ethnic rights which sought to facilitate co-existence between principle ethnic groups in Singapore. Tamils should in particular be wary as the Singaporean state in collaboration with South Africa is presently involved in promoting a so called ‘transitional justice’ sans prosecution discourse among Eelam Tamils as an undemocratic means to resolve the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka. A memorandum known as the 'Singapore principles of 2013', signed between the Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera and certain diaspora Tamil organizations attests to the involvement of Singapore in a Western orchestrated and South Africa led international process to blunt the national political struggle of Eelam Tamils. The memorandum is a manifestation of an ongoing process facilitated by NGOs and government officials from South Africa, Switzerland and Norway in herding Eelam Tamils towards accepting ‘national’ reconciliation, within unitary Sri Lanka, inherent with structural inequalities and deprived of the right to self-determination. Such a discourse is also aligned with the US sponsored reconciliation process for Sri Lanka witnessed at the 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th UNHRC sessions in Geneva.

Both the transitional justice sans prosecution approach and the US sponsored Geneva discourse, conveniently overlap  with the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Sri Lanka’s own domestic formula to resolve Tamil grievances. The LLRC deploys the false rhetoric of 'multiculturalism' and 'pluralist co-existence' in order to negate Tamil nationhood and right to self-determination while undermining the structural oppression faced by Eelam Tamils. Refusing to accommodate Tamil national aspirations towards national, territorial and linguistic equity, the LLRC denies the existence of any such collective aspirations in the first place. Instead the rights of Eelam Tamils are diluted in order to suit the South African 'truth and reconciliation model' as a solution, which is redesigned in favour of the Sri Lankan state and the geopolitical interests of western powers. Such a model reinforces the legitimacy of the oppressive unitary character of Sri Lankan state as it does not recognize the state perpetrated genocidal conditions that solidify the structural inequalities faced by Eelam Tamils. Moreover, the Tamils are told to re-conceptualize their basic collective demands, and urged to abandon their fundamental democratic expectations concerning national, territorial and linguistic equity in order to accept ‘national’ reconciliation and co-existence within a unitary Sri Lankan state.

Linguistic, Territorial and Ethnic/National rights in Multi-Ethnic countries

In multi-ethnic countries whether of a capitalist or socialist system, if linguistic, territorial or national equality among principal ethno-national formations is absent, it is a country inherent with internal contradictions and ailments spawning oppression of various forms.  To ensure synchronization of these three principles of equality, it is imperative to structurally ensure self-determination and secure the sovereignty of the various peoples who make up the demography within a given territory.

History has proven that large states which harbour such conditions of inequality and discontent, despite holding military and economic power will inevitably collapse. In the case of former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, although the various minority states accepted domination of the Russian or Serbian language for decades, they opted to secede from the union instead of standing together in facing a crisis contributed by processes of globalisation engineered by the West. These factors increased internal and external pressures leading to the disintegration of the Yugoslavia and the USSR. Today in various regions of the world, with the exception of Asia, multi-ethnic countries which harbour numerically significant national-ethnic formations are either federalised or have disintegrated into smaller nation-states exercising self-determination.  The countries which have failed to grasp the principle of national equity and rather opted for national oppression in the name of unity have developed into fascist and even genocidal states- prime examples being Sri Lanka, Burma and Indonesia. These countries have secured the international communities’ legitimization not by virtue of democracy or equality amongst the people, but due to their adoption of free-market and neo-liberal economic policies, and by accommodating the geo-political interests of various world establishments.

If multi-ethnic political entities aspire for national integration it follows that ethnic/national, territorial and linguistic equality must be institutionalized and given the means to be practised. Any territorial, ethnic and linguistic inequality leads to chauvinism of the dominant group within a multi-ethnic political entity. Institutionalized forms of chauvinism terminate potentials for multi-ethnic coexistence and sow the seeds of national oppression and ethnic conflict. Capitalism and free-market economy only serves to enhance such oppression by reinforcing structural inequality and internal contradictions. The multi-ethnic political entities which have placed the language of the dominant group above others in the name of national integration such as India should learn from the historical dialectics of the world through examples of the above mentioned. However this is not a phenomenon confined to the third world or Eastern Europe. In the West, in multi-ethnic countries such as France, Belgium, Great Britain and Spain, the cultural hegemony and political dominance of the French, English and Spanish speaking elites have led to internal crisis. Hence the suppressed nations within these territories such as the Corsican, Flemish, Irish, Basque and Catalonian have mobilized to protect their linguistic, territorial and national rights in order to defend against collective discrimination and oppression.

(To be contd)

Read part II - Subjugation in Disguise II: Trading justice for 'reconciliation'


Athithan Jayapalan is a student in social anthropology and studied in Oslo and Pondicherry universities. Born in Jaffna, he currently lives in Oslo, Norway.​