Why aren’t we all “Cosmopolitan”?


For a young city-state, Singaporeans celebrate our “cosmopolitanism” and “global outlook” as ingredients for economic success. Yet, celebration of cosmopolitanism has also been met with pushback. Whether in sporadic bursts of public xenophobic sentiment or undertones of disapproval and mistrust in our day-to-day conversations, this apparent dichotomy requires us to examine our perceptions of cosmopolitanism itself – what is cosmopolitanism, how has conceptions of cosmopolitanism changed over time, and who shapes these perceptions?

Traditionally, scholars such as Erasmus have imagined cosmopolitanism as an ideal where all human beings, regardless of their political, racial or ethnic affiliations are all citizens in a single community, because of our shared humanity. In Singapore, the state has historically attempted to create narratives of cosmopolitanism, and linking it directly to economic success. Cosmopolitanism has been consistently touted as our comparative advantage, informing our strategic position in creative industries “due to our strategic location and cosmopolitan cityscape” (Lim Hng Kiang, 2012). Other ministers have pointed out how “our high quality of living and cosmopolitan environment have also helped to attract businesses and talent” (Iswaran, 2010). As Minister Lui (2010) articulated during the ESC Subcommittee on making Singapore a leading global city, it also seems integral to the image we want to cultivate as a vibrant international city-state with “distinctive cultural and lifestyle capital, building on our multicultural diversity and cosmopolitan connections”,

Modern cosmopolitanism however appears to be a skillfully engineered image rather than a naturally occurring state of affairs.  It is not difficult to understand the strategic agenda behind these narratives, which are meant to fashion the ideals we as a society are expected to internalize. This cosmopolitan vision presented is undoubtedly an economically-driven one, imbuing with it connotations of openness to foreign investment, free trade, and affirming Singapore’s embrace of the neo-liberal market economy. Such a vision, however, is also an inherently exclusive one. It is predicated on the mindset that Singapore’s economy is and should be MNC-led, relying on ‘cosmopolitans’ who are ‘indispensable in generating wealth for Singapore’ (Goh 1999), where our lack of inherent comparative advantage given our small size and lack of hinterland necessitates a narrow technocratic elite to drive our economy forward.

It is not surprising then that supporters of cosmopolitanism tend to be rich, highly educated, and in industrialized countries, especially when benefits of being a cosmopolitan city accrue overwhelmingly to those at the top. The “cosmopolitan talent pool” (Indranee Rajah, 2015) referred to in an “ecosystem of highly regarded professional service providers” indubitably benefits a select group. These are the owners of capital, the globally mobile, and the ones who possess the economic, social and human capital to interact with other cosmopolitan citizens themselves. For majority of the working class majority, however, being “cosmopolitan” can seem like a convenient excuse to justify the destruction of their livelihoods. They feel the global, mobile, cosmopolitan world is simply out of reach – not merely out of reach, but inimical, because the very cosmopolitan elite are the people outsourcing their jobs. Being cosmopolitan, it seems, is a privilege only the rich can afford.

While it is easy for the privileged and technocratic elite to be self-righteous and assume that the pushback is occurring from a localized minority and assume a certain moral superiority over these incidents, to simply reject these movements without understanding the underlying forces motivating them is patently dangerous – as the cases of Brexit and Trump well show. The real problems behind xenophobia are motivated from a class standpoint – marginalized workers who find themselves on the losing end of today’s hyper-mobile modern economy that has created an underclass of workers who find themselves with irrelevant skills and stuck in low-paying blue collar jobs. It is difficult to imagine all human beings as part of a “single community” when the fruits of this purported ideal seem so grossly unevenly distributed. Unsurprisingly, there has been a pushback against state-sponsored exhortations to be “multicultural” and “open to diversity” because the economic repercussions of cosmopolitanism clash so jarringly with social ideals of inclusivity.

Today’s biggest advocates of cosmopolitanism, however, seem out of touch with the realities these blue-collar workers face. “Cosmopolitans are perpetually surprised that, A, they’re only 1% of the population, and, B, most people don’t think like them.” (Michael Ignatieff, NY Times Interview) The Singapore 21 Vision launched by PM Goh in 1997 envisions Singapore as the ultimate cosmopolitan hub, and senior officials have perpetuated this ideal through constant prounouncements that Singapore should aspire to be a ‘cosmopolis’ (Mah Bow Tan, 1999), a ‘Renaissance City’ (Goh Chok Tong, 1999), a ‘global city’ and a ‘globapolis’ (Goh 2001). Yet, such tributes to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving sanctimony from Singaporeans who love Vietnamese restaurants but would never live near a foreign worker dormitory. As presented, a government-sponsored definition of cosmopolitanism could perhaps merely be a byword for privilege.

Modern cosmopolitanism in Singapore is increasingly devoted to a post-racial, citizenship-blind future carefully managed by technocrats and tempered by “compassion” and “acceptance” — all of which aims at the maximal amount of material prosperity. Such a view however only facilitates the polarization of politics, especially along class lines. As a nation, we need to redefine what being cosmopolitan means, and whether we see it as a wholly good thing. It means broadening our conceptions of diversity, and being comfortable with real difference so that “nothing human is alien to me”. We should stop promoting cosmopolitanism as a Utopian ideal, a panacea for the solutions of today’s increasingly divisive world. Instead of applying it as a band-aid for the deeply structural issues within society, we can create a more inclusive definition of cosmopolitanism together.

An inclusive cosmopolitanism is one that recognizes that globalization and its accessories bring about benefits for society at large, but comes with very real and immediate economic costs to a substantial minority, most of whom will continue to be the scapegoats for progress in today’s neo-liberal economy. It recognizes that people are motivated by more dimensions than purely ethical or moral ones, and that reactions to abstract ideals are often articulated primarily based on their impact on day-to-day life. It avoids stereotyping segments of populations who traditionally oppose the structural changes that bring about this kind of cosmopolitanism, or viewing them through a condescending lens which mainstream media so often lapses into. Instead, it sees them as equals, rather than as an uneducated or illiberal mass that needs to be educated. This does not mean legitimizing hate, or discrimination, or any other such forms of prejudice, but taking a compassionate and concerted effort to hear what others have to say without superimposing these preconceived judgments.

Arguably, as our society evolves, our definition of inclusive cosmopolitanism evolves too, particularly in whom we choose we include in this definition. The current wave of cosmopolitanism is centered on bridging the gulf between foreign expatriates and the average Singaporean. The beginnings of the second wave of cosmopolitanism are already starting to emerge – increasingly, civic groups such as Transient Workers Count Too have moved to bring migrant workers and Singaporeans closer together.

New dimensions of social justice and inclusiveness are always being formed as society develops, and the success of a cosmopolitan city depends on the people we want to include in creating this collective future.

Poh Yong Han is a student at Harvard College