Chua Jun Yan, Yale graduate in history, recently interviewed me about my book, Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity. He has uploaded the interview on Soundcloud, which also contains interviews with other scholars in and of Singapore. In this interview, we talk about how the book project came about, its interdisciplinarity as well as its significance to Singapore today. Also some musings on academic life in general and why critical thinking is more important than ever. Thanks, Jun Yan, for reaching out and being such an intrepid knowledge-worker – at his age, I spent most of my time plotting how to not do guard-duty.
One important segment tripped me (once again!) – Why should we care about this fiction of “progress without crisis”? I wanted to say too many things all at once, some in response to what other readers have said about the book, and some my own attempt at rearticulating what I had written in the book.
“Progress without crisis” is my critical reading of Marina Bay Sands. It relates generally to how this building and its urban context has been carefully curated to erase all ideological and symbolic contradictions. The site materializes and performs a historical consciousness that is smooth and linear, as if the nation is this fully-formed subject of history that marched from Third World to First World upon independence. This is not to say that there is no sense of crisis in Singapore’s ruling ideology or nationalist historiography – there is plenty. However, crisis is often folded into a metanarrative of progress, becoming part of its ideological sustenance. Hence, we are often reminded of our vulnerability as a way to dramatize our success and exceptionalism. Also, I am more concerned with the material and aesthetic expression of this historical consciousness in the form of Marina Bay Sands and its urban context. Let the political scientists and theorists debate about ideology and structure.
This critical reading of Marina Bay Sands opens up a way of doing history, which forms the bulk of the book. I did not look back into the past simply to write a counter-narrative to this fiction of “progress without crisis”, as if focusing on the marginalized and suppressed aspects of our past will somehow free us from this spell. Rather, I look back into the past to understand why we continue to believe in this fiction, and continue to perpetuate it in these ways. It is the second limb of this question that guides the historical investigation – the specific techniques developed over time to tame the problem of something as intractable as gambling. It is the laws colonial administrators created to control the Chinese secret societies, the calculus casino managers invented to link data to gambling psychology, and the rituals of the public lottery draw choreographed to defuse gamblers’ passion. Gambling becomes a lens through which we learn about what society hides from itself – not in the form of some grand philosophical or sociological theory, but in these concrete techniques of control that are still very much with us today, albeit increasingly invisible and ubiquitous.
Why should this matter? Well, I think we will all be better off if we can ask, with some equanimity and dispassion, “What do we hide from ourselves?” Don’t you think?