27 August 2015

Is Culture Necessary?

Following a most enlightening presentation at the National University of Singapore, I found myself in the company of several people from various academic disciplines who, over the customary platefuls of food which characterise any group activity in Singapore, were  eagerly discussing a point made in the presentation about multiculturalism over multiracialism.  An idea had been mooted that while the different races and ethnic groups which constitute the population of Singapore were polarised by preconceived stereotypes, it was easier to create a harmonious society through sharing cultural ties.  The principal speaker in the presentation, a former government minister, illustrated the point with a brilliant drumming analogy which, sadly, only works when seen and heard and makes no sense in print.  Our post-presentation, over-food discussion drew from me the conviction that, at 50 years of age, it was unrealistic to expect Singapore to have established any real sense of cultural identity which would be a cohesive element in a multi-racial society.  However, several around me pointed out that already there were signs at a more superficial level of characteristics which differentiated Singaporean Chinese, Malays and Indians, from those in other countries.  Agreeing to this (after all we were all sharing the same food, which is not the case with some of Singapore’s neighbours) I pushed the point that it was at a deeper, cultural level that true national identities were forged, and that despite a growing independent musical culture here, it was still a long way off being sufficiently distinct to be seen as truly Singaporean, as opposed to Chinese, Malay or anything else.  Composers such as Robert Casteels and Ho Chee Kong have certainly begun to add a genuinely Singaporean dimension to their work, but still one is seen as primarily European and the other primarily Chinese (indeed, as a shocking indictment of the lack of true multi-racialism in Singapore, Casteels is not even listed on the database of Singaporean composers held by the NUS library, despite the fact that he has been a Singaporean for the past 20 years.

Having got that all off my chest, one of our group posed the question, “Is culture necessary?”  If the population can forge a national identity through its food, its approach to littering and obeying the law, through its assimilation of a little red dot as a symbol of nationhood and through its positive celebration of racial harmony, is a shared culture not more the icing on the cake than the bedrock?  And if this is so, is not culture unnecessary at both the national and individual level?

Culture itself is such a complex issue that few people would probably wholly agree to a single definition, but for me two of the definitions in the Oxford Dictionary of English seem superficially acceptable; “the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society” and “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”.  For me, culture implies those elements which define humankind; that mixture of intellectual, natural and physical behaviours which not only differentiate human beings from the rest of the animal world, but which help define our  roots in a particular society.  For many, the more intricate and laden with assumptions of knowledge and experience a cultural landscape is, the more indicative is it of an “advanced” society.  Early Aboriginal paintings, for example, have none of the intellectual layers which went into early Byzantine art, so we are inclined to categorise the former as more “primitive” than the latter.  Whether these assumptions and labels are appropriate or even justified is one issue, but I have never questioned whether culture itself is an essential element in any society.

In that societies seem to be largely (wholly?) defined by their shared culture, clearly seems to imply that there is a need for it; and where cultures clash (one thinks most immediately of Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka where cultural issues sparked major conflicts through much of the 20th century) society becomes dangerously fragmented.  Countries owe their very existence to cultural differences, not merely ethnic nor linguistic ones, with their former cohabitees (South Sudan/Sudan, East Timor/Indonesia and, most obviously, Singapore/Malaysia), and where people have built up a shared cultural heritage over centuries, a measure of stability tends to inform their lives.

So it seems that culture is vitally important to the creation and sustaining of a society.  But is it the very foundation of that society, or is it merely the decoration and fabric of an edifice which, structurally, would not suffer by its loss?  Without culture, would society disintegrate or would it carry on albeit considerably poorer; akin to the man losing both arms and both legs yet still alive.  Quality of life is one thing, life itself is another, and I find it difficult to see culture as affecting just the quality of our lives; I really believe it to be fundamental to the creation and establishment of society. 

It follows that, while a country can comprise numerous racial groups, society itself, with all that entails in terms of social cohesion and stability, really does need culture.

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