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"Disciplined nation" : youth as subjects and citizens in Singapore, 1942-1970s Liao, Edgar Bolun


This dissertation applies insights and concepts from French philosopher Michel Foucault and the historiography of childhood and youth to provide new insights about state-society relations, power, nation-building and state-formation in post-1942 Singapore. During the formative decades of Singapore’s transition from a British colony to an independent nation-state between the 1940s and the 1970s, a diverse group of people in Singapore, Japan, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, came to equate the children and youth of Singapore with the past, present, and future of the island-city. Accordingly, they made the proper upbringing, policing, and mobilization of Singapore’s youth a key aspect of governance. At the same time, they exploited the polysemic and flexible age-demarcated category of youth as a technology of power to manage democracy, dissent, diversity, and difference in Singapore. This emerging cultural politics and political rationality of youth in Singapore between the 1940s and 1970s led to the emergence of a youth-conscious and youth-centered Singapore disciplinary state — a state that employs an extensive apparatus of disciplinary institutions, programs, and agents that sought to shape, regularize, homogenize, and regulate young people’s subjectivities and conduct. This was done to incorporate a diverse and divided population into productive and supportive relationships with the state and economy. In particular, the Lee Kuan Yew-led People’s Action Party (PAP) government that ruled Singapore after 1965 valorized youth as simultaneously the potential pillar and potential peril of the new nation-state. This dualistic way of looking at the young warranted increasing adult and state surveillance over, and intervention into, the everyday lives and upbringing of the young. It legitimized the devotion of attention and resources to young people’s development and empowerment and their policing and regulation at the same time. This resulted in both inclusionary and exclusionary, positive and negative impacts on young people’s ability and freedom to exercise control over their lives.

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