My postdoctoral research grant from the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen has brought me back to Singapore, a small island I consider home. I have stayed here as a student for a couple of years. My other homes include England where I also studied, Germany where I am currently based, and, of course, my beloved Philippines where I was born and raised. Though this entry tackles my current experiences in Singapore, perhaps its implications on conducting social research will resonate with my colleagues in the social sciences in Europe and elsewhere.
For a few months now I have been interviewing young adult Singaporeans on their individual aspirations, their thoughts concerning Singapore politics and society, and the role of religion in their society today. My research institute has a broad interest in aspirations in several global cities in Asia. While this is mainly an academic exercise, my research is to a large extent a way of giving back to Singapore. Apart from benefiting from its generous scholarship grants, my sense of who I am as a person and general outlook in life today have been shaped by my interactions with local friends here. After all, I spent a good amount of my third decade in this country.
But even more importantly, my interest in the conditions of young adults in Singapore today was triggered by the interactions I had with friends and former students at the National University of Singapore (NUS). When I was a teaching assistant there, several students would barge into my office just to vent their frustrations over life in the little red dot. I cannot count the number of times students and friends have, in catharsis, cried over the pressures they were experiencing from their family and peers. To a great extent, the often-debilitating sense of competition in Singapore, buttressed by meritocracy and the kiasu spirit (fear of losing out), becomes part of the Singaporean habitus. The bureaucracy, the capitalist enterprise, and the education system all conspire to drive the Singaporean to always seek for more and distinguish oneself from the others. No doubt, this ethos of achievement accounts for this small city-state’s world-class accomplishments in business, trade, technology, and education. But its self-inflicted wound, as my students and friends would testify to, is the inescapable participation in Singapore’s amazing rat race. Even though they took a lot of my time then, those interactions led me in the end to reflect on what I could possibly do as a sociologist.
And so here I am. No longer the student, but the researcher. But the aerie of objectivity this role carries is nothing but pretension. Indeed, sociologists in recent years have become more reflexive about our presence in the field. To be sure, anthropologists have gone ahead of us in this regard, no thanks to the positivist vanity of my discipline. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the ongoing process that is my fieldwork today.
As a researcher, my main task is to extract information from my – pardon the seemingly detached terminology – informants. At least I don’t call them “cases”. In conducting my interviews, I follow protocols meant to protect my informants – informed consent, confidentiality, and what not. In following these protocols, the idea is to uphold ethics in conducting research. But in reality, it is also about extracting the juiciest information. It is, after all, such statements and narratives that will make academic publications exciting to read. From a critical perspective, therefore, confidentiality allows the informant to open up details of his or her life which sociologists like me would be happy to listen to. Herein lies the manipulative facet of research ethics.
And herein lies, too, the intrusive character of conducting social research. At one level, qualitative sociologists like me are simply asking questions. “Tell me about your work now.” “What are the biggest problems Singapore is facing these days?” “Does religion have a role to play in politics?” I ask, they answer. But at another level, the seemingly neutral and passive position of the researcher conceals the intrusive character of the very questions I have been asking my Singaporean informants. This became clear to me as they admitted that they have never thought about some of my questions, for example. And so in some interviews, there would be long pauses, as my voice recorder will remind me when I start transcribing them. Or in the debriefing phase, my informants would tell me that the interviews have provoked new thoughts or reflections in them. So to my mind, was I simply the passive sociologist I was hoping to be throughout the data-gathering stage?
Certainly not anymore. Some of my informants would carry on with the conversations by texting me the next day about new insights or questions they have about faith and politics in Singapore.
On one hand, this is a positive spin of my role as a researcher. In Singapore, a discussion of religion and politics is for the most part kept at bay since these matters are perceived to be disruptive. The short history of Singapore is unfortunately fraught with religious and ethnic conflict which has engendered the strongly secularist view of public life. Put differently, this mode of privatization of religion in Singapore is a result of the authoritative and public power of the State. My interviews have been unintentionally challenging this condition.
On the other hand, this is also a potentially dangerous development. Some of my informants have asked me to ensure the confidentiality of their statements and identity out of fear that they may be taken out of context. I do respect them and to the best of my abilities, I will pursue their line of thinking in my research without compromising their identities. Some recent turn of events concerning a megachurch and their leaders’ alleged misuse of funds and the Catholic Church and its political statements, for example, are a reminder that religious institutions are subject to State control.
In the end the onus is also on me, the intrusive researcher. On many occasions, I have left my interviews with more questions than answers. To what extent is it dangerous to be pursuing research on the lives of young adults in Singapore today? It is really alright to talk about faith and politics in one go? If I were indeed being provocative with my questions, am I not in effect rocking the boat as well? Can I detach my politics from my inquiry? And even more fundamentally, does it matter at all that I am not Singaporean in the first place?
Answers to these questions do not come easily and I am in an ongoing process of reflecting on them and remaining honest. I remain convinced, however, about the potential of my research. It is asking tough questions at a time when Singapore has to contend with social change in the form of generational, political, and demographic shifts. The active entry of opposition parties in the recent elections, for example, has been lauded for finally bringing out in the open the frustrations of the masses. Their issues have perennially concerned rising cost of living, limited housing, and what feels to be unfettered immigration. By discerning the contours of young adult subjectivity today, my study can in the end help understand this generation better. In so doing, it can help the open-minded amongst us, whether in religious institutions or the State, to better face the challenges of a democratizing Singapore. To my mind, there are only two prospects for the future: a generation that will remain hopelessly silent even if disgruntled or one that actively participates in the construction and reform of its social institutions.
I may not be its citizen (and I do not have to be), but Singapore is already home to me. And so I do care about it. Perhaps sociology is to be blamed for this bravery. Or is it sheer naiveté?
– Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, January 31, 2013