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After Lee Kuan Yew: Repositioning Singapore Studies - Sponsored by Southeast Asia Council (SEAC)

Sat, April 2, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Washington State Convention Center, 6th Floor, Room 604

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel


Much of Singapore's international image has been closely intertwined with the Republic's first Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015). Lee’s commitment to political stability, a centralized state, and to economic development has been associated with controversial policies and positions. Singapore’s noted transformation from a “third to first-world nation” drew admiration and criticism from within and without over the intensity and character of state integration. Lee’s dominance in domestic politics and governance, as well as his prominence on the international stage, has shaped how observers have come to understand and interpret what Singapore is about.

This personification of Singapore in Lee and the discourse it generated obfuscated local complexities, varying experiences, and the country’s connections to Southeast Asia. Singapore’s official self-identification as a global city reinforced this distinctiveness by branding itself as more similar to New York and London than the Malay/Southeast Asian world in which it is situated. This singular perception of Singapore as an extension of Lee has limited the depth and breadth of mainstream discussions about the Republic.

This panel repositions Singapore Studies by reconnecting it to its broader Southeast Asian context. It challenges official representations and mainstream critiques of Singapore by questioning the categories, narratives, and boundaries through which the city-state has been understood. Individually, the presenters offer different disciplinary, theoretical and institutional perspectives that complicate the study of Singapore. Collectively, they promote a vision of Singapore Studies that recognizes differences within the local setting and its interconnectedness to broader Asian contexts.

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