U.S. Media

Do U.S. media flows into Singapore endanger the governments “nation-building” effort by threatening Singapore’s national identity?   

Everyday, people around the world come into contact with various forms of media information, such as television commercials, print advertisements, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, etc. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, many of these media channels are mainly from the U.S. Through the power of media, brands such as Microsoft, Coca Cola or even Nike, have become staple terms in many countries. However, in the context of this particular essay, I shall discuss the effects of the U.S. media in Singapore and the extent of its influence in the way of life and lifestyles in this society and its culture. Kress suggests that all cultural practices are significant (Kress, 1988, p.10). Thus, I hope to analyze this process and relationship of cultural imperialism and media cultures to debate if it is a threat to Singapore’s growth with the influences from U.S.A. 

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U.S. Media

Firstly, we need to have an overview and recognize the discourse of culture that has been ‘popularized’ by the U.S. media. The media of the United States of America consist of several different types of communications media – television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines, and Internet-based Web sites. The U.S. also has a strong music industry which is viewed as a pop culture. The influence of U.S. media on our society has been powerful. The very term independence is developed by the U.S. and that’s why we use so many American words, things, food, habits. An example is that of jeans and how it has become a popular culture within the Asian community.

Fiske (2006) emphasized that the main power of jeans is in the negative, started as early as the sixties to act as a marker of alternative, oppositional social values. The possible meaning of torn and ragged jeans is the production and choice of the user making their own culture out of the existing commodities as an act of independence.  Another influence of U.S. culture is in movies. I will always remember the macho and handsome Clint Eastwood in the movie ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ with his cowboy hat and jeans. It is an exceptional show with its richness and originality of being a typical Western hero and to be ‘like’ that hero, we embrace it as a culture. 

There are distinctive patterns in Singapore’s society and way of life which displays the persistence of U.S. culture especially among the younger generation. This notion of U.S. influence on Singapore’s culture is ‘descriptive of the whole pattern of representations of a recognizable and coherent group of people’ (Jenks 1993, p.159). All these representations can be seen in TV programs, music, fashion, and design. Our personal repertoires do share U.S. influences – meanings and practices seen in the global spread of Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Barbie has become a norm in Singapore (Lull 2001, p.62). The internet and cable TV are also available at our finger tips. This makes it very easy for any child to get hold of any information that subtly brings the American life-style into our homes.  

Nation Building

The year was 1960 when Mr. Lee Kuan Yew started a social revolution. His aim was to make Singapore a ‘more just and equal society’. And even though men are not born equal, he believed that Singapore would benefit with more happy people if all are given equal opportunities for education and advancement regardless of class. In this new social order, the fundamental distinction is that some will become more successful even with free and equal competition (Josey, 1997).  Singapore has since progressed to become a highly developed and successful free market economy, enjoying a remarkably open and corruption-free environment, stable prices, and a high per capita GDP. The economy depends heavily on exports, particularly in electronics and manufacturing. It was hard hit in 2001-2003 by the global recession and the slump in the technology sector. But over the years, Singapore’s success depended on major nation-building themes in accordance to the People’s Action Party – Singapore’s government. There are five themes:

  1. Cultural Tradition (Education in our mother-tongue is the key to survival and advantage of being bicultural.)
  2. Diplomatic relations (The need to forge deep friendships with regional countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.)
  3. Economic development
  4. Getting young people to participate in national affairs and
  5. Increasing Singapore’s population size.

 David Chaney has argued that the ‘modern mass culture of urban industrial societies’ has become in many respects, ‘a culture of anonymity’ (Chaney 1994, p.96). Many believe that technology does disrupt cultural stability, but in Singapore, the people have grown to accept tradition with technology. Culture counts and cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people (Huntington 1996, pg.20). Singapore is an emerging nation of information and the arts. It is a stable nation because its government is resilient in areas of censorship and security. Besides the influence of Coca Cola, blue jeans, watching Hollywood movies, listening to pop music, and eating fast food; not all entertainment programs and documentaries flow into Singapore. An example is Madonna’s Confessions DVD which is banned in Singapore due to explicit and thought provoking images. This is the government’s effort to screen and release only censored information and materials to safe guard the national identity. 

National Identity

In the years that Singapore was striving to achieve economic success, the concept of a “rugged” society was espoused by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister, to extol Singaporeans to be tough and resilient, to be rugged enough to face the many challenges on the way to success. Part of the agenda of the “rugged” society concept I believe was the ability of Singaporeans to confront influences which come from all over the world, especially those which were not favorable and beneficial to building up of our nation’s identity, for example, the threat of communism in the fifties and sixties. The younger Singaporean generation today does not seem to know very much about this concept which was imposed upon the people in the pioneering years of our Independence. To them, this has become part of Singapore’s culture and belief system. It has become a norm within our society to either shun away or confront what each of us thinks is bad for our society. Between the sixties to the nineties, much of the literature written in English in Singapore concerned itself with issues of identity.

Our identity had two dilemmas: how to achieve unity in diversity and how to become modern without shedding tradition. Poem after poem, story after story, play after play, explored the many meanings of these problems, and writers felt intensely the pressures of living in a multi-faceted environment. Hence the well-known lines of Lee Tzu Pheng‘s poem (Lee 1997) add a special potency in politics, national, regional and international cultures: “My Country and My People I never understood.I grew up in China’s mighty shadow,With my gentle, brown-skinned neighbors;But I keep diaries in English.I sought to growIn humanity’s rich soil, and started digging on the banks, then saw life carrying my friends downstream. Yet, careful lending of the human heartMay make a hundred flowers bloomAnd perhaps, fence-sitting neighbor,I claim citizenship in your recognition of our kind.My people, and my country, are you, and you my home.”  

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism promotes, distinguishes, separates, and instills the culture of one nation into another. Some view the U.S. Media culture as ‘ethnocentrism’ where the belief that one’s culture is better than or superior to any other culture (Ramburuth, 1999, p.26). It’s a theory based on a western nations’ influences and domination which imposes their culture and destroys the lesser native culture. The dominant culture is usually a more economically or militarily powerful nation. Cultural imperialism can take the form of an active, formal policy or a general attitude. One main example is in the area of media where films, news or ads are produced which shows the western way of life, how they live, believe and think. The less affluent society will then watch and start to desire the same things, hence they move away from their tradition and old cultural values. The mass media affects traditions and sends messages to viewers which influence individual behaviors, opinions, attitudes and mind-sets (Hartley, 2005, p.81).

U.S. culture may be perceived as a form of cultural influence because of the huge significance and text messages sent in the form of media, especially films and movies. These news, films and movies are great influences. There are many movies which portray violence. In Newson’s report, it is a fact that media violence might make people violent (Cumberbatch, Guy, 1998). However, the Board of Film Censors (BFC) in Singapore diligently censors every movie and gives different ratings for all movies in Singapore. The broadcast TV viewer-ship in Singapore has shown that only 48.2% of Singaporeans watched Media Corp’s Mandarin Channel 8 in the 4th quarter of 2006. And a mere 14.7% watched the English Channel 5 and 3.7% watched Channel News Asia (MDA, 2006). This is an indication that half of the Singaporean population watches locally made Mandarin programs. It shows that most Singaporeans want to identify with their traditional culture. 

Global Media Cultures

Today’s rapid globalization is improving methods and systems of innovative information technologies and services. This affects lifestyles, religion, language, and every other component of culture. Much has been written about the role of information technologies and services in this process. There are U.S. telecommunications companies like Motorola, Loral Space & Communications, and Teledesic (a joint project of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and cellular pioneer Craig McCaw), which offer competing plans that will encircle the globe with a constellation of satellites and will enable anyone anywhere to communicate instantly with anyone elsewhere without an established telecommunications infrastructure on the ground near either the sender or the recipient.  

Technology is not only transforming the world; it is creating its own metaphors as well. Satellites carrying television signals now enable people on opposite sides of the globe to be exposed regularly to a wide range of cultural stimuli. A Singaporean viewer could be hooked on American soap operas, and have knowledge about the latest Middle Eastern news via CNN. The Internet is an increasingly global phenomenon with active development underway on every continent.

Blogs, TiVO and YouTube are just some of the media tools that enable any Singaporean or anyone anywhere in the world to connect to U.S. media. All these are growing interdependently because of global economies and communication technology which we call globalization (Ramburuth, 1999, p.29). The Singapore government has always engaged foreign talents to help spice up its economy.

To many expatriates, Singapore is a safe and modern environment. It is a launching pad and melting pot for many international companies to set up their regional base in Asia. With the building of the integrated resorts, casinos and amusement parks in tow; the government has modeled after Las Vegas and is now wooing foreign talents to come. In an article in TIME magazine dated June 4, 2007, it reports on how key projects will redefine and morph this city into a metropolis and change its identity. One of the two integrated resorts, the Marina Bay Sands, will cost an estimated $4 billion dollars and Sentosa Cove luxury homes cost as much as $20 million. To attract rich foreigners, Singapore even amended its property laws to allow expatriates and foreigners to secure 99 year leases. St Regis Residences, the latest U.S. based developer sold 173 units at record prices after hitting the market in June 2006.   

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew provided a road map that Singapore will be like a “tropical version” of New York, Paris and London all in one. These developments will transform the way people live and work (Kingsbury, 2007, p.16).  According to the same article, Singapore has been adding an estimated 100,000 expatriates annually since 1990 and this makes up 19% of the city’s population. Despite all these, many Singaporeans will find it threatening and anxious about losing their jobs to foreign professionals who will take the best jobs without obligations to maintain national good. There are concerns that this tiny island will one day sacrifice its national identity for economic growth. 

In conclusion, I say: Minister Mentor Lee may be right when comparing the future Singapore with Venice, London and New York; however, those cities grew not by copying other capitals. Like many Singaporeans, I do feel that we should study these great cities and know their cultures and practices, but ultimately we need to seek out what is best suited for Singapore and find our own soul and have our own identity. This is because some values held by U.S. may not necessarily work in Singapore. These values as stated by Chaney, Lillian and Martin, Jeanette (2000) may include equality, informality, individualism, directness and attitude towards the future, time and work. Like many Asian countries, Singapore holds values of belonging, harmony, collectiveness, age and seniority, cooperation, patience and indirectness. In many aspects, the U.S. Media is accepted by Singapore as long as it is not against these cultural values that already exist in Singapore.  

References 

Chaney, D. (1994). The Cultural Turn: Scene-setting Essays on Contemporary Cultural History, Routledge, London. 

Chaney, Lillian and Martin, Jeanette (2000). Chapter 3 ‘ Contrasting cultural values’, in Intercultural Business Communication, 2nd Ed. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 

Cumberbatch, Guy (1998). Chapter 19: ‘Effects’, in The Media: an introduction. Edited by Adam Briggs and Paul Cobley. Harlow, Essex: Addision Wesly Longman Ltd. 

Fiske,J. (2006). Understanding Popular Culture, Routledge, New York. Hartley, J. (2005). Communication, Cultural and Media Studies – The Key Concepts, 3rd Edn, Routledge, New York. 

Huntington, S.P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York. 

Jenks, C. (1993). Culture,  Routledge, London. 

Josey, A. (1997). Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years. Pg.120, Times Books International, Singapore. 

Kingsbury, K. (2007). TIME magazine, Singapore Soars. Pg.16-21. Hong Kong: Time Asia (Hong Kong) Limited. 

Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises, Times Books International, Singapore. 

Kress, G 1988, Communication and culture: an introduction, NSWUP, Kensington, NSW. MDA (2006). http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/resources.aspx?sid=779 Viewed 9th June 2007 

Ramburuth, Prem (1999). Chapter 2 ‘Intercultural Communication’. In Communication in business. Edited by Judith Dwyer. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

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