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dc.contributor.authorWong, George Boon Kengen_US
dc.identifier.citationWong, G. B. K. (2022). The secret lives of urban kampong chiefs : a political ethnography of grassroots leaders in Singapore's neighbourhood governance and regime politics. Doctoral thesis, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
dc.description.abstractWho are grassroots leaders, how are they organized, and how do their roles and practices as community leaders in grassroots politics shape Singapore’s contemporary urban governance and party-politics? With over 52,000 members spread across hundreds of state-sponsored local organizations such as Citizen Consultative Committees and Resident Committees, and a local presence in every neighbourhood in Singapore today, grassroots leaders are a ubiquitous sight in Singapore’s neighbourhood politics. Despite its empirical significance, previous studies have analysed grassroots leaders through top-down, macro-based, and formal-rational approaches. These studies regard grassroots leaders as passive subjects with the minimal agency to influence local grassroots politics beyond what has been structured through the political institutions they serve. Recently, an emerging scholarship that focuses on the middling roles and emic experiences of community actors in mediating grassroots politics has gained currency. These studies depict the vital roles community leaders play in shaping the styles of urban governance and authoritarian regime resilience. They also call for renewed inquiries into existing political actors’ lived experiences and their relationship with political legitimacy and regime durability. This study responds to the above call by examining the political formations, roles, and significance of grassroots leaders in Singapore through a political ethnography of Singapore’s grassroots sector in four neighbourhoods within a local political ward in Singapore. Here, I focus on grassroots leaders and their governing practices as they mediate state-society relations as state-sponsored volunteers. I trace the different ways grassroots leaders reproduce different forms of political and state relations through their daily encounters with other actors such as residents and street bureaucrats at the neighbourhood level that make up a significant part of everyday neighbourhood political experiences in Singapore. The study is divided into four sections. In the first section, I introduce readers to the world of Singapore’s grassroots sector from the perspective of grassroots leaders (GRLs) as they make sense of their journey as community leaders. I first examine how grassroots leaders are organized through the grassroots hierarchy based on their different motivations and pathways which stratify them into different social positions based on leader, senior, and volunteer-type grassroots leaders. These social positions shape the roles grassroots leaders assume, as well as the experiences and social expectations they encounter in the grassroots sector. Next, I share how grassroots leaders utilize various forms of capital to influence their social positions, experiences, and recognition in community participation in organizing unequal community leadership experiences and outcomes through the grassroots. In the second section, I explore how grassroots leaders frame their experiences as political actors through a historical approach. I do so by tracing the historical relations of grassroots leaders to state and party-politics in Singapore’s political history in three different epochs, paying attention to how political transformations and negotiations shape their contemporary positions as state-sponsored volunteers with longstanding associations with the PAP. In the first epoch, I examine the political compact between the fledgling People’s Action Party (PAP) government and grassroots leaders made up of “local notables” who supported the former in overcoming their loss of left-wing supporters during the late 1950 and early 1960s. In the second epoch, I look at how grassroots leaders participated in Singapore’s urban renewal through national public housing projects, which led to the diminishing of their political leverage over local communities and subsequent co-optation as community leaders. In the third epoch, I show how the contemporary political positions of grassroots leaders as agents of the state and the PAP are largely defined by the structural changes motivated towards state and party capture of these community leaders. In doing so, I show the varying political positions grassroots leaders possess, how they respond to transformations in Singapore’s political history and how these responses shape their contemporary place in Singapore’s politics. In the third section, I focus on the contemporary roles of grassroots leaders in urban governance by exploring how they reproduce neighbourhood micro-governance by playing the role of “double agents” in serving both state and local communities. I do so by explaining how grassroots leaders fulfil top-down state urban governance objectives while adapting to bottom-up local challenges in ways that unravel the ideological narratives between state and society relations. In fulfilling state’s objectives as state agents, I examine how grassroots leaders perform three types of governing repertoires, providing feedback, managing state resource distribution, and adjudicating community affairs. These repertoires reproduce local knowledge, connections, and labour which are deployed by the state to govern Singapore society through the neighbourhood. I also reveal the local challenges and tensions grassroots leaders face as they address issues surrounding outsourced governance, and the politics of consumption and representation in neighbourhood governance. In the last section, I clarify the relationship between grassroots leaders and party politics in Singapore by investigating how grassroots leaders reproduce PAP’s regime resilience. I do so by charting the varying degrees of involvement grassroots leaders are tied to through parapolitics. In the first instance, I show how grassroots leaders channel grassroots resources to support PAP-MPs’ home styles through the latter’s role as grassroots advisors. Next, I show how grassroots leaders participate as PAP-MPs’ core group members by shoring up political resources and strength for the leaders they serve. Next, I show how grassroots leaders are essential to two PAP’s political institutions – the town councils and the vote tracking system. Drawing on their emic perspective, I reveal the different ways grassroots leaders interpret and reconcile their role as state-sponsored community leaders and participate in party politics. This study achieves two objectives. First, it provides a contemporary update to grassroots politics in Singapore through the lenses of grassroots leaders’ emic experiences, revisiting existing understandings of grassroots politics by deepening previous insights while challenging others in the debate. Next, this study reiterates the strategic significance of grassroots leaders by showing how they continue to play an active role in Singapore’s politics in three ways. Firstly, this study shows how grassroots leaders’ experiences are multifaceted and are shaped by the social positions and pathways they undergo in the grassroots sector. It also shows how grassroots leaders actively recognize their social positions in the hierarchy and utilize resources at their disposal to preserve or increase their social mobility in highly unequal ways. Secondly, it highlights how grassroots leaders help the Singapore state make neighbourhood micro-governance possible by being the “roots of the state” and mediating contemporary state-society relations at the most basic levels of society. Thirdly, it clarifies the contemporary relationship between grassroots leaders and party politics by depicting how parapolitics occurs and its importance to PAP’s regime resilience. Keywords: Grassroots Leaders, Grassroots Politics, Urban Governance, Regime Resilience, Singaporeen_US
dc.publisherNanyang Technological Universityen_US
dc.rightsThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).en_US
dc.subjectSocial sciences::Sociologyen_US
dc.subjectSocial sciences::Political scienceen_US
dc.titleThe secret lives of urban kampong chiefs : a political ethnography of grassroots leaders in Singapore's neighbourhood governance and regime politicsen_US
dc.typeThesis-Doctor of Philosophyen_US
dc.contributor.supervisorLaavanya Kathiraveluen_US
dc.contributor.schoolSchool of Social Sciencesen_US
dc.description.degreeDoctor of Philosophyen_US
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