There is no doubt that the runaway success Hollywood movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is the flavour of the season. The frothy concoction celebrates love that cuts across man-made boundaries of class and is an unabashed, unapologetic celebration of riches and glitches of Asia and ‘Asianness’. The setting of the movie, Singapore, has, by default, shone a light on itself and Asia—with some merit and a pinch of salt.
Of course, a Hollywood movie it is—an equivalent of a Karan Johar potboiler that seeks to entertain and not proselytise. Besides the fact that it is not a martial arts movie, there is spiffy charm in the all-Asian cast, an eye on ‘Asian-American’ ethos (as opposed to American; there are an estimated 20 million Asian-Americans in America), has introduced ‘Singlish’ as well as a sleek sophisticated (but narrow) ‘Asianness’ that is not ‘western’ by any stretch of imagination to a global audience. The glitter of the film draws attention, too, on Asia’s billionaires, the largest in the world with China, India, Hong Kong and Japan leading the pack. The omissions in the movie, however, are food for thought.
But first the storyline, which is a quintessential Bollywood love story. Rich boy loves girl—but the girl in the picture is not poor in mind, spirit or pocket. Rachel Chu (played by Asian-American actor Constance Wu) has been raised by a single mother and has ridden the ‘American dream’ of opportunities and mobility. Rachel is a self-effacing economist dating Nick Young, an Asian-Singaporean (played by British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding) in New York. Nick wants to take Rachel ‘east’—all the way back home to Singapore, where he is slated to be the best man at a friend’s wedding. What Rachel does not know is that Nick is ‘Asian royalty’, the scion of the (fictional) ‘Young’ business family—a family as rich and as wildly dysfunctional as they come. Predictably, the stage is set—even within the ‘Asianness’ of the context (an Asian-American dating an Asian-Singaporean)—for a clash of class and culture.
It all begins with Rachel’s first brush with Singapore at the state-of-the-art gleaming airport of butterflies, orchids and edgy art installations—that makes her think that JFK (airport) is ‘salmonella and despair’ in comparison—to her red dress (red is a lucky Chinese colour) being ticked off by a Singaporean friend who instead offers her something trendy, to Rachel mistaking Nick’s amah (nanny) as the matriarch of the family. Nick’s family, especially his elegant mother who went to Cambridge, but one who can pack in as mean a dumpling as words, thinks of Rachel as nothing but a flouncy upstart, an individualistic American who ‘can only think of her happiness’, barely attuned to calling of Confucian filial obligations where the individual’s context is the family. Rachel, in turn, is bewildered by the display of money and hierarchy.
Predictably, for all its drama, the movie ends on a sweet note, where love conquers all.
What makes a young Singapore (1965) different from other parts of Asia is that it is, much in the manner of America, built by immigrants who have shaped a unique Singaporean identity. Singapore is multicultural, where besides the Chinese majority (showcased in the movie), Indians and Malays make up a quarter of the fabric, many being part of the ‘Merdeka generation’ of the 1950s and 1960s that built the nation. Many of the Malays chose to stay in Singapore. Unlike neighbouring Malaysia, where ‘bumiputera’ (native Malaysians) has resonated in an ugly manner in the political landscape, Singapore’s achievement—be it the National Pledge (1966) ‘one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’ or the successive ‘housing mix’ policy (in public housing which has prevented ethnic enclaves)—has been racial integration.
Surprisingly, Singaporeans—Indians and Malays—are glossed over in the movie, to the sore point of invisibility. Certainly, the appearance of two turbaned (Sikh) security guards at Nick’s residence does little to address racial stereotypes that it seeks to take on in the first place.
Again, for all the ‘Chineseness’ of the movie, Singaporeans may have Chinese origins but are not Chinese. Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong has said as much as ‘…we are multiracial and we are not a Chinese society…’. In fact, recent relations between Singapore and China have had their moments. In 2016, China impounded Singapore’s armoured vehicles in Hong Kong en-route from Taiwan, and, in 2017, excluded Singapore from the inaugural Belt and Road Forum which was attended by 29 heads of states and governments, many from Southeast Asia. The media in China attributed this to ‘Singapore’s stand on the tribunal ruling’ (in 2016) on the South China Sea dispute involving the Philippines and China. There was friction in 2017 when Singapore’s ministry of home affairs (MHA) cancelled the permanent residency of a Chinese-American academic based in Singapore on grounds of being an ‘agent of influence’.
As for economic prosperity that the movie suggests, how has Singapore kept its economic boat buoyed? Sociologist Chua Beng Huat (described in Singapore as a ‘critical lover’ of Singapore) partly credits Singapore’s ‘state capitalism’—one where sovereign wealth funds and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have worked well as safeguards against financial crisis (for example, in 1997), generate social expenditure and have kept intervention by multilateral institutions at bay. Singapore’s redistributive ‘state capitalism’ restated ‘land for all’ as ‘public housing for all’ and floated a popular ‘co-payment’ scheme for health, which buoyed the legitimacy of the People’s Action Party (PAP, 1954).
The movie skirts poverty and inequality which many Singaporeans such as writer Cherian George and civil rights activist Constance Singam otherwise articulate. But in a crazy way too, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a reflection on Singapore’s dramatic transformation, from an ulu (backward) port-island of kampongs (villages) and marshes to its reincarnation as a financial centre of skyscrapers. Inevitably, its journey takes us back to the times of one of Asia’s most understated of leaders—Singapore’s grand patriarch Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the man who despite his idiosyncrasies and controversies that surround him truly founded modern-day Singapore—where every raintree, every flyover, every taxi that upholds the integrity of the meter, and every Housing Development Board (HDB, public housing) bears his visionary imprint.
The intellectually-suave LKY did not seek popular approbation—those were not ‘social media’ days of tweets. LKY steered away from having his statues carved, posters put, and streets and public policies named after him. LKY’s legacy is Singapore’s transformation—a timely reminder to ‘strongman’ leaders in Asia of the power of transformational leadership and, conversely, of the absurdity of the personality cult.
Beyond the chaff of class, riches and the fluff, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ comes across as a reminder of the possibilities and choiceful learnings from Singapore’s economic transformation.
The writer is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. (Views are personal)