Chua Beng Huat
|Chua Beng Huat|
|Sub discipline||comparative politics, Asian culture|
Chua Beng Huat (simplified Chinese: 蔡明发; traditional Chinese: 蔡明發; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Chhoà bêng-hoat) is a Singaporean sociologist. He is a Provost Professor at the Department of Sociology at National University of Singapore (NUS), and concurrently the Cluster Leader of the Cultural Studies in Asia program at the Asia Research Institute (ARI). Until mid-2015, Chua headed the Department of Sociology at National University of Singapore.
Chua did not have an early start in social sciences or humanities. Instead, he studied Biology and Chemistry in his undergraduate years. In the 1960s where college campuses in North America were fertile ground for counterculture, his involvement with student political activities made him realize that he did not have the right personality for natural science. He headed to York University, Toronto, to take up Environmental Studies in 1970. A year later, he switched to Sociology and received a M.A and a PhD.
On whether his lack of an undergraduate degree in Sociology posed an obstacle in his graduate years, Chua remarked, “Probably it was a blessing in disguise. I think if I had done undergraduate degrees in Sociology, I would have sort of glossed over lots of important theoretical readings, feeling that I already know them. Because I didn’t, I read most of the classic texts during my first year in the M.A program. That probably was foundationally the most important thing that happened. I find that with that kind of grounding substantive fields are fairly easy to take up and put down. After twenty five years, I still think that is true.” 
Chua’s emphasis on the theoretical over the substantive is evident in his PhD dissertation. Written at a time when an understanding of how reality is socially constructed was just beginning to emerge, he used the Preliminary Report of the Canadian Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to analyze how government reports are written such that they are demonstrably democratic. It was a phenomenological, ethnomethodological and interpretive piece that exposed mechanisms by which democracy is made visible in texts.
“I could have written on reports on crime or whatever because the substance was not important. The really important issue is the production of democracy textually in government reports because government reports, in whatever field, urban planning or deviance or policing, must not be seen as biased in any particular way. It was the processes, procedures and practices – how to manage information that was coming into the report – that was important to me. Specifically, I was not interested in anything substantive. I was only interested in the practices of how one actually uses the structure of the text so that it would appear to be unquestionably democratic.” Commenting on his dissertation: “One of the interesting things I think most people don’t realize is that those kinds of ethnomethodological work can actually be used for social change. Knowing how reality is put together is to know, at the same time, how it can be deconstructed. If you know how reality is constructed, then you know how it can be changed.” 
Shortly after his graduate studies, Chua taught at Trent University, Ontario for about seven or eight years. In 1984, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) offered him the Director of Research post. He returned to Singapore and took up the position. He began to stray away from wholly theoretical work and focused on writing critically about Singapore as well, including writing a weekly column in the national newspaper, The Straits Times, for one year. As he explained, “Once I came back to Singapore, to a certain extent, what happens locally politically gets personalized. I feel not just the responsibility but also the right to be critically analytical of a society to which my own life is embedded. In that sense, I kind of changed from being an academic to a more public intellectual; in Canada, I was basically an academic whose concerns are of conceptual and theoretical questions of how to do sociology.” 
His knack for scrutinizing the workings of Singapore society and his insistence on doing so publicly did not go unnoticed. Within a year, he was fired from his job at HDB for his critical writings of Singapore politics. He joined NUS afterward, and has been there since 1985. The turn of events did not make Chua ease up on his public assessments of social reality in Singapore and beyond. In fact, it freed him of the constraint of being a civil servant and his research and writings expanded into more areas.
Current research interests
One noteworthy work in the area of comparative politics in Southeast Asia is his discussion of communitarian politics. He asserts that liberalism and democracy do not necessarily have to go hand in hand in Asia. With nationhood being a new phenomenon and liberalism lacking deep historical roots in much of Asia, he questioned what other values instead of those of liberalism might be promoted in these regions, and analyzed dynamics that surround construing national ideologies in communitarian terms. In this way, he revealed how social practices in parts of Asia disrupt the global hegemony of liberalism. In Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore for instance, a book that radically reoriented the analysis of politics in Singapore, he demonstrated that the undisrupted reign of People’s Action Party (PAP) was based on its ability to develop and maintain a Gramscian sense of ideological hegemony, since the mid-1970s, rather than on authoritarianism. This ideological hegemony had enabled the Party to shift towards the concept of ‘Asian democracy’, an attempt to supplant liberalism with ‘Asian’ communitarism.
In the area of urban and housing planning, Chua has made inquiries into the uniqueness of public housing in Singapore, with it being neither an investment and consumer good in a free market, nor a social right as in socialist nations. In Political legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore for example, he shows that the success of its unique public housing system, which guarantees a home for all citizens, is a fundamental contribution to the ideological hegemony and thus legitimacy of the one-party state in Singapore.
By the mid-1990s, as the capitalist economies in East Asia developed, Chua turned his attention to popular consumer culture. This resulted firstly in editing, Consumption in Asia: lifestyles and identities, a volume in the Routledge New Rich in Asia Series. This was followed by the attention-grabbing neon pink book Life is Not Complete without Shopping. Playfully drawing its title from a 1996 National Day Rally speech by the then Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong, this book explored how Singapore’s social reality is constituted in an environment steeped in global consumer imagery. In it, he wrote about bodies, food, clothes and movies, diverse activities like hanging out at the town centre McDonald’s, riding the escalator at Ngee Ann City, a major shopping complex, and looking at price tags at Prada came together as analytical objects.
By the late 1990s, Chua became increasingly interested in Cultural Studies. He became a founding Co-Executive Editor of the journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. With financial support from the Asia Research Institute at National University of Singapore, where he leads the Cultural Studies in Asia Research Cluster, he organized conferences and workshops in related topics and themes. Edited volumes, such as Political Elections as Popular Culture and East Asian Pop Culture: analyzing the Korean Wave, are results of these workshops. With these organizing and publication efforts, he has helped to develop a research community of scholars who are engaged in analyzing Asian pop music, film and television dramas.
Chua is an avid supporter of the arts. He was the Artistic Director of a multi-disciplinary group show SENI in 2004, and served on the Board of Directors for FOCAS, a now-defunct not-for-profit publishing initiative that primarily concerned itself with contemporary art, politics and social change in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Presently, he is on the International Advisory Board for the Asian Film Archive (AFA) and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Temenggong Artists-In-Residence, a centre for artistic exchange and residence in Singapore.
''Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore, NUS Press.
Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture, Hong Kong University Press.
Life is Not Complete without Shopping, Singapore: Singapore University Press.
Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore, London and New York: Routledge.
Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, London and New York: Routledge.
(with Arndt Graf) Port Cities in Asia and Europe, London: Routledge.
(with Koichi Iwabuchi) East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
(with Kuan-Hsing Chen) The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader, London: Routledge.
Elections as Popular Culture in Asia, New York and London: Routledge.
Communitarian Politics in Asia, London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.
Consumption in Asia: Lifestyles and Identities, London and New York: Routledge.
Singapore Studies II: Critical Survey of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Singapore: Singapore University Press.
- ‘In Conversation with Prof. Chua Beng-Huat’, International Sociological Association E-Bulletin, No. 7, July 2007, p. 39.
- ‘In Conversation with Prof. Chua Beng-Huat’, p. 40.
- ‘In Conversation with Prof. Chua Beng-Huat’, p. 41.
- ‘In Conversation with Prof. Chua Beng-Huat’, p. 42.
- ‘In Conversation with Prof. Chua Beng-Huat’, International Sociological Association E-Bulletin, No. 7, July 2007, pp. 54-55.
- Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (London and New York: Routledge, 1995)
- Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore (London and New York: Routledge, 1997)
- Life is Not Complete without Shopping (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003)