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Article Article June 2nd, 2017

Reading corner: Governing Global-City Singapore (Legacies and futures after Lee Kuan Yew)

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Governing Global-City Singapore (Legacies and futures after Lee Kuan Yew)

By Kenneth Paul Tan


In the Shakespearean tragedy, Macbeth was propelled to power through “vaulting ambition”, pride, and self-confidence. But these same qualities were also Macbeth's fatal flaws, leading to his downfall and finally his death.

In Governing Global-City Singapore, Kenneth Paul Tan suggests that Macbeth's tragedy should be a lesson to governments such as Singapore's. The country's People's Action Party (“PAP”) - continuously elected to power since 1959 - has displayed some heroic qualities. Able to attract the most academically gifted Singaporeans into public service, the PAP's highly rational policies and programmes have contributed to Singapore's rapid growth and to significant improvements in the lives of many Singaporeans. But Singapore has reached a turning point, Tan argues, and new circumstances demand new ideas and a more holistic and sustainable development. Singapore must adapt again, or risk its former strengths becoming its fatal flaws.

In explaining the foundations of Singapore's success, Tan presents both the conventional view, and also the darker consequences of the country's unique approach

Whether you view Singapore as a metropolitan nirvana, or in a less favourable light (perhaps as “Disneyland with the death penalty”), you can't ignore the country's remarkable success, and you've probably wondered how they do it. Chapter by chapter, Tan explains the foundations of the PAP's success, from its commitment to meritocracy and “pragmatism”, to its tight control over civil society (including patriarchy, gay activism, immigration, and censorship) and the “Singapore Story” itself. In each case, Tan casts a critical eye, drawing on plentiful sources to explain the conventional view, and the darker consequences (both intended and unintended) of Singapore's unique approach.

Singapore's commitment to meritocracy helps produce good outcomes, but is also politically useful to the ruling PAP, argues Tan

Take Tan's discussion of meritocracy. In its broad sense, meritocracy means “giving all potentially deserving individuals an equal and fair chance of achieving success on their own merit”. Through establishing highly competitive government scholarships, and pegging senior government salaries to the “market rate”, the PAP has made meritocracy a guiding principle of its government. This has had the happy result of creating a fair system, with highly skilled policymakers acting in the interests of the people.

But as Tan points out, there is another side to this picture. Meritocracy risks perpetuating inequalities by attributing “merit” to those who have already enjoyed unfair advantages. Meant to be anti-elitist, meritocracy can get co-opted by the winners, who then become an exploitative ruling minority. These are universal critiques of meritocracy, but they have particularly strong resonance in Singapore. Meritocracy becomes a justification for the one-party system and paternalism towards the citizen. We are chosen based on our merit, the argument goes, and therefore we alone know what's best for you.

Presented as anti-ideological and necessary to the country's survival, Singapore's “pragmatism” in fact obscures the goals of global capitalism and the political goals of the ruling PAP

Tan is similarly forthright on the topic of pragmatism. According to Tan, PAP describes pragmatism as a “sober” and “firm” approach to implementing sound policies almost entirely on their technical merit. It is presented as combining adaptability, opposition to idealism, and a focus on the technical means rather than the ideological ends. PAP justifies pragmatism as a viable alternative to liberal democracy and multi-party competition by appealing to the country's essential conditions of resource poverty and vulnerability (a key part of the “Singapore Story”), and the role of pragmatism in achieving economic success against the odds.

Far from being ideology free, argues Tan, the PAP government's policies are consistently aligned with the ideology of neoliberal globalisation. The appeal to pragmatism functions (perhaps intentionally) to disguise this fact, and to shut down any discussion of competing ideologies. Furthermore, pragmatism works by keeping decision-making in the hands of technocratic leaders, and excluding ordinary citizens from policymaking. In this way, pragmatism helps to “maintain the one-party dominant state with the PAP solidly in power”.

Feminism provides two potential strategies for engagement with the patriarchal state

In chapters on civil society, Tan explains how Singapore's one-party dominant state rules through a balance of coercion and ideological control. Patriarchy serves these ends well. It begins with the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, writing himself as the national protagonist, with his allies in supporting roles. It continues with the state assuming the superior status and controlling position of the patriarch, and ends with society assuming the negative mirror image of this. In contrast to the masculine state, the people are presented as selfish, ignorant, deficient, dangerous, and “feminine”, and not to be trusted with matters of national importance.

Tan explains how feminism provides inspiration for two potential strategies for engagement with the patriarchal state. One strategy is exemplified by Lim Hwee Hua, the first woman to serve in Singapore's Cabinet. In Tan's analysis, Lim Hwee Hua won her position in a male-dominated space by being manly enough to reaffirm the desirability of manly attributes (she is a “tough no-nonsense figure… often seen in black pantsuits”), but not too manly to be a threat (she “projects warmth and understanding (although in a cool headed style)” and, despite the “pantsuits”, is nevertheless “a woman's woman”. The related strategy for civil society is to “speak enough of the state's voice to be admitted legitimately into the public sphere, but not so deeply as to be regarded as a threat to the state's ego”. This is a slow-burn strategy for change. The hope would be that the mere presence of civic voices in the public sphere will eventually tip the balance in favour of change, despite those voices being compelled to support the status quo.

The second strategy is exemplified by Catherine Lim, an award-winning Singaporean writer and poet. In two political commentaries for The Straits Times, Lim deliberately played up her role as “admiring wife” to the manly state, praising and admiring the PAP government for its “amazing effectiveness” and leaders “distinguished for their intelligence, single-mindedness, sternness of purpose and cool detachment”. She then gently introduced her criticism, suggesting that a new generation of Singaporeans were more concerned about “matters of the heart, soul and spirit”, and that the government should take note. Lim's articles led to an incredible series of disproportionate and aggressive responses, which in turn led to an outpouring of support for Lim. A comment by Lee Kuan Yew, a few years later, demonstrates the violent hysteria:

“Supposing Catherine Lim was writing about me … she would not dare right? … if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul de sac … If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try.”

In Tan's analysis, Catherine Lim was able to “expose the unconscionable violence of a patriarchal state without being destroyed by it, raise sympathy for the underdog, and mobilize forces of resistance against authoritarianism”. In doing so she may have “provoked a radical moment of change when the relationship between state and society itself may be subject to reconfiguration”.

Whilst sceptical of some of the PAP's apparently liberal-leaning policies, Tan sees some potential for political transformation in “Our Singapore Conversation”, and in a move towards more inclusive prosperity

Tan is sceptical of many of the PAP government's apparently liberal-leaning positions. On gay rights, for example, the government has repealed life sentences for gay sex, although retaining its criminalisation (together with assurances that gay sex will not in fact be prosecuted). This, Tan argues, allows the PAP government to present Singapore as open to global talent, whilst at the same time maintaining the ability to conjure up “moral panics” (with gay people as the “folk devil”) to avert crises of legitimacy. Similarly, while the PAP government has relaxed policies on street busking and censorship, in order to foster creativity and attract global talent, under the Singapore Films Act it remains a crime to make, import, distribute, or exhibit “party political films” .

Tan is more positive, however, about the potential for political transformation presented by Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and also the more left-wing policy pronouncements of the deputy prime minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam. OSC was launched in August 2012, with the objective of providing “structured but mostly open-ended occasions for Singaporeans to come together to discuss their hopes and aspirations for Singapore”. While Tan believes that OSC was intended (in part) to be another tool to enforce hegemony, he also believes it provided opportunities for gradual political change, being superior to previous engagement exercises in some important respects. These include being fairly broad in outreach (1% of the population contributed views), being open-ended and relatively diverse, and using the power of storytelling to begin to shift the official political narrative.

Beginning in 2013, Shanmugaratnam unrolled several policies (focused on housing, health, and education) that signalled a shift to the left, and a more inclusive prosperity. Whilst retaining some scepticism as to the political motivations, and pointing out that such changes do not “fundamentally alter the ideological basis of competitive meritocracy”, Tan argues that such policies still expand the egalitarian dimension of meritocracy, and therefore signal something more than just a charade.

Despite its dry name and bland cover, Governing Global-City Singapore is a fascinating critique and a great read, which ultimately presents a hopeful view of the future

With its dark blue cover, Governing Global-City Singapore looks like a dull textbook, but is anything but. Thanks to its bold critique, tight language and argument, and use of colourful examples, it is in fact a great read. References are given throughout and at the end of each chapter, but without compromising the readability of this academic “page-turner”. It would be great to see a popular version of the book to take this topic to a wider audience.

Through each chapter, Tan is our engaging guide to the Singapore story, unpacking the myths and expertly bringing together the country's history and current affairs, the conventional wisdom and the reasoned critique. Tan reminds us to think of the Singapore story from all perspectives - conservative, liberal, female, male, migrant, corporate, academic, artist, winner, loser, as well as the ruling elite. We would do well to rethink our own countries' narratives in a similar way.

No part of Singapore's story escapes Tan's critical eye, and he is relentless in questioning received wisdom and the motivations of the ruling classes. The message of the book is ultimately one of hope, however. Tan's passion for Singapore shines through - in his view there is so much that is good and right with the country. Singapore can escape Macbeth's fate by embracing a “messier, more experimental, ever-questioning, and self-critical system that is able to institutionalise diversity and debate”. This may be challenging, but with passionate advocates such as Kenneth Paul Tan, Singapore's path forward may become clear.


Written by:

Harriet Loos Senior Research Associate
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