23 July 2014
Punggol East By-Election Rally 23 Jan 2013 22

Dazzling Singapore's deep contradictions

Visitors to Singapore can't help being dazzled by Asia's only global city. But scratching below the surface reveals a system struggling for survival.

Visitors to Singapore can't help being dazzled by Asia's only global city. Marina Bay. Sentosa Island. Botanical Gardens. Temples. Museums. Casino. Luxury hotels. Shopping on Orchard Road. And lots more.

But scratching below the surface reveals a system struggling for survival.

Singapore was not born to authoritarian government led by Lee Kuan Yew, despite his now almost divine status. Some argue that the late 1950s and early 1960s was a golden era for Singaporean democracy. Many of the foundations of Singapore's current society, like the Central Provident Fund and the Housing & Development Board, were established then.

This period came to an abrupt end in 1963 with "Operation Coldstore" by which Lee eliminated his political opposition. Over 100 members Barisan Sosialis were arrested and detained on the false pretext that they were part of a communist conspiracy.

Singapore's 1965 expulsion from a two-year union with Malaysia was an emotional shock for Lee Kuan Yew and his People's Action Party (PAP). But once Lee got over that, he led the city state on miraculous journey of authoritarian capitalism.

In the space of four decades, Singapore's economy has risen to become one of the world's most advanced, with virtually the highest GDP per capita in Asia, if not the world. However, despite its flashy hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure is a weak point. This shows up in poor creativity and innovation performance.

There were several key ingredients in the Singapore policy cocktail. Open trade and investment. Education and a strong work ethic. Migrants for both high skilled and low skilled jobs -- Singaporeans typically slot into the middle of the labor market. And a strong guiding hand of government. Singapore might practice the rule of law, but only one party determines the law.

Despite its capitalist pretensions, Singapore is very much a "nanny-state". Over 80% of the population live in public housing. Social engineering is at the heart of Singapore's social contract. As in communist China, some arms of government are propaganda machines, being active in manufactured nationalism. The media is also officially controlled. Indeed, the whole public sphere is controlled by the state.

Restrictions on individual freedom, in the name of collective welfare, are widespread. Human rights abuses and harassment of political opponents to ruling regime are too common.

For a long time after Operation Coldstore, there was little effective opposition to Lee Kuan Yew's regime, which today is led by Lee Hsien Loong, one of Lee's sons. But over recent times wider and wider cracks have opened up in the Lee edifice.

The Singapore Workers' Party has progressively emerged as a coherent and credible rival to the PAP. Following the 2011 elections, this center-left party now holds 9 of the 99 seats in the national parliament. The PAP only won 60% of the vote in these elections, its lowest ever score.

In tandem with the rise of the Worker's Party as an alternative political force, public opinion is becoming less compliant. Jobs, migration, housing, and congested infrastructure top the list of popular concerns. Citizen activist groups are pushing to preserve urban heritage against the never-ending onslaught of new construction.

A 2013 White Paper on population made lots of waves. It proposed an increase in Singapore's population from today's 5.3 million to possibly 6.9 million in 2030. With a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, even less than Japan, much of the increase would come from immigrants who already account for almost 40% of the population. This provoked a strong negative public reaction. Thousands of protesters then assembled at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park to express their displeasure.

There is also much "silent protest" in Singapore. Taxi drivers, tour guides and many others make jokes about the Lee Kuan Yew system as well as the man himself, and his seeming immortality. He is now 90 years old. When he finally departs the scene, the loss of moral authority and historical legitimacy will test his successors.

Despite the veneer of meritocracy, the Lee-system seems a fairly closed shop. In a recent book, Michael Barr has uncovered Singapore's complex and covert networks of power. He argues that they are a deliberate project initiated and managed by Lee Kuan Yew, designed to empower himself and his family. Barr identifies the crucial institutions of power, like the country's sovereign wealth funds, and the government-linked companies.

Qualitative indicators also suggest that something is wrong in Singapore's society. According to one survey, more than half of Singaporeans would emigrate if they could. Already about 300,000 live overseas, usually the young and well-educated. Other surveys suggest that Singapore is the most emotionless country in the world, and that Singaporeans are less likely to feel positive than any other people in the world!

The basic issue is that Singapore is not a real country. It is a family enterprise, a family empire, which is masquerading as a state. Singapore's residents are more like modern feudal subjects. But they increasingly want to become citizens.

Towards the end of my recent visit, I asked a professor of politics "What do these ungrateful Singaporeans really want?". "A less mean version of Lee's PAP", he retorted. "Does the PAP have it in them? That is less sure."

How all these contradictions play out over the coming years will be fascinating. The next elections are as soon as 2016.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asean, singapore, democracy, authoritarian capitalism, lee kuan yew

Social share