Seah Shuqi Gabriel
Module Number USE****
Facilitator: Dr ***
12th February 2007

 

Post-65, Post-Post-65 Or Bust? Sustainable Authoritarianism In Singapore

 

Singapore has been governed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, and ruled by it since 1965. The policies and ideologies promulgated since independence have been against both the spirit and letter of liberal democracy, involving reducing labour rights, using schools as an instrument of social engineering and scarcely concealed eugenics (Chua, 1995, p.18-21). Communitarianism in the form of ‘Shared Values’ was introduced as public ideology, culminating in white papers presented in Parliament (Chua, 1995, p.31-33).

The “post-65” generation was first identified by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his 1996 National Day Rally speech as those born after independence in 1965. He criticised them for focusing on "promotions, houses and holidays" due to their lack of personal knowledge of the trauma of independence and race riots (the most recent being in 1964) (Koh, 1996), the implication being that they lacked the dedication of “Pre-65-ers” to the task of nation-building. As with the later juxtaposition of “stayers and quitters” (Straits Times, 2002) and “cosmopolitans and heartlanders” (Zuraidah, 1999), Singaporeans had been bifurcated. While this was not on the level of moral panic, Goh had identified a new generation which posed a perceived threat to National (or Party) survival. He recognised that younger Singaporeans had different priorities and outlooks necessitating a different governmental approach to managing the populace[1]. One might have high hopes for the post-65 generation, but it is more likely that Singapore will continue to be a case of sustainable authoritarianism (Seah, 2007), at the very least until the post-post-65 generation comes of age.

One might excuse the pre-65 generation their lack of desire for liberal democracy, given that upon independence Singapore faced difficulties in becoming a viable nation. Man does not live by bread alone, but without bread he will surely die. Fang Chuang Pi, former Communist Party of Malaya leader, memorably described Singapore as a “freak” (Ho, 1997). Now that Singapore’s survival is no longer an issue, surely the younger generation will yearn after political self-actualization since “modernization theory posits that socio-economic development, education, and the growth of a middle class are critical factors in explaining democratization” (Mauzy, 206, p. 6)? Even the Straits Times, effectively a government mouthpiece (Seow, 1998), though asking if one could “eat democracy”, acknowledged that “free elections, freedom to associate and the right to call elected office-holders to account are important and worthwhile ideals to fight for”[2] (Straits Times, 2004).

As Goh noted, the post-65 generation would be materialistic and ignorant of the travails and importance of nation building. They might thus be less convinced of the need to forsake liberal democratic ideals to pursue economic ends. Yet the pre-65 generation were similarly materialistic, striking a Faustian bargain with the PAP: in return for accepting less (or little) political freedom, they were promised material rewards in the form of economic growth (Uren, 2001).  Furthermore, the post-65-ers being focused on “promotions, houses and holidays” would necessarily entail a diversion of energies from pressing for the political and civil liberties liberal democracy grants to the pursuit of materialism. The problem is compounded by the fact that Singaporeans keep looking to the government to solve their problems (Elegant and Elliott, 2005). One can thus imagine the irony of Singaporeans asking the government to give them more freedom, instead of securing it for themselves.

Even if the post-65 generation isn't really all that different, the PAP is taking no chances with them. In a clear attempt to connect with the post-65 generation, the PAP has recruited 12 of them and packaged them as post-65 Members of Parliament (MPs), complete with a blog[3] and hip hop Chingay dance moves (Wong, 2006). If the post-65 generation feels their needs and interests are represented within the government, it will be less likely to upset the status quo.

Lee Kuan Yew has been mythologized as a modern Confucius (Straits Times, 1990) and the Founding Father of Singapore; his story, after all, is equated to the Nation’s story[4]. His pronouncements still carry great weight, as evidenced by the angry reactions of many Singaporeans, even post-65ers, when a group, mostly journalists, dared to question him on public television (Channel NewsAsia, 2006). Thus, his telling Singaporeans that they cannot change governments (Straits Times, 2006) and that without an elected President, the army would have to intervene if there were a “freak” result (Peh, 2006) (presumably, one not returning the PAP to power) could convince people that political change is neither possible nor desirable. If any change is to come, it will have to be out of Lee’s shadow (Tan, 2004, p. 121-122).

After more than 40 years of one party rule, Party, State and Government have been unapologetically conflated in Singapore, with Lee making “no apologies that the PAP is the Government and the Government is the PAP” (as quoted in Rosett, 1990) and the civil service being fused to and dominated by the party (Mutalib, 2004). The conflation of state and party produces even more problems given the corporatist nature of the Singaporean state. A corporatist state is

 

perceived as autonomous of society, and as the neutral agency seeking the stability, unity and development of society through efficient management. (Brown, 1994, p. 70)

The PAP actively promotes the perception that it is pragmatic, ideologically neutral and only wants what is best for Singapore (Barr, 2005, p. 9), and just as it is hard to argue with the principle of meritocracy – that wealth and power should accrue to the most talented and able, it is hard to fault a neutral state whose alleged aim is to best develop society for the benefit of all. This delegitimises “the interrogation of aspects of the Singapore system that lie beyond the parameters of efficiency and effectiveness” (Barr, 2005, p. 4), parameters which incidentally do not define liberal democracy. As such, defying the will of the party would be tantamount to defying the will of the government, to the detriment of the Nation:

The identity of the nation and of the PAP continued to be portrayed in morally absolutist terms. Goh Chok Tong, then Deputy Prime Minister, stated this explicitly in April 1989, when he asserted that politics is 'a perpetual struggle between good and bad forces... The good can continue to win decisively if Singaporeans continue to elect their Government and MPs responsibly. The 'forces of good' were presumed to be embodied in the PAP. (Brown, 1994, p. 90)

In fact, the post-65 generation, having grown up knowing only one government, is less likely to be able to disentangle the three; the pre-65 generation can remember a time when voting for the PAP did not mean voting for the government, and when the press was more multiplicitous in its views[5].

There is also the problem of “caution syndrome” and a “subject” political culture, leading to a “perceived sense of vulnerability felt by many Singaporean youths, coupled with [an] increasing feeling of disempowerment of the citizenry in general” (Mutalib, 2004, p. 362). Feeling that they are unable to change the system, they become politically disengaged and apathetic[6]. In other authoritarian polities, the alternative might be revolution, but this does not happen in Singapore because free, clean and regular elections are held (Chua, 1995, p. 185).

            The PAP also has a habit of co-opting dissenters, especially among the intelligentsia. Even if they will not join the Party, it puts them in prominent positions (George, 2000, ch. 12) or makes them Nominated Members of Parliament[7] (NMPs). The professed aim of the latter scheme was to offer “Singaporeans more opportunities for political participation and to evolve a more consensual style of government where alternative views are heard and constructive dissent accommodated.” (Straits Times, 1989); bringing dissenting views into the system and engaging them helped ensure that they would not try to dismantle it from without.

These measures may be effective in perpetuating PAP hegemony, but all the same, it recognises that people need to feel that they have a say in policy formulation and implementation, which is why it has increasingly been holding public consultation exercises (Mauzy and Milne, p. 165). Yet although the public is consulted, there is no obligation to follow public sentiment which may indeed be blatantly disregarded in some instances (Lee, 2004); this was seen clearly during public consultation about a casino where despite an online petition with almost 30,000 names and identity-card numbers, not one but two casinos, repackaged as ‘Integrated Resorts’, were allowed (BBC, 2005). This is very much in line with the principles of democratic centralism, which diffuses resentment by giving members of an organisation the power (or illusion, as the case might be) of being able to influence policies, yet requiring them to hew to the final collective decision (Library of Congress, 1989).

With all of these factors influencing them, it is questionable if post-65-ers would be so much more likely to push for liberal democratic ideals than post-65-ers. Indeed, an analysis by the Institute of Policy Studies found that there was no difference in voting patterns between those born before and after 1965 (Koh, Tan and Conceicao, 2006).

Even if the post-65 generation had different voting patterns, it is not clear that their vote would be expressed, due to gerrymandering (Tremewan, 1994, p. 166-167); the two times the PAP came closest to losing a GRC - Eunos in 1988 with 50.89% and Cheng San in 1997 with 54.82% of the vote respectively, the offending GRC had disappeared by the next election (Elections Department Singapore, n.d.). There are also the usual problems with preference aggregation that plague any democracy, viz., Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (Tabarrok, 2005). Finally, Members of Parliament have little power in Singapore – political power only comes when one is invited to join the cabinet (Tan, K.P., personal communication, February 2, 2007).

The Singaporean government also practises what George (2005) calls “Calibrated Coercion”. Instead of terrorising the populace as a whole, “controls are targeted at limited numbers of producers and organisers of dissent” (George, 2005, p. 11)[8]. Calibrated coercion achieves its aims without excessive force, thus avoiding unnecessary and ugly backlashes or harming the economy (George, 2005). Furthermore, legally at least it is transparent above board, and with no “serious violations of individual civil rights.” (Mauzy, 2006, p. 10).

            As can be seen, one way or another, the prospect of the post-65 generation bringing political liberalization is not bright and in some ways they are even more susceptible to political manipulation than the pre-65 generation. Since the factors identified will continue to affect the post-post-65 generation, pessimism in Singapore’s liberal democratic prospects might be warranted for the foreseeable future.

Yet there are the effects of the countervailing forces identified by modernization theory, as well as the effects of globalization – with the Third Wave of Democracy (Huntington, 1991), global political culture cannot but be inclined in democracy’s favour. Further, the multiplicity of views lacking in mainstream media can be found online. Also, with increasing government rhetoric about taking citizen’s views into account, Singaporeans cannot help but be influenced and will move from a subject political culture to some form of participant political culture, though how truly participatory (ie Whether it will be according to governmentally-defined rules, as with the transformation of “civil society” to “civic society”) it will be remains to be seen. The inevitable departure of Lee Kuan Yew from the political scene will also open up new avenues of political exploration.

Although hopes for political liberalization remain nuanced, the outlook is better for social liberties. The government may engage in the sexual engineering of society (Tan, 2003), but deviant sexual activity is not criminalised. Despite gay sex officially being illegal and their being officially blamed for an AIDS epidemic (Balaji, 2004), the gay scene is thriving (Price, 2003). One might be disheartened by surveys reporting that Singaporeans are conservative, but many are incredulous at the results, with Reverend Dr Robert Balhetchet pinpointing a “hypocrisy factor” (Da Cunha, 1997, p. 57). Furthermore, there is a clear trend towards “a slow but recognizable liberalization of values over the generations” (Tan, 2003, p. 8).

Film ratings were revised in 2004 (Media Development Authority, 2004), and in the last three years, three internationally hugely controversial movies, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”, “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Passion of The Christ”, were all passed uncut[9]. Meanwhile Cosmopolitan and Sex and the City, both previously banned, have since been let in. Where entertainment is concerned, there is regulation mainly where racial-religious sensitivities are concerned, as in the play Talaq (Tan, 2003, p. 10) and Madonna’s Confessions Tour DVD (Sheela, 2007).

The internet also remains largely unregulated, providing an important alternative avenue for self-expression, except when police reports are made about racial-religious issues (Zakir, 2006). It has also been observed that there is considerable leeway for freedom of speech, as long as one does not cross OB markers, and even then the worst the government will (itself) do is scold you (Seah, 2007). This may not seem particularly impressive in a liberal democracy, but after all Singapore has been characterised as a hybrid regime (Mauzy, 2006).

The comparative leeway given to Singaporeans in social liberties is because granting the populace social liberties does not threaten the PAP’s continued domination of the political scene and indeed can act as a safety valve to vent frustrations; the only problem with social liberalization is the prospect of a backlash by conservatives[10], which ironically may have been amplified by the government’s erstwhile trumping of Asian Values.

Just as Generation X was supposed to clash with the Baby Boomers, a confrontation since dismissed as “the fake punch”, in contrast to their successors, Generation Y, described as “Generation X on steroids” (Armour, 2005), the hopes placed on the post-65 generation may be premature. To glimpse liberal democratic possibilities for Singapore, we will have to wait for at least another generation to pass, with the nation moving out of the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew and for globalization to affect Singaporeans. Even then, the beauty of calibrated coercion in Singapore is that it maintains effective political control without alienating the populace. It is no surprise that the People’s Republic of China is looking to Singapore as a model to “stay in power in spite of multiparty elections and a plurality of views” (Elegant and Elliott, 2005)

As one Singaporean told Christopher Lydon, an American radio personality:

 

We know now from a lot of history that the human spirit is invincible in the face of adversity. But I've decided that the human spirit is defenseless in the grip of wealth… This is the most advanced totalitarian state in the world… I see it as a cartoon of a man in a cage with the key around his neck. But he will not use it. (Lydon, 2002).

            If the post-65 generation will not use the key, we might as least hope that the post-post-65 generation will have the courage at least to grasp it.


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[1] The introduction the same year of National Education to teach students Singaporean history and inculcate “a sense of identity, pride and self-respect” (Ministry of Education, n.d.) was one facet of this strategy.

[2] Presumably, after one has eaten one’s fill, one can then pursue such ideals.

[3] http://p65.sg/

[4] As evident by the title “The Singapore story: memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew”

[5] With a crackdown on 3 newspapers in 1971, independent local press in Singapore was essentially wiped out, and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act in 1974 ensured it would not return. (George, 2005, p. 13)

[6] It is worth noting that 5 surveys conducted between 1971 and 1994/5 all produced similar findings

[7] NMPs can debate in Parliament but may not vote on certain issues.

[8] One might draw a parallel with the Tarkin Doctrine – to rule not through force, but the fear of force.

[9] Search done on MDA website: http://www.mda.gov.sg/wms.www/resources_film.aspx

[10] In some cases, the government tries to push for more openness than certain vocal sectors of society are comfortable with, as with the backlash over Restricted films (Tan, 1991)