To read Prof. Kenneth Paul Tan’s “Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies and Futures after Lee Kuan Yew” against the background of the ongoing discourse on inequality and the class divide (and over personal social services) as well as on Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s recent comments on ministerial salaries is to recognise that Singapore’s ideologies, largely shaped by a dominant party system – not just its policies – should be the starting point of these discussions. Because policies are guided by assumptions, which are in turn derived from ideologies, and which in the context of Singapore also recursively determines whether an issue is up for discussion.
Operating in a world characterised by neoliberal globalisation – where countries are more interconnected and where free-market capitalism is favoured – Prof. Tan primarily examined the ideologies of hegemony, meritocracy, and pragmatism, while mooting his central argument that Singapore could become a victim of its own success. Marking the 1990s as a transition point, he wrote:
“In order to ensure its survival and prosperity in the long haul, Singapore needed a pragmatic and adaptive approach to governance and policymaking that include a spirit of experimentation, ideological openness, courage, determination, and resilience … The codification of success and results, however, also engendered a series of policy formulas that have become increasingly technocratic and reliant on a smaller and more tightly held set of assumptions. The hubristic effect of Singapore’s dazzling success story can be to forge a narrower and self-important elite, shifting the attention from pragmatic and adaptive governance to successful policies that must be preserved and defended” (Tan, 2018, 178-9).
Hegemony, meritocracy, and pragmatism
Prospects for liberal democratisation or political change in a contemporary, post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore, in this vein, appear dim, given how entrenched these ideologies are. In fact at one point during the panel discussion at the book launch, featuring poet Alvin Pang and economist Donald Low, there was a quip that Singapore could be a one-ideology, not a one-party state. In the book, through the ideology of (cultural) hegemony, Prof. Tan first described how the People’s Action Party (PAP) won the 2015 general elections and has hence remained in power – since 1959 – within a dominant party system. Hegemony is useful conceptually, he added, since it not only explains how the PAP has established and maintained its control, but on the other side of the same coin reveals the contradictions.
The idea of merit and putting into power those who exemplify this “merit” seems unproblematic at first glance, yet in identifying how the central features of meritocracy could be contradictory, Prof. Tan posited: “Those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of non-discrimination” (Tan, 2018, 21). A further problem arises, as the starting points of Singaporeans begin to diverse, when the elite defines merit in its own image. If the playing field is perceived to be unlevelled, beyond the questions of groupthink within a small elite class of technocrats, it is not clear if the PAP – or the ruling party of the day – can convincingly claim to attract and to retain the best and the brightest.
Meritocracy, therefore, has transformed into elitism, and “pragmatism into a fig leaf for market fundamentalism” (Tan, 2018, 168), with economic growth framed as Singapore’s national goal, best achieved by the ruling party and its stability. Likewise, as Prof. Tan did with meritocracy, the ideological contradictions of pragmatism are fleshed out: “Singapore’s pragmatism is ideological because it hides – or at least makes more palatable – its association with neoliberal globalisation, which in turn obscures the crisis tendencies and exploitative goals of global capitalism and the political goals of the PAP government as it reassures Singaporeans of continued economic success” (Tan, 2018, 42). The dismissal of alternative realities and better worlds (perhaps beyond pro-business economic prosperity per se) as well as the disproportionate focus on technological (and might I add, technocratic) rationality are additional problems too.
In its five subsequent chapters, “Governing Global-City Singapore” details the contestation between a patriarchal state and Singapore’s civil society, moral panics in the context of gay activism and migrant workers, as well as the state’s attempt to mobilise people through periodic national-level public envisioning exercises (such as the most recent Our Singapore Conversation endeavour) and the loosening up of censorship. Each chapter is an excellent narrative of these issues, encompassing their historical underpinnings, key events or developments which have since emerged, and – above all – their relationship to the ideologies of hegemony, meritocracy, and pragmatism. In particular, in the chapter on civil society, Prof. Tan detailed the two modes of activism that civil society can choose from: First, to act like the state to win its acceptance without threatening the state’s dominance (christened the “Lim Hwee Hwa” approach); and second, to perform in a deliberately exaggerated way to reveal the state’s contradictions (the “Catherine Lim” approach).
“The Singapore Story” and Singapore’s narrative deficit
There are, however, two things I might have changed. First, while the book offers a thorough exposition of Singapore’s “legacies”, it does not necessarily do the same for the global-city’s “futures”. A rigorous evaluation of “futures” should not be limited to broad political scenarios or scenario-planning exercises, but should also explore conditions which could cause disruption in the years or decades ahead. Furthermore, three socio-economic issues covered in “Governing Global-City Singapore” – the civil society (given the limits of the Internet), gay activism and religious conservatism (given plateauing participation at Pink Dot and given the emergence of religious counter-movements such as truelove.is), and migrant workers (given that the analysis ended with the 2013 Little India riot, which occured five years ago) – seem to have settled into stasis. Perspectives about how change may happen would have been productive.
Second, a more comprehensive overview of the book in the beginning – of how the chapters relate thematically to one another – would have given the reader a useful roadmap of what to expect. This is especially helpful, because some of the theoretical underpinnings of the ideologies might have been a tad too esoteric for readers, like myself, who are reading about or contemplating them in detail for the first time, and the relevance of the literature or the theories to the circumstances in Singapore was not immediately clear.
Be that as it may, a more optimistic point about the future to which Prof. Tan persistently returns – emphasised further in the concluding chapters – is the role of Singaporeans in envisioning and shaping the future they wish to see. “The Singapore Story”, one of “national vulnerability, constraints, and challenges” (Tan, 2018, 152) and of fragility, has defined the country’s nation-building exercise thus far, and in its wake a narrative deficit – of sharing diverse stories and of hearing stories which deviate from the main national narrative – has become more poignant. Amidst the limitations of the citizenry and likely pushback of the state, “widespread storytelling practices in civic life can shift narrative patterns and themes away from the official national narrative that has been an important legitimising resource of the PAP government” (Tan, 2018, 149). And we may well be taking the first steps, with these discussions on inequality and the class divide.