by Zadok Lin
Fate Has Made Him Authority Itself
THIS YEAR MARKS the first national day Singapore has held without Lee Kuan Yew. How have things changed for this small nation of 5 million people of such diverse races and nationalities? As in the previous 49 years, it is not surprising to see the parade packed with fervor and patriotism. People gather around the floating podium designated for this annual event, and watch the skies light up with the fireworks that reminds the nation of its prosperity and achievement.
Money, lots of money. In Taiwan, if the current administration were to spend national budget on such ceremonies (that lasts for at least a month), opponents of other political parties will quickly make claims that such waste is to propagate the achievements of the current administration. For a wealthy nation like Singapore—and a one party state—none of these are of concern. Yet, what lies behind this veil of splendor, is the lack of rights, a highly centralized power structure, and inequality. Singapore ranks 73.9 on the Gini Coefficient, ahead of Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong; ironically, the guided political philosophy of this one party state is “socialist democracy”.
To put simply, Singapore, under the leadership of the People’s Action Party (PAP), has a unique political culture of its own. However, instead of calling it “socialist democracy” as it calls itself, which it is nowhere close, pragmatic and authoritative will be more appropriate. After all, Lee advocating for Asian values to maintain stability and order over personal freedom is a pragmatic solution to a fragmented multi-racial country, and his one party rule, in which he was in power from 1959-1990, is nowhere close to a democracy. As for socialism, Singapore exhibits no signs of social ownership of its society and economy, but one that is under the jurisdiction and bureaucratic control of the PAP.
SINGAPORE WAS part of the British Empire colony from 1819-1955, where it was an important trading port that facilitated trade between India-China. During World War II, Singapore was briefly conquered and occupied by the Japanese Empire from 1942-1945, and after the war ended, it reverted back to British control, where higher level of self-governance was granted from 1959-1965. In 1963, Singapore, faced with the lack of natural resources and a growing population demanding jobs, the formation of a Federation of Malaysia was seen as a benefit to both sides.
Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak were merged and Malaysia was formed, but this federation did not last long as the union was plagued with political differences and racial unrests, with Malays in Singapore constantly provoked by the Malaysian government that the PAP, an overwhelming Chinese majority was mistreating them. On 9 August 1965, the Parliament of Malaysia voted 126–0 in favor of expelling Singapore from the federation, when Singapore declared independence and established itself as a sovereign nation.
Singapore’s Political Structure
UNIQUELY DISTINCT with an authoritarian, pragmatic, rational, and legalistic political culture, Singapore’s power structure is centralized in a hands of few, characterized by a bureaucratic top down style that features appointment instead of election to most offices (it is modeled after the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy). Singapore has a multi-racial and multi-religious character, where giving fair treatment to all races in education, housing and health is priority. It is also the reason for the government to invoke mandatory conscription as well as the institutionalization of English as an official language so all races will be united with a common language.
Minorities are assured of equal representation in Parliament through the Group Representation Constituency or GRC system; yet it reveals the contradictions present within Singapore’s adherence to the ideology of Asian values. If this ideology was meant to create a collective sense of identity to maintain stability, this is self-undermining. If the rights of minorities are of concern, who is Lee to claim Asian values over them?
We might next discuss the most definitive feature of Singapore, something which the government credits the incredible efficiency Singapore functions under to: Meritoracy. It is a highly meritocratic society where status and positions are gained through skills, performance, and most importantly, loyalty to the nation, possibly to a certain extent the party, and its policies.
Since young, Singaporeans are put through a rigorous meritocratic academic system, categorizing students as young as the age of 10 into respective “streams” where curriculum differs based on academic score. At a very young age, the government arrange for the students what they “deemed” is suitable for them to learn. This is very common in Asia, where the Confucian idea of “科舉（KEJU)” national exam is used to select amongst a mass of people the brightest and skilled.
In the case of Singapore, they are uninterested in those versatile in arts and humanities, and only concerned with the math and the sciences, for these are the subjects that were required to assist in the modernization and industrialization of the ex-colonial fishing village. However, beyond this materialistic explanation, the real intention is to exploit the lack of exposure to the humanities, where the training of free-thinking and free will seeks to eliminate possible brewing grounds for opposition to the ruling authority. This is not to say that people of the sciences or Singaporeans are not capable of free will and thinking. Yet, indoctrinated with the idea of institutionalization aimed towards the building of a strong nation, this simply affirms what Rousseau says in his social contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
Elections are held every 5 years, but throughout history, the PAP party has retained a supermajority of the parliament. This is possible due to the amassing of resources accumulated by the party, state control of the media, and a brutal suppression of free speech and any form of opposition to the ruling party.
The authority of the party is so over-reaching that citizens fear for their own speeches, and are stricken by this oppression to accept the fact that in order to conduct any form of speeches, they only have a specific allocated space and time for it. The dominance of the government in local economy resembles one of China’s state-owned enterprise, except that in spite of its powerful position, the government maintains a clean and corruption free image.
One of many online tributes to Lee Kuan Yew which appeared after his death. Photo credit: Jeremy Goh
Singapore prides itself globally as an authoritarian state that is corruption free, but it does not come as a surprise that officials are paid an extremely high salary with exceptional benefits. If seen from a different perspective, it can be a form of “legal” laundering. The Prime Minister of Singapore is paid an annual salary of 2.2 million USD, relative to Obama at $400,000 USD and Xi Jinping at $19,000 USD. However, this strategy was proposed by Lee, and he has constantly assuaged the country in his speeches. In a speech in 1996, Lee said: “Ministers who deal with billions of dollars cannot be paid low salaries without risking a system malfunction. Low salaries will not attract able men who are or can be successful in their professions or business. Low salaries will draw in the hypocrites who sweet talk their way into power in the name of public services, but once in charge will show their true colour, and ruin the country.”
Therefore, one way to avoid corruption, of course, is to pay your ministers a ridiculous sum of money, which really undermines the entire concept of a “socialist” democracy. Yet, nothing comes as a surprise to the Singaporeans, as nobody dares question such policy, even when outright speeches such as “Equality is an aspiration: it is not reality, it is not practical.” This speech was made in times when inequality was growing. Corrupt or not as a system, however, it is true that Lee’s brilliance in such arbitrage has gain the respect of leaders from around the world.
Singapore’s One Party State and Its Supreme Leader
SINCE THE DAY Singapore gained sovereignty and independence on August 9th, 1965, the political arena has been dominated by the PAP. However, this was not an easy ascension to power; the PAP had to deal with the communist threat in the early days, where at one point in Lee’s career, his position was under threat. It is important to understand a brief history of the country’s longest-surviving political party. If we were to truly comprehend the mentality of the nation in accepting this spiritual leader who was in office from for 31 years (1959-1990), by way of comparison, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader overthrown in 2011 during the Arab Spring, was in office for 30 years.
On November 12, 1954, Lee, along with a group of English educated middle class bourgeois formed the socialist PAP. The party began with a unity of two left-wing factions, one “pro-socialist” and the other “pro-communist”. Together, the alliance appealed to the mass public, using both English and Chinese, which was needed to address political concerns of the majority of the Chinese speaking population as well as the British colonial government. The common aim was to mobilize the population towards self-governance and put an end to the colonial rule. It is not too the knowledge of many that during the inaugural conference of the party, it was attended by over 1500 supporters and trade unionists. Lee would later crack down on the left-wing section of the party as part of his oppression on dissent, using anti-communism as a justification.
During Lee’s term in office, Singapore grew from a developing country to one of the most developed nations in Asia. However, he also curtailed civil liberties, suppressed opposition, and created a system of nepotism and collusion of the elites. In fact, Lee has such profound influence on Deng Xiaoping that China emulated his policies of economic growth and suppression of dissent during the period of economic opening up, with Chinese officials sent to Singapore to study the methods developed by Lee which he claims to be specifically designed for Asian countries.
Lee’s meritocratic practices was designed to select and groom future political and economic talent at the bequest of the ruling party, to maintain loyalty to his legacy, even after his death. Under Lee, most networks of power are dominated by ethnic Chinese, a contrast to the facade made to acknowledge and recognize the different ethnic groups that exist. However, these criticisms are not new, and domestic criticism of the PAP’s suppression has been growing over the years. Yet, in the name of cultural relativity, a modus vivendi is reached between Lee and the western world, albeit it is arguable as Taiwan and Korea are successful models showing that democracy does not compromise economic growth.
After Lee stepped down, he created a position called the Minister Mentor in 2004 as part of a transition in political leadership where he was the only person who held the post. In 2011, he stepped down from his position after the PAP lost certain seats to opposition party, which served as a warning to Lee that the citizens are not happy with the power he holds onto.
What’s Next For Singapore?
NEARING CLOSE to half a year since Lee’s death, has Singapore political landscape, once under the iron fist of Lee, altered in any way? Has the controversy of the inherent lack of rights in Singapore shown in the curtail of liberties and libels charges used to target opposition, such as the arrest of 16 year old boy Amos Yee, send an awakening call to the public?
There are two possible scenarios. The public may vote more opposition politicians into parliament in response to the lack of freedom of speech highlighted by Amos Yee. Or it is possible that the exuberance of this year National Day Parade, along with the commemoration of Lee, seems to propagate Lee’s legacy further. The PAP has been in power for more than 50 years, even before the Republic of Singapore was established. They suffered their worst performance in the last election, though it still kept 80 out of 87 seats in the parliament. With that, the PAP might be looking at a boost in seats during the next election, because of Lee’s death.
Though the propaganda elements in Singapore are strong, and no doubt Singapore is still under the control of a party, to an extent a certain group of elites, it is nonetheless a country that just met its half-century mark. Indubitably, the country has witnessed one of the most outstanding economic growth and modernization no other countries have and the nation, including the ruling party should not be discredited for it. However, the nation’s issues with human rights are real, and it will be ironic that for a country, topping the global list of highly literacy and the top of the world academically to continue to compromise with their inherent lack of freedom.
The country will once more be put to test in the coming election, and the world will be looking upon this first election with equal enthusiasm as Sinaporeans—or maybe with even more than the Singaporeans would—as it arrives at its first election after the death of its founding father, Lee, who had successfully held on to power since the birth of this nation. Quoting Lee, “In Singapore, [wealth and power] are two different things. And we should keep them as two different entities.”