Post-modern authoritarian Singapore

Ng E-Jay

Ng E-Jay

In this segment, we feature blogs that carry insightful and considered posts. This week we highlight Post-Modern Authoritarian Singapore by Ng E-Jay in

IN AN ARTICLE entitled Post-Modernism and the Silent Revolution written by Marc Glendening and published in the November/December 2005 issue of The European Journal (a publication by the European Foundation, a think-tank established to promote democracy and free trade in the European Union), the concept of Post-Modern Authoritarianism is discussed in relation to political developments in the European Union in the past decade.

I find that the concept of Post-Modern Authoritarianism (PMA) is especially applicable to Singapore and is precisely the foundation on which the PAP has managed Singapore since independence. I will highlight the main ideas of the article written by Marc Glendening and discuss them in relation to Singapore.

Glendening’s article begins as follows:

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dominant view in the West was that liberal democracy had won a decisive, final victory. According to Francis Fukuyama we were witnessing the “end of history”. No illiberal ideology, including militant Islam, he argued, would from now on be capable of seriously threatening representative government.

According to Glendening, this view is dangerously complacent, as we (in the European Union) are now experiencing the emergence of what can be described as Post-Modern Authoritarianism PMA. This refers to the way in which the institutions of modern parliamentary democracy are being hollowed out through the transfer of powers to a range of unaccountable agencies.

Glendening says that European political integration is a major component of this process, but PMA goes considerably beyond it. Glendening illustrates how the political class is gradually abandoning liberal democracy by citing the example of how prominent politicians like Neil Kinnock, Ken Clarke and Denis MacShane not only dismissed the significance of the “No” votes in France and Holland on the EU Constitution, but also opposed giving Europe’s voters a say on the EU Constitution in the first place. This shows that contempt for citizens outside the political class has grown.

I am sure many readers can readily relate to the Singapore situation, where power is concentrated in the hands of the Executive, leaving other organs of state effectively castrated, and where the state’s massive reserves are managed and invested at the sole discretion of GIC and Temasek which are not fully transparent and lack a sense of accountability to the electorate. For example, witness how Temasek has neglected to address the issue of recent investment losses in US banks exposed to the sub-prime crisis, even going to the extent of saying it is not a Sovereign Wealth Fund and therefore is not subject to international agreements or best-practices governing SWFs.

Disdain for citizens outside the elite or political class and stinginess of the government towards citizens is common in Singapore. While Temasek is pouring billions of good money into ailing US banks, Parliament has to spend time debating extensively whether to even increase the Public Assistance Scheme for the poor by $30 a month. To their credit, they eventually did so, but not without repeatedly warning against the lower income groups developing a “crutch” mentality. We have MP Baey Yam Keng extolling Singaporeans not to take Budget handouts for granted, even to the extent of suggesting that handouts were breeding unhealthy expectations. We have MP Yeo Guat Kwang chastising Worker’s Party candidate Sylvia Lim as someone who would give a dying fish that was trapped in a shallow trench all the water it needed, but without teaching the fish how to find its own water, when the latter merely suggested removing GST for essential food items and lowering it back to 5% in light of the unexpectedly huge budget surplus. We have MM Lee saying that public transport should not be subsidized lest people take advantage of it by engaging in “unnecessary travel”.

In a lunchtime election rally speech on 3 May 2006, PM Lee told voters that if they voted in more Opposition candidates, he would have to spend time “fixing” them rather than doing what was right for Singapore. His disdain for the electorate could not have been more obvious.

Glendening goes on to say that:

Post-Modern Authoritarians (PMAs) adopt a subtle “passive-aggressive” strategy based upon undermining the foundations of the nation state – the only viable mechanism by which the ruling elite is held to account – whilst simultaneously denying the reality of the system they are building. The act of illusion the PMAs are seeking to pull off is to leave the physical structures of modernist democracy still standing while divesting them of actual decision-making meaning. Post-modernism is the perfect underlying framework for a duplicitous political project that cannot afford to reveal its true nature. This is because it rejects the modernist idea that ideologies can and should be based on attempts to identify connecting truths that enable something fundamental about the totality of an issue to be said.

In the Singapore context, the PAP has undermined the foundations of our Parliamentary democracy with the GRC system and keeping the Elections Department under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office rather than having it as an independent body. Citizens are also regularly denied certain civil rights and fundamental liberties such as the freedom of assembly and expression, which are granted to them under Article 14 of Part IV of the Constitution. Indeed, the PAP has undermined the foundations of our nation-state, while at the same time portraying Singapore as a vibrant nation to the western media. When questioned why Singaporeans are denied certain basic rights, the PAP defers quickly to Asian values and Confucianism, as if they are the proper excuse for tyranny.

Like the PMAs of Europe, the PAP leaves the physical structures of modern democracy such as our Parliament relatively intact, while divesting them of actual decision-making. Parliament is at present only a rubbing-stamping agency for policies hatched out by the various Ministries due to the fact that it is completely dominated by the ruling party and no one is prepared to challenge policies or offer alternatives in any substantial way.

Glendening continues:

Chris Tame has observed the fascistic way in which new authoritarianism places great emphasis on the aesthetics of politics at the expense of honestly engaging with the political content of competing world views. This leads, on the one hand, to attempts to associate the EU with pleasing cultural images and, on the other, to wage McCarthyite, black propaganda campaigns against opponents, associating them with negative attributes such as xenophobia and philistinism.

This should be familiar to Singaporeans as well. The PAP regularly paints the picture of Singapore as a clean and prosperous city state with locals and foreigners living and working together happily, while at the same time suppressing dissent through the use of police force, paying lip service to genuine concerns of the people about issues like rising prices and financial difficulties in retirement, and using the state-controlled media to castigate and smear the Opposition.

According to Glendening, PMA “draws together a wide network of elites across the political spectrum”, in which political alliance is bolstered by interests such as big business. In the Singapore context, think about how large Big Brother has grown, how the PAP has entrenched itself in almost every aspect to the economy, how the economy is being monopolised by government-linked corporations, and how elites from all major economic and social entities come from the PAP fold. In the words of Glendening, this political setup benefits directly from “the diminution of parliamentary politics”, which is precisely the case for Singapore.

Glendening is of the opinion that the development of political post-modernity has “predated the emergence of a complementary ideological consciousness”. In other words, PMA has a resulted in an electorate that is apathetic towards political issues and has lost political awareness. It is no wonder then that our nation of sheep has beget a government of wolves.

Glendening goes on to describe the key features of the post-modern state as has been evolving in Europe in recent years. First, unlike modern forms of government, power is dispersed to a multiplicity of agencies, such as by giving judges the effective capacity to make public policy through their subjective interpretations of human rights legislation. Second, the national political elites have come together and handed over political power to a supreme law making authority above their own states, namely, the EU Parliament and the Council of the European Union, resulting in a “political cartel”. Third, the way in which the post-modern institutions operate is clearly at variance with the value of the rule of law (a prime example is NATO’s engagement in military aggression against Yugoslavia in contrary to its own charter). Glendening concludes by saying that “the post-modern era looks suspiciously like the pre-modern period in relation to the unpredictable and selective use of power”.

While many aspects of the political situation in the European Union is different from Singapore, there are nonetheless some underlying similarities, such as the misuse of power, freewheeling interpretation of human rights, and the evolution of a “political cartel”, which in Singapore would include GIC, Temasek, the GLCs, the mainstream media, and the entire “establishment”. Unlike the EU where power is dispersed through a multiplicity of agencies, in Singapore, all power is focused in the hands of the Executive which maintains control over all organs of state and implements its agenda by the propagation of power through the “political cartel”, which it both manufactures and sustains. Despite the differences however, the nefarious and extra-constitutional nature of the Post-Modern Authoritarians of Europe and the Post-Modern Authoritarians of Singapore is the same. This is what must be challenged and dismantled if the peoples of both the EU and Singapore are to regain their constitutional rights.

In the EU, the post-modern philosophical approach to government has led to the development of a political system that is opaque, that confuses where power is centralized, in which there are no clear or stable boundaries between political entities. What the EU has now is system of government that relies not on a transparently elected political body but instead a myriad network of centres of power that are able to bypass the electorate.

Contrast this with Singapore. Here, the political framework is much simpler and there is only one seat of true power which is the Executive. However, while the ruling clique ostensibly enacts policies for the long term good of citizens, in reality, all its policies are carefully engineered to benefit its “political cartel” over the long run and ensure all parts of the cartel receive a slice of the action. The PAP does this in the name of building a better future for Singaporeans, and is not afraid to say that it knows better than the people what is good for them. This is called the “sheep skin of paternalism”. Singapore has a different implementation of PMA that the EU, but the result is the same — loss of political power and disenfranchisement of the electorate.

To paraphrase Glendening, our struggle is against a political class that has a distinct set of interests from those of the citizens. The first step in fighting PMA is to bring clarity to the situation, in other words, to call a spade a spade. In Glendening’s words,

Clarity is always the enemy of deliberate opaqueness. Resistance to old style totalitarianism was possible because the threat could be identified, understood.

The electorate must now demand that political power be decentralized away from the Executive, demand greater transparency and accountability at all levels of government, and be ready to vote in more Opposition candidates to advance these agendas. That would be the next crucial step in breaking down the power structure of the Post-Modern Authoritarians, a pre-requisite for the re-establishment of true democracy in Singapore.

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