Constructing Singapore: “pragmatism” and personalised power

Singapore Democrats

Below are excerpts from Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project by Michael D. Barr & Zlatko Skrbis

The legitimating myth of the primacy of innovative, problem-solving ‘talent’, unearthed through ‘meritocracy’ and the quest for ever-higher levels of organisational efficiency in all aspects of society, business and government operates in tandem with another legitimating myth: that the government operates in a purely rational, scientific, problem-solving manner, free of ideological considerations.  The mantra for this plank of legitimation is the purest distillation of technocratic ideology: ‘pragmatism’.  Talk to Singaporeans and they will assure you that the government is ‘pragmatic’, that Singaporeans are ‘pragmatic’, and that even if there are problems and faults in outcomes, the Singapore system of meritocracy and ‘pragmatic government’ is only ‘logical’. This is one of the main features that give Singaporeans a perception of their special place in the world.  Singapore is tiny, but while most of the world is bound by ‘ideology’ and ‘politics’, Singaporeans punch above their weight because they operate as a ‘pragmatic’ and inherently logical meritocracy.

Of course, the argument is specious. Far from being the distillation of impartial rationality, the Singapore system of governance is systemically pervaded with ideological, social, ethnic and class biases.  Yet the denial of the operation of ideology, or even politics, in the practice of government has a direct and profound effect on politics.

It restricts the space for legitimate social and political discourse, de-legitimizing the interrogation of aspects of the Singapore system that lie beyond the restrictive parameters of efficiency and effectiveness.

…Days after taking up the premiership Lee Hsien Loong revealed that he had been closely involved in bringing them ( Mr Khaw Boon Wan and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam) into Cabinet while he was still Deputy Prime Minister.

These three men are the epitome of the Singapore technocrat, but their collective story — and particularly the story of Lee Hsien Loong — demonstrates a central feature of the Singapore system of governance that is not celebrated by the regime.  We refer to the highly personalized nature of power, a feature that seriously diminishes the transparency of the system and disrupts its predictability.  Patronage or sponsorship is a vitally important element in the rise of anyone in the Singapore political and administrative elite.

…The oil that lubricates the Singapore system is the exercise of personal power.  The personal character of power is demonstrated without much effort in the person of Lee Kuan Yew, who remains in Cabinet 15 years and two prime ministers after his retirement from the premiership, with the creative title of “Minister Mentor”. He was previously “Senior Minister” for the duration of Goh Chok Tong’s premiership, but now Goh holds that title.

His presence in Cabinet must be most uncomfortable for Lee Hsien Loong.  Not only does he have to work in the shadow of the founding father of modern Singapore, as did his predecessor, but in his case the man in question is his father.  Even if Hsien Loong is really his “own man”, who is going to believe it?  Hsien Loong did not even get to announce this Cabinet line-up.  It was Lee Senior who announced that he would continue in Cabinet for as long as he was fit and able to serve, and it was Lee Senior who announced the new hierarchy (for protocol purposes) within the Prime Minister’s Office, whereby he would be third in line behind Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.  An anonymous “government official” was left to confirm Lee Senior’s announcement six days later.      

Why does Lee Hsien Loong not simply remove him from Cabinet, as is his constitutional right?  Why did not Goh Chok Tong do so when he was Prime Minister?  Regardless of the power they notionally possess or possessed by virtue of their institutional positions, they both understand that in or out of Cabinet, Lee Kuan Yew retains his personal networks and his personal power.

He needs a seat in Cabinet only so that he can legally have open access to Cabinet and other official papers and legally retain his privileged links to the Internal Security Department.  On balance Lee Hsien Loong may not even want to see him gone yet because his own power networks are still underpinned by his father.  In the case of Goh Chok Tong, his efforts as Prime Minister to build a personal and independent power base were thwarted by both Lees — father as Senior Minister and son as Deputy Prime Minister.

In the end, after being outflanked by father and son during a property scandal involving the Lee family in 1996, Goh gave up trying to exercise real power and handed the reins of domestic government over to Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In any case, Goh’s efforts were never going to be very complete because he had no relatives in government.  It was probably this characteristic more than any other that made him an ideal stop gap between father and son.


The book is published by NIAS (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) Press
304 pp
ISBN: 978-87-7694-029-4
Available from: NIAS Press, and Select Books

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