11 Aug 2004

A soulless hotel called Singapore

(Singapore Studies)



Singapore is becoming a more open and civic society. It must be so, because editorials in The Straits Times - a paper which unlike its decadent western counterparts, only deals in fact - constantly referred to it throughout June, two months before the transfer of leadership.

Wednesday, 11 August 2004


by David Martin Jones






Indeed, the city state ruled uninterruptedly since independence from the British - and later separating from Malaysia in 1965 - by the People’s Action Party (PAP) now encourages homosexuals to enter the civil service and tolerates a sanitised form of table-top dancing in bars around Clarke Quay.

More particularly, prime-minster-in-waiting Lee Hsien Loong made it clear that his mission, when he assumes office on Thursday, is to promote openness and transparency.

However, this can only be effective if Singaporeans care deeply about what goes on around them. Indeed, if they see a problem they need to speak up, or better still do something, Lee told the alumni of Singapore’s elite Harvard club on Jan 6, 2004.

Only then, he added, would a vibrant civic society emerge. He foresees such a society emerging through debating policies and national issues rigorously and robustly. But for debates to be fruitful it has to be issue-focused, based on facts and logic, and not just on assertion and emotions.

For Hsien Loong’s and the nation’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, destiny, rather than crassly nepotistic motives, required that the son also rises because in his generation he was more passionate about the future of the country than other people.

Leadership, Lee senior maintained, demanded an ability to persuade and mobilise. This task had become increasingly onerous as popular expectations had risen. Today, Lee Kuan Yew observed, Singaporeans were well-educated, comfortable and demanded more.

Yet the media attention devoted to the transfer of leadership and the new path Hsien Loong seeks to chart seems long on rhetoric but short on content. His desire to forge a vibrant civic society seems somewhat cliched.

Indeed, the ambiguity surrounding the term civic (as opposed to civil) society and its repetitious use in the state-licenced media indicates an incoherence at the core of PAP ideology and its leadership style, which despite the shift from Lee Kuan Yew’s paternalistic authoritarianism to the avuncular style of Goh Chok Tong’s second generation team, and shortly to the robust technocratic guidance of Hsien Loong remains unresolved.

The Next Lap

Consequently, Hsien Loong’s current concern with building a robust civic society rehashes arguments apparent in second generation PAP discourse since Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside from, but not out of, government, in November 1990. At that time, Goh’s new team announced ‘The Next Lap’ in development.

Interestingly, Goh’s1991 vision entailed a culturally vibrant and physically robust society. Subsequently, Goh’s new team ideologist, and Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo worried, in a curious analogy that Singapore was more like a hotel than a home. Clean, well managed and efficiently serviced, the city state nevertheless lacked soul.

Yeo consequently argued, that the state must withdraw a little and provide more space for local initiatives. He contended that good government required local initiatives and a balance between state intervention and the pluralistically diverse initiatives that emerge from civic society.

Singapore, in other words, has since 1991 confronted a paradox. A single party managed state pragmatically organised as a corporation achieved spectacular economic and social development. However, in the process it created, not an organically integrated community, but a five-star hotel where residents might like to spend a vacation, but not a lifetime.

In 1991, Yeo maintained that the paradox of sustained economic growth inducing social sterility might be resolved by the state retreating from the civic domain. A central feature of Next Lap thinking, thus, required disengagement of the state from society in order to facilitate active citizen participation.

Developing a metaphor that gained increasing currency in the course of the decade, the banyan tree of the state had to be pruned so that civic society might catch the light and grow. Of course, as Yeo argued in 1991, Singapore would always need a strong centre and pluralism but not too much because too much will destroy it. In other words, pruning judiciously.

Elaborating the theme and mixing the metaphor, Straits Times political editor Han Fook Kwang concluded that the Next Lap would be run as a mass participation sport. The problem was getting enough Singaporeans to participate as players, not just as spectators. Thus in January 1991, the challenge of building a vibrant civic society constituted the political challenge of the future and it was to be managed from above - by technocratic guidance yet promoting liberal spontaneity.

It sounded incoherent even in 1991 and in practice, it was. In fact, the second generation leadership deliberately chose the denotation, civic, to connote the more open, civil, while at the same time retaining the meaning of civic (that which pertains to citizens) to manage the space opened after 1991 to civil/civic participation.

Ersatz society

Ultimately, state-managed openness produced not a robust but an ersatz society. As C O Khong observed, in 1995, a civic culture acutely conscious of being itself a prime beneficiary of Singapore’s economic paternalism found it impossible to break away from comfortable certainty.

Indeed, the majority had made the pragmatic calculation that swings towards inaction. That those misguided enough to test the limits of civic robustness and who discovered that debate often entailed a quick visit to the most efficient judiciary in the world only reinforced a growing middle-class propensity to inaction.

Thus those like Chee Soon Juan in 1992, Tan Lian Hong in 1996 and J P Jeyeratnam at various times tried to engage in vigorous political contestation outside PAP-determined OB markers found themselves castigated, sued and politically exiled.

Ironically, despite the desire to promote a more critically engaged polity, the qualifications and exceptions to Singaporeans’ freedom of speech actually grew in the 1990s, with new restrictions on political films and websites.

Thus although the government-licenced Speakers Corner to encourage free speech, and the 2003 Committee for the Remaking of Singapore outlined new directions for Singapore’s social and political development actual levels of political participation have declined since the inauguration of the Next Lap.

By the time Hsien Loong delivered his address to the Harvard Club in 2004, observers struggled to identify more than a handful of groups devoted to civil activism. Indeed, there are increasingly few avenues for the citizen to debate issues of political interest outside the remit of state-sanctioned civic participation.

Significantly, the most robust group of self-determining, civic-minded citizens promote an issue close to the bowels of the PAP. Thus Jack Lim’s Restrooms Association of Singapore is one of the few civic groups where citizens enthusiastically contribute to Hsien Loong’s vibrant civic society.

Ultimately, Hsien Loong’s determination to build a dynamic society remains trapped in the incoherent desire of the administrative state’s need to micro-manage citizen participation. This seemingly endless recycling of state-led anxiety, however, by no means indicates failure.

Uncertainty about what civic obligation entails actually reinforces the neurosis that binds a citizenry inured to compartmentalise commitment while at the same time responding loyally to the latest injunction of the administrative state without acknowledging its constituting incoherence.

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