Building the “Pragmatic” Market State
The birth and political evolution of Singapore exists in sharp contradiction to the accepted modernization narrative that successful marketization goes hand in hand with enhanced democratization. Despite decades of sustained economic growth, and the adoption of a parliamentary democratic system, the “city-state” nation has been dominated by the singleparty rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Under their leadership the country has rapidly marketized while strictly repressing free speech and other civil liberties. For this reason, Singapore generates “a debate, not about the survival of democracy, but rather about the ‘transition to democracy’ from ‘soft authoritarianism’” (Means, 1996: 103). It speaks to the role of capitalist dynamics for bolstering durable authoritarian regimes (Rodan and Jayasuriya, 2009). More precisely, the persistence of the PAP’s grip on power highlights the broader affective “grip” that authoritarian values currently have in relation to discourses of modernization.
Singapore, almost uniquely, marched involuntarily into statehood. Initially it was part of a Federation of Malaya formed in 1962, but it was unanimously voted out of the federation in 1965 due to ideological differences with the Malaysian government and lingering fears associated with a race riot that occurred in Singapore in 1964. Over the next seven decades, the PAP led the country with a combination of soft, and at times hard, repression alongside the continuous marketization of the economy. This strategy was guided above all by their founder and longstanding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He focused his rule on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, state-maintained social order and strict limitations on internal democracy.
Since its inception, Singapore has been described in authoritarian terms. While there is a parliament, it is filled almost entirely by the PAP, who accepts almost exclusive responsibility for determining the country’s short- and long-term direction. Early commentators depicted it, therefore, as a “dominant party state” (Bellows, 1970). However, as PAP rule extended beyond the 1970s and into the 1980s it was more and more understood as being an “administrative state” headed by a dominant party (Chan, 1975; Seah, 1999). Here, the government concentrated on modernizing the country through marketization by instilling corporate values of efficiency and productivity, with the primary aim of increasing economic growth. Liberal and more substantive forms of democratic deliberation and debate were deprioritized as ancillary and actually detrimental to these overriding economic ambitions. However, as inequality grew and the population progressively started demanding wider political and ideological choice, the regime evolved into a corporatist state (Jones and Brown, 1994) characterized by strategic forms of participation and inclusion so as to prevent a mass politics or real challenge to the country’s neoliberal commitments.
Underlying this authoritarianism was an “ideology of pragmatism” (Beng-Huat, 1985). Originally, it was often associated with a type of “non-ideological” ideology (Chee and Evers, 1978) - a belief that the government was simply using its power to govern rationally and for universally agreed pathways toward modernization and mass prosperity. However, this rather neutral view was soon replaced by a more critical assessment of the PAP’s intentions and rule. This appeal to “pragmatism” was explicitly and implicitly the handmaiden of policies favorably embracing global capitalism internationally and neoliberalism domestically. Thus:
In short, Singapore’s pragmatism is ideological because it hides - or at least makes more palatable - its association with neo-liberal globalisation, which in turn obscures the crisis tendencies and exploitative goals of global capitalism and the real political goals of the PAP government as it reassures Singaporeans of continued economic success. (Tan, 2012: 72)
These policies reflect a deeper politics of what has been explicitly referred to as “authoritarian capitalism” (Lingle, 1996b). The public sector, hence, is robust - concentrating on education and incentives for private self-sufficiency - but is by no means an example of traditional welfarism (Low, 1993). Its official discourse, furthermore, at best de- prioritizes and at worst directly eschews ideals of democracy and political competition, promoting instead a “market” government that is meritocratic and growth oriented (Rodan, 2004; Tan, 2008).
PAP’s one-party dominant state is the result of continuous ideological work that deploys the rhetoric of pragmatism to link the notion of Singapore’s impressive success and future prospects to its ability to attract global capital. In turn, this relies on maintaining a stable political system dominated by an experienced, meritocratic and technocratic PAP government. (Tan, 2012:67)
Tellingly, even the Party’s use of authoritarianism in practice was and remains intimately associated with market values. It seeks to repress opposition in the quite business-minded form of “calibrated coercion,” acting tactically to deal with dissent with a minimum of political cost and maximum of political gain (George, 2007).
Behind the stability of the press system, the Singapore government has made fundamental changes to its modes of control, with less frequent recourse to blunter instruments such as newspaper closures or arbitrary arrest ... Instead, less visible instruments are increasingly used, with the media’s commercial foundations turned against themselves. (George, 2007: 127)
Moreover, citizens are commonly intimidated into silence not simply through the threat of imprisonment but by being financially bankrupted by the regime taking them to court on charges of slander (Tey, 2008).
All this points to the creation of a capitalist fantasy of building a “pragmatic” market state. In this spirit, the PAP under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, linked its rule and popularity to its “non-ideological” guidance of the country’s economic modernization. It was required to do so in order to attract foreign capital and internally ensure the continued efficient running of a market economy. Successful national development, significantly, demanded social order and political authoritarianism. Without these conditions, any chance the country had at keeping its modernizing going was put into jeopardy. According to the government then, for marketization to work and advance the country it needed to be joined politically with a resilient and adaptable authoritarianism.