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Protecting the Development of the Market State

A crucial component of this capitalist fantasy of authoritarian development was the need to constantly protect the market state. Perhaps more than anything else, the PAP’s public raison d’etre was to guarantee the nation’s survival. As Lee Kuan Yew once declared “Our Darwinian duty is to survive and prosper, as an independent nation, to the year 2050, at least, when most of you will still be around” (quoted in Hill and Lian, 2013: 37). This emphasis on mere survival soon transformed into one of protection and preservation. The state’s importance was primarily connected to the need to safeguard the nation’s particular brand of authoritarian development, and in doing so, preserve its continued modernization.

Throughout the PAP’s reign, Lee and the prime ministers who followed him - first Goh Chok Tong and then Lee’s eldest son Lee Hsien Loong - relied upon the construction of anti-state “enemies” imperiling the country’s progress. This discourse was mobilized, for instance, at a mass level in the 1980s when emerging political opposition was disposed of as being a dangerous “Marxist conspiracy.” In recent times, this has, as will be discussed more fully below, transformed into a call to protect the nation’s “Asian values and democracy” (read authoritarianism and strategic illiberalism) to guarantee economic growth and prosperity. Significantly, this cultural appeal was based on an essentialist notion of Singaporean heritage and values as well as the Party’s historical success in guiding national development. It was associated with, drawing once more on an evolutionary metaphor, a “Darwinian process of mutation, competition and selection” (Yeo, 1990: 102) that would give the government the autonomy and flexibility it required to protect and perpetuate the country’s economic development.

Specifically, it advocated its single-party rule and required limitations on democracy and dissent so that it could evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities of a dynamic and sometimes fraught global free market. Initially, the Party, both discursively and practically, employed its authoritarianism to attract global capital, a policy that reassured investors of its stable and favorable investment environment (see Rodan, 1989; Tan, 1976). In particular, it advertised itself to its citizens and foreign business interests as a global city whose survival depended on international capital

(Rajaratnam, 1972). Yet it was also exactly because of this “fragility” of being a nation in an uncertain global capitalist world that:

the PAP government has been able to explain its political longevity and justify its extensive intrusions into aspects of economic, social and human life that would normally be regarded in more liberal political societies as private and off-limits to the state. (Tan, 2012: 70)

In the contemporary era, this hegemony has been legitimized, as mentioned previously, by drawing on discourses of “Asian capitalism” and “Asian democracy.” The PAP exists primarily as a force for protecting the authoritarian values imperative for continued capitalist development. Democracy and liberalism are luxuries that a young modernizing country such as itself cannot afford. Consequently, “because of their function in de-legitimising potential sources of counter-capitalistic contradictions and counter-authoritarian dissent, ‘Asian Values’ enables the re-amalgamation, and even strengthens the mutual dependency, of authoritarianism and late-capitalism in Singapore” (Sim, 2001: 45). Modernization, here is inexorably associated with economic neoliberalism and must be prioritized at all costs. It cannot be endangered by the prospect of inexperienced leaders or misinformed ideological debate.

The presence of the state therefore is inviolable, not so much to directly intervene within the economy, but to defend the country’s successful marketization against the threat of an ineffective “liberal model.” Quoting Mutalib at length on this point:

To the government, Singapore’s rapid economic growth and political stability could not have been achieved if the country were to follow the Western liberal democratic path and its attendant notions of development. While gradually allowing for greater citizen participation in the formulation of policies in more recent times, the present leadership, mindful of opening up a Pandora’s Box, is still cautiously wary of the growth of a more pluralistic political environment; hence, its preference for what can be described as an illiberal, (soft) authoritarian democratic culture. (Mutalib, 2000: 313)

Citizens are similarly expected to be “socially disciplined” to pragmatically solve problems and not negatively impact upon national development.

In this vein, the country’s governance can be reasonably compared to that of the top-down organization of a corporation. Put differently, it is not simply that the PAP crafts its policies to cater to business interests domestically and globally. It is more so that it models itself as if the country were in fact a large private enterprise. Writing in 1974, Louis Kraar explicitly likened the PAP’s rule to a “country run like a corporation,” observing that:

Singapore has achieved this dazzling growth by stretching its meager means and using some extraordinary techniques of statecraft. The country is run very much like a corporation. Striving above all for efficiency, the government coldly weighs every move, from school curriculums to foreign relations, against cost-effectiveness. The key criterion, as one top-rank official puts it, is always: “What good can we get out of it?” (Kraar, 1974: 85)

Not surprisingly, other business-minded leaders, such as Thaskin in Thailand, have been directly influenced by this neoliberal view that “a country is my company” (Bowornwathana, 2004). First and foremost, both employee citizens and its executive leaders must rigorously and even ruthlessly prioritize the nation’s continued profitability.

The persistent authoritarian refrain of survival and preservation deployed by the PAP thus represents the resiliency of neoliberal discourses of authoritarian modernization. The prospect of a repressive single-party rule remains attractive, or at least legitimate, as a means for ensuring and defending progress. In the age of globalization, this logic has been framed in terms of the need for a stable hand to guide the country through the treacherous but potentially profitable waters of an international free market. Consequently, to be modern in this context increasingly means to be dynamically authoritarian.

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