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The Capitalist Fantasy of an Evolving Authoritarian Development

Singapore stands as a prime example of the contemporary “success” of combining authoritarianism and marketization. In particular, it severely puts to the test modernization beliefs that capitalism is an inevitable precursor to democratization. By contrast, it provides a paradigm for development that not only has failed to bring about greater democracy but also seems to actively eschew it as anti-modern. This reflects, moreover, an exportable authoritarian governing paradigm for other countries in the region and beyond (Zhang, 2012). Significantly, this capitalist fantasy is not terminal to a specific level of development. Instead, it is exactly the promise of constantly developing further that makes this repressive modernization so perniciously durable and potentially permanent in its affective appeal.

Specifically, the regime relies on a flexible yet stable vision of collectivist leadership and citizenship. Emphasized is the need to be socially and politically united around a government that can deal decisively with a fast-paced global economy. “We are not playing chess where the pieces remain static while we debate and deliberate at length,” leading minister Teo Chee Hean pronounced in 1994, “We are playing football. Stop moving and the rest of the world will run rings around us ... let us not paralyse ourselves in perpetual conflict and debate” (Tan, 2012: 77). It is exactly for this reason that the government reserves the right to its “pragmatic” monopoly of power, as it stresses the country’s continued vulnerability to global capitalism (Apcar et al., 2007).

This ongoing rationale for authoritarian rule, despite rather significant economic advances, was on full display when freshly appointed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (2009) declared that he was confident he could lead “a strong, clean and able Government to take us forward for the next twenty years. This will instill confidence in our long term future, among both investors and Singaporeans” (Tan, 2012: 80). Tellingly, the views and needs of foreign capital were as important as those of Singaporean citizens. It was expected that individuals join in the shared effort to keep creating the ideal conditions for outside investment. Any move toward greater welfarism or social instability was more than just unacceptable but directly counter to national progress (Lee, 2004). Citizens, thus, funded their social security through compulsory saving schemes as opposed to public pensions (Asher, 1995). The PAP, additionally, sought to internalize values of “performance based merit and working with, not against the government” among those it ruled (Hamilton-Hart, 2000).

Significantly, this authoritarian mentality, equally prevalent in the political elite and everyday citizens, was considered crucial to sustaining modernization due to the country’s continued view of itself as a “developmental state” (Stubbs, 2009). This popular perception was highlighted in the PAP’s slogan at the beginning of the twenty-first century “From the Third World to First.” The implicit threat in this celebratory rhetoric was that these gains were forever insecure and could be easily surrendered if the party’s hegemony was ever challenged. The government was almost refreshingly frank in its justification of this authoritarianism to the country’s precarious position in the global free market. As Lee Kuan Yew observed (quoted in Apcar et al., 2007):

Supposing we had oil and gas, do you think I could get the people to do this? No. If I had oil and gas I’d have a different people, with different motivations and expectations. It’s because we don’t have oil and gas and they know that we don’t have, and they know that this progress comes from their efforts. So please do it and do it well. We are ideology-free. What would make the place work, let’s do it.

This work, importantly, is never finished. The state presented itself not as having a coherent vision but rather as being expertly attuned to the ever-changing needs of global capitalism. Young student elites continued to see themselves as “responsible” for serving the country through continuing in an authoritarian neoliberal tradition (Sim, 2012). In place of the usual cynicism of many autocratic regimes, there appeared a sincere belief in their needed expertise for ensuring that the country continued to prosper in an uncertain international business climate. This included helping citizens embrace the proper attitude for collectively and individually profiting from this world market. The PAP made it a priority to promote ideals of the “entrepreneurial citizenship,” especially through attracting “foreign talent” to energize the economy and influence “risk- averse” Singaporeans (Christenson, 2012). The recently implemented Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum teaches students of all backgrounds from an early age values of social cohesion and cultural sustainability (read “Asian capitalism”) as a way to instill in them the importance of being a responsible market citizen within their family, community and the world (Tan and Tan, 2014).

This attitude epitomizes the Party’s enduring capitalist fantasy of authoritarian development. It is one that is explicitly non-utopian and flexible, echoing the PAP’s 1970s proclamation that it was instituting a market-driven “socialism that worked” (Nair, 1976). It remains “governed by an ad hoc contextual rationality that seeks to achieve specific gains at particular points in time and pays scant attention to systematicity and coherence as necessary rational criteria for action,” contrasting it with “utopian rationality [that] emphasises the whole and at times sacrifices the contextual gains to preserve it, if necessary” (Chua, 1995: 58). It relies, in this respect, on a “crisis mentality,” where the state justifies “pre-emptive interventions” and “possible course-changing as the positive result of its ‘pragmatic’ flexibility in policymaking and administration, rather than due to confusion or contradictions.”

Vital to this affective discourse of “flexibility” and “pragmatism” is the need for the country to continually evolve to deal with a capricious global market. It follows, in this spirit, the regime’s earlier use of Darwinian metaphors, yet updated for a new age of globalization. Up until the Asian crisis in the mid 1990s the regime was largely defined by a type of “disciplinary modernisation” in which:

Singapore’s high-speed post-independence economic development from the 1960s to the 1990s - an expression of a desire to be an insider within advanced capitalism - was wrought through a state-imposed “disciplinarity” that is here described as “disciplinary modernisation”. The result was a protective-interventionist state that supported the free trade process. (Wee, 2001: 987)

Now the focus was on allowing the state to develop dynamically in line with changing domestic and international conditions, while never relinquishing its overall commitment to neoliberalism in principle or practice.

The ruling Party, hence, no longer stands for a singular modernization narrative but rather modernization as a general principle. More precisely, while unwavering in its principles of marketization, the PAP presents itself as a pioneering force for finding every new cutting-edge way to take advantage of the global market. It resembles, in this sense, an “innovative” corporation that is always evolving, forever on the lookout for new ideas and possibilities that may profit its citizens and the country generally. Its campaign to foster “creative” citizens is a case in point as:

The Pap now asserts that the passive citizens of Singapore Inc. are no longer desirable ... In place of state sanctioned passivity is now a new desire for messy creativity, for something less conformist that can spur Singaporean’s ability to maintain the city state’s hub within global capitalism. The contradiction entailed is clearly significant: the interventionist state now hopes to tell its citizens how to be individually creative and non-conformist. (Wee, 2007: 98)

Significantly, these efforts are all done with the aim of increasing Singapore’s global market share. The cultural industry is now transformed into a creative economy - contributing to the branding of Singapore as part of “New Asia” (Yue, 2006).

This is not to say the struggle and desire for democracy has been fully extinguished. Indeed, the 2011 elections, characterized by internet-driven debate and even dissent, represented real gains for the opposition party, but nevertheless remained confined within the ideological boundaries of an authoritarian modernization. Specifically, it continued to view leadership as a question of “who best to run the country” (Ortmann, 2011), making it more the transition from a dominant party state to “competitive authoritarianism.” What remains key is that the legitimacy of any party that assumes leadership rests on its eternal ability for producing and reproducing modernization. Henri Ghesquiere (quoted in Mahbubani, 2009) observes how “the Singapore Government tinkers, almost obsessively, with its development strategy to cope with new challenges to its competitive position as soon as they emerge on the distant horizon. Yesterday’s virtue can become tomorrow’s obstacle.”

Interestingly, this authoritarian fantasy has to an extent stood the traditional story of modernization on its head. Previously, it was thought that market societies would simply outgrow their authoritarian roots. Now it appears, as highlighted by the Singaporean example, that an authoritarian government is required to meet the emerging needs of its citizens as they enter into new phases of modernization. “The most recent phase of development has seen an emphasis in government policy, and in popular participation, on artistic and creative pursuits,” according to Hill and Lian (2013: 10) “The concept of Singapore as a center of artistic excellence in Southeast Asia has been advanced, not only as a source of economic benefit, but also as a domain of aspiration for a new generation of citizens.” Yet such transformations do not deviate from the country’s core neoliberal values. In the wake of the 2011 elections, the PAP has undertaken a renewed campaign to create “future-oriented” citizens of globalization, instructing individuals in how to become a “Confident Person,” “Self-directed Learner,” “Active Contributor” and “Concerned Citizen” (Lee, 2013).

At the heart of this governance beats a capitalist fantasy of evolving authoritarian development. To this end, leaders stress that “Singapore’s economy can be seen as a unique experiment to combine the best of available systems in a flexible, pragmatic, and unorthodox way - suited to its particular circumstances” (Mahbubani, 2005: 150). However, of even greater importance, was how its continued single-party rule could help discover new states of development, leading to fresh heights of modernization. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested, in an unusual but revealingly utopian tone:

Up to now, Singapore has had the benefit of following and adapting best practices by others who are ahead of us ... But as we move closer to the leading edge, we will have to break new ground ourselves, find fresh solutions, and feel our own way forward. (Quoted in Peh and Goh, 2007)

Thus, in the era of globalization it is the authoritarians who see themselves as the drivers of modernization, paving the way for national development so that the rest of the world can follow in their footsteps.

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